"Inferno" / An exploration of Mecca Hills Wilderness

"Inferno: Vertical"

Today, I finally managed to cross the Mecca Hills Wilderness area off my bucket list! This included explorations of Painted Canyon and Ladder Canyon. 

The drive out there was very much unlike the drive out to Anza Borrego. Instead of a two lane winding road through rolling hills, it was almost entirely freeway driving through cities and industrial areas laced with windmills and mines. Yuck. Finally exiting highway 86, I made my way across miles of irrigated farmlands and vineyards, carved into the desert through the heavy handed use of irrigation canals and pumps. It's no wonder California is in the middle of a water crisis, when we are building farms where God and nature have clearly declared there should be nothing but wild desert.

Four miles of washboard road eventually led to the entrance to Painted Canyon. The parking lot there is somehow notorious for vandalism and theft, and as soon as I arrived, I looked out my window to see that the Suburban parked right next to me had just had its passenger-side window smashed in, and some thief had thrashed the glove box and the console looking for who knows what. Sickening. As expected, there was also a lot of graffiti and vandalism, along with cigarette butts and litter along the trail into and through the canyons. Fortunately, the canyons are so vast and majestic as to make the pathetic efforts of man pale in utter insignificance by comparison, entirely overpowering the efforts of base men to destroy what magnificence God has created here.

My first foray was up to the left almost immediately upon entering Painted Canyon. This path led to a technical slot, and I made it up about 20 feet using a fixed rope, but decided to turn back at the second rope because it was getting more technical and it was clear that these ropes had been fixed with the intent that they should be used for descent, not ascent. 

Backtracking, I wandered back out to the parking area and across, exploring a slot canyon on the other side of the lot to the left. There is a lot of interesting terrain out there. Ultimately realizing that this was not going to lead to Ladder Canyon, I made by way back into Painted Canyon about a quarter mile, finding the rockfall that marks the entrance to Ladder Canyon on the left. The Ladder Canyon was beautiful and deep, and fairly long, lasting for about three quarters of a mile and several levels, connected by the famous ladders. In one spot, the ladders allowed passage up a good 20 or 30 foot drop in the canyon, after which the canyon proceeded to widen out before forking. I made the right, which took me to the surface, where I made a right at the ridge. This marked the beginning of what I liked to jokingly call, "The Death March" along the completely exposed rim of upper Painted Canyon, a good two hundred or so feet above the canyon floor. It was one of the most impressive hikes I've done in California to date, but not knowing how long the trail was or where it was going made matters a bit less enjoyable than they could have been. If I'd made the left at the fork in the canyon, I think it would have led me down to the canyon I'd started climbing earlier, and that route would have provided more slot canyon climbing, which would have been nice, but technical.

"Inferno: Horizontal"


Painted Canyon lived up to its name, and was incredibly colorful and diverse in its geological wonders. The scenic hike down canyon lasted for a good 2.5 miles or so at least, before taking me back past the entry point to Ladder Canyon and down to the truck in the parking area. I made my way back home, arriving before dark at few minutes past 7pm. I had left home at around noon.

Lessons: Bring more water (I ran out with 3 liters in just 3 miles!), be patient and curious. Don't be afraid to stop for photos, in spite of the inherent nervousness that comes along with exploring a relatively unknown route alone in the desert wilderness.

Oh, and that one detour up that technical slot? It produced the best photograph of the whole day, one of the best desert images I've produced to date. "Inferno" is an image that works as a landscape and abstract, as a horizontal and as a vertical, and I suspect in both black and white and in color!