Painted Canyon
Painted Canyon—shadowed boxed-in spaces rising up to an artist's desert sky

Hikers, yes. But it’s hard to imagine why vandals are attracted to Painted Canyon in the Mecca Hills Wilderness, 65 kilometres from Palm Springs as the crow flies.

After the long drive along the Coachella Canal that irrigates rows of citrus, they would have to ignore the sign: “Four-Wheel Drive Vehicles Only Beyond This Point” and follow a corduroy-sand road for six kilometres, cross the San Andreas Fault and continue for another dusty kilometre until the road dead-ends at the trailhead.

Yet we had to take the threat seriously; every reference to hiking Painted Canyon warned us to beware of vandals in the parking lot at the end of the road.

We recognized the danger was real the first time we went there, a Saturday morning in November. Green shards of glass from shattered windshields lay scattered on the alluvial gravel in the parking lot.

We garnered comfort from the crowd. At the trailhead, there were about 30 vehicles—many of them bearing Canadian license plates. No surprise. Snowbirds (plus hipsters and families) are flocking to Palm Springs and the other desert cities in the Coachella Valley. The Desert Sun newspaper reported that in 2013, Canadians accounted for 98% of the area’s home sales to foreigners.

Besides, it wasn’t the possibility of having our car vandalized that was making our friend Marg and me uncomfortable; it was the canyon’s ladders.

Philip Ferranti, in his book, 120 Great Hikes in and near Palm Springs, best describes the three hikes in Painted Canyon. To avoid the ladders, you veer west to Little Painted Canyon. On the east is Big Painted Canyon, a wide trail with a few short ladders. Slot Canyon, in the middle, has several damaged ladders that volunteers have recycled from construction sites. All three trails converge on a mesa and loop back on the Big Painted Canyon trail. To access the ladders in Slot Canyon you scramble over and under boulders and squeeze through a mountain split in half by a slot that’s only a few feet wide—bracketed on both sides by 15-storey canyon walls. Every description says the ladders are not for claustrophobics, large dogs or those fearing the next rumbling of the San Andreas Fault. Marg and I were keen to hike—but only on a trail that avoided ladders. Magellan and Marg’s husband Don were so eager to explore the area they agreed to hiking Little Painted, the easier route—with only a modicum of reluctance.

We set off, admiring the 600-million-year-old mineral deposits in desert pastels of smoked ochre, dusty rose and dove grey. After a gradual climb, Little Painted opens up to a mesa with vistas stretching to the Salton Sea. It was exhilarating. You could imagine yourself flying over the canyon tops in the still quiet of the desert. After a short but steep descent, we joined the “highway” portion of Big Painted Canyon.

“I had no idea Palm Springs had anything like this,” Don said, “It’s as good as anything in the Rockies.” Invigorated, the magnificent loop completed in five hours, our car in sight, we relished the pleasure of accomplishment.

And the condition of our windshield: solid and intact.

But to tell the truth, Marg and I were feeling a little sheepish. On the highway portion of the trail, we’d met a number of young kids and Q-tips (white-haired oldies) who told us they loved the “easy ladders.” The four of us had hiked and backpacked in Alberta and trekked the West Coast Trail along with our daughter Lynn and Magellan’s sister Colleen. Marg and Don hike almost every day on the Sunshine Coast. Magellan, a million-mile flyer with Air Canada, had just cashed in thousands of points so we could go hiking in Patagonia. Where, we wondered, had we lost our sense of adventure?

Hearing us talk about this, Don and Magellan sensed a moment of opportunity and flew with it. “We have to come back and hike Big Painted next week,” said Magellan. “Yes, we do.” “For sure.” “It’ll be amazing.”

So a few days later, we were back in our hiking gear, our car swirling up sand clouds on that barren road.

“Let’s guess how many vehicles will be here today,” I suggested. Don came closest. He guessed four. There was one truck.

Never mind. The sky was clear, cloudless. The air was dry and hushed; you could have heard a feather drop.

We didn’t see the three-foot eagle carved into the rock guarding the entrance to Slot Canyon. In fact, we almost didn’t see the entrance. It’s easily visible to an eagle flying above, but at ground level, rockslides have almost bouldered it shut. If it hadn’t been for the other group (Albertans and their guide), we might never have found the slot to Slot Canyon. The presence of our fellow countrymen/women and the ease with which they squeezed around the rock chutes gave us no small amount of comfort.

Slivers of light fell through the dizzying verticality of the narrow canyon creating a sharp contrast between the sunlit floor and darkened walls. Through letting my mind fly ahead to reaching the next ladder and getting to the area where the uplifted walls widen, I balanced fear and enjoyment. Only when we emerged into the open mesa did the four of us share our darkest thought.

“What if there’d been an earthquake and the canyon squeezed in on us?” Prairie people from Saskatchewan, we’d all used the same coping mechanism. In tight spots where the burnt sienna walls narrowed, we gazed up to the cobalt sky to calm our tightening throats.

The adventure behind us, we wandered along, enjoying the softness of the gravelly sand trail. We spotted the tallest ladder we’d seen on the trail and climbed, confidently, to picnic on a ledge overlooking the canyon. The isolation stunned us. We’d only seen about a dozen people all day. And while we’d read this was the rocky refuge of lizards, snakes, prairie falcons and occasionally Big Horn Sheep, we hadn’t seen a creature. We stared up at the sky, sucked the juice out of our oranges, talked about what to cook for dinner….

Hiking the last stage of the canyon trail, we separated a little, each of us admiring Big Painted’s geology. Here, its rock patterns are more striking, its colours more bold—chalky white set off by jade green and jet black—the locals call them Zebra Rocks. Lost in our own little worlds, at first we didn’t hear it.

Squawking. On the left side of the canyon and becoming increasingly raucous. Darkening the sky were two ravens perched on a mega boulder, screeching with annoyance at our encroachment on their territory. Suddenly, one flew off, soaring upward to the top to the canyon. We watched it ascend. Then drop something from the sky.

“That bird is shitting on us!” shouted Magellan.

“No it’s not,” yelled Don. “It’s a rock. They’re bombing us. Watch out!”

Watch the rock or run for cover? My Grade 12 physics way distant, I eyed the rock accelerating toward us. Luckily, those scheming rascals hadn’t perfectly calculated velocity and distance. The rock missed Magellan by about four metres.

I think one of the reasons I love hiking so much is its metaphorical analogy to life’s journey.

Hiking, like life, juxtaposes solitude with community, lassitude with inspiration, certitude with ambivalence. Lead, follow or leave: the choice is ours. We can climb the ladder, kick it away or find a foothold elsewhere. Like life, it’s often not what we fear in hiking that befalls us. A twist of foot or fate often occurs on the easy section, the safe path, when the tough work is behind us. Sometimes focusing straight ahead makes us shortsighted about what’s behind, around and above. It wasn’t a small misstep on a ladder, nor a big disturbance of the San Andreas Fault that caught us up that weekday in November. It was the unexpected wit of two ravens—territorial, mischievous or both—that could have shattered our journey.

I wonder. The wily ravens, scavenging for scraps of food, eyeing shiny objects or scheming an amusement—are they the parking lot vandals of Painted Canyon?

Navigation A good site on the intelligence of Corvus Corax and others in the Corvidae family (whose vision is two to three times better than ours).

Ferranti, Phillip. 120 Great Hikes in and near Palm Springs. California: Westcliffe Publishers, 2003.

Haupt, Lyanda Lynn. Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness. New York: Back Bay Books, 2011. Reading this book will make you kinder to those “shakers-off of torpor” crows screeching at us above the sidewalk.

Savage, Candace. Crows Encounters with the Wise Guys of the Avian World. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2015. Candace says “a crow is not your average featherhead,” and in this short book of scientific research, poetry, fables and true stories, she proves that. Their cooperative breeding, more than 80 distinctive calls and proven intelligence warrant the name she gives them: “feathered apes.”

On Saturday, we hiked Little Painted Canyon, turning off the GPS recording at the top of the canyon to save “juice” on the iPhone. From the top, you can retrace your steps to the parking lot, take Slot Canyon back or as we did, return via Big Painted Canyon. The forks on Little Painted Canyon weren’t well marked–twice we took right forks we shouldn’t have and had to retreat.

Total distance: 9773 m
Total climbing: 557 m

Returning on Tuesday, we hiked Slot Canyon, returning via Big Painted Canyon.

Total distance: 8597 m
Total climbing: 586 m

5 Responses

  1. Wonderful account of a hiking adventure! I’d like to give Painted Canyon a try and will be taking along your blog as a reference. Our first hike here was The Deer Springs Trail near Idyllwild. Not as dramatic but lovely to walk through the pine and redwood forest. Looking forward to seeing you when you’re here this winter. Is that in your plans?

  2. Wow. What an adventure. You made me feel the fear and the longing to just do it! Great pictures. We just saw the movie, Meru – a super duper mountain climbing adventure….

    Thanks again for sharing.

    1. Can you imagine doing this under the light of a full moon? Philip Ferranti says it will “strike the eye of any visitor as ‘off-planet,’ resembling a lunar landscape.

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