In October of 2021, Maura and I took our first real vacation since the beginning of the pandemic. Graciously invited to sip poolside cocktails in Palm Springs for a few days by our old neighbors, we excitedly counted down the days to escape Seattle’s upcoming wet season.
I am in love with the desert biome, but had not yet visited the Mojave and almost any of southern California. My pilgrimages to Utah’s deserts almost every year from 2013 to 2019, have left me longing to return. Thanks to the pandemic, I’ve shifted to lowering my expectations for travel destinations. Rather than meticulously planning my trips, I now find myself going with the flow and following along with the plans of my travel companions, just happy to be on vacation again and seeing new places. I worry that until I get to return to Utah, I’ll be stuck in this low-effort state.
Obviously, the similarity with Utah’s canyon country is the reason Ladder Canyon caught my eye when I was lazily searching for hikes near Palm Springs. This vacation was about relaxation and not packing too much in, but we were looking to get a little spontaneous. “I want to go here. Let me figure everything out, because this is something I really want to do,” I said to Maura. Usually, this is the part where I find a disqualifying detail about a hike and we move on to other options. There’s too much snow, the road is impassible, the weather will be bad, etc. The only snag here was the road was “passable for 4-wheel drive only.” Our rental was a 2-wheel drive Toyota Camry, but after some reassuring trip reports, I somehow convinced Maura that it wouldn’t be a problem.
The Ladder Canyon trailhead is just an hour southeast of Palm Springs, with the last several miles on a gorgeous, but very sandy dirt road. Some of the trip reports said to just not stop on the flat, deep sand portions of the road. I took this as an invitation to drive our Camry just about as fast as I dared on this last section of the drive. Impressively, we managed to only bottom out our rental’s suspension once during the joy ride, which unfortunately wasn’t filmed for a car commercial. For once, I could honestly say that the last dirt road to a trailhead was actually fun to drive on, and we dubbed thee Cameron the Canyon Camry! (Disclaimer: this is not a testimonial for Toyota, but Japan sure does make great cars and cameras!)
The scenery got better and better the closer we got to the foothills, especially in the early morning light. The dirt road ends at a yawning opening to a rocky canyon wash. It looked just like the canyons of the San Rafael Swell, but with paler shades of colors. It illustrates something I love about the desert: subtle changes in the hue of the rocks and soil can have a huge impact on how different a place feels.
But alas! We had total solitude as we ascended into the depths of the maze-like system of washes and walls. The entrance to Ladder Canyon is marked well enough on the left wall less than a mile in. Very quickly, it turns into an easily passable, true slot canyon. Metal ladders are graciously left behind to aid in this endeavor, but I have to wonder how often they have to be replaced or set up again due to flash floods. All but one of the ladders are easy to ascend and descend. Most people hike this canyon as a loop trail and don’t actually return the same way, as we did. Descending the tallest ladder was the “crux” of the hike for sure, and a little bit sketchy.
The curvy, slotted section of the doesn’t last for an unreasonable distance, and the canyon opens up after a few ladders. Even under a perfectly clear sky, I was surprised by the amount of darkness in the depths, and had to shoot in a much higher ISO than I thought I needed. Once the last ladder is ascended, the light softly returns gradually to a very pleasing level.
After slowly meandering further up the canyon and enjoying our solitude, we turned back, satisfied with just a quick trip here. For being just an hour away from our hotel, we couldn’t have asked for a better unplanned add-on from Palm Springs, and a beautiful hint of Utah. It could even be added on to a big day in Joshua Tree if needed. If you have any questions, please comment below! Cheers!