February 12, 2021
Sadly, the room air conditioner in the hotel was noisy when it was on and too quiet when it was off, which allowed the sounds of other rooms to permeate the thin walls and I slept for only three or four hours. Coming from quiet mountains to the city has its disadvantages. Susan is blessed with suboptimal hearing and such things rarely bother her.
We hit the road late morning headed for Mecca Hills. We were there two months ago and though we rarely revisit places so soon, we felt like we missed a lot when we were there last.
After a five-mile slog down a washboard dirt road, we found the same gigantic campsite we’d had in January, with a variety of jagged sandy hills all around and little more than a few pieces of scrub that could survive the desert.
On our last trip here, we hiked the Ladder Trail, which was a blast. This time, we wanted to try a different trail through another slot canyon. We’d be following the Painted Canyon Trail, which begins through a wide, dry wash, then climbs to the ridge line above the canyon walls before winding its way down to the Rope Trail through a slot canyon. It would be a somewhat longer hike than before and, from what we’d heard, a bit more challenging.
It was a perfect day to hike. The sky was blue, the winds were light, and the temperature was in the upper 50’s by 10:30 am when we began. The forecast was for sunshine and mid-70’s by mid-afternoon, so we donned t-shirts, shorts, and sun hats, and walked 3/4 mile from our campsite to the trailheaad.
We soon learned how wrong forecasters can be. About fifteen minutes into our trek up the sandy wash, clouds suddenly rolled in, temperatures dropped and soon the wind picked up. Hmm. Hiking in a desert wash is the last place you want to be when it rains as flash floods sweep down the draws and slots, carrying away anything in their path. The wind picked up more until we were walking head-down and the clouds thickened as a completely un-forecast and thankfully-light rain began. I started looking for protected spots a dozen feet up the canyon walls in case it really came down. We were in a bad place for a thunderstorm.
Hoping the rain would be short-lived, we continued our way up the sandy wash, 100-foot high rock walls hemming us in. Eventually, we reached a steep turn off that climbed out from the canyon floor up the side of one of the walls that led to the ridge. Great, I thought, we’ll climb out of the flash flood zone and up into the lightning zone.
As we began our ascent, we met some people coming down the trail who said the wind was blowing at a steady 40-50 mph at the top of the ridge. Being an experienced sailor, I usually halve the “observed” wind speeds (and wave heights at sea) as exaggerations. Spend enough time staring at an anemometer during a storm at sea and you get a pretty good feel for wind speed. Sure enough, it was windy at the top, but “only” perhaps 25 mph.
At the top of the ridge, suddenly our phones pinged madly with texts and emails and I could see the cell towers a mile or so away at the top of another ridge. It would be the only real cell signal we’d get. I quickly opened a weather app on my phone and checked the radar. The radar revealed that the un-forecasted stormy weather fortunately was quickly moving off, though one section showed very heavy rain a couple of miles away. I was glad we were far from it.
From the top of the ridge, we could see the storm rolling away over nearby hills and rain in the distance. After about ten minutes traversing the ridge, the sun was shining.
From the top of the ridge we could see the Salton Sea and mountains to the west.
Soon our hard-earned 900 feet elevation gain began dropping as we headed steeply down toward the Rope Trail slot canyon that would complete our loop.
About a mile down, we saw what we were looking for—a small, vertical, tube-shaped slot in the ground. The tube dropped at least 20 feet to the sandy floor below and entry required shimmying down a knotted rope fastened at the top. We couldn’t see the bottom and the narrow-sloped opening made it impossible to determine how to best use the rope.
We’d hoped the rope would be there as a means to help get down a steep slope, but instead it was simply a 20-foot drop into a dark hole. We stood there for a few minutes and thought about the descent. I felt it unlikely that Susan had the upper body strength to safely lower herself down and an injury to my right hand had it at only about 50-percent strength.
We really wanted to overcome the challenge but after considering it, we decided the potential for rope burn, a sprained ankle, or worse, wasn’t worth it. We turned away, unhappy not to have been able to take the rope down but happy we were smart enough to know when to say “when.”
Back up the trail we trudged until we found an unmarked “shortcut” trail leading steeply down to the Ladder Trail–the one we’d taken two months ago.
The Ladder Trail was no walk in the park either, as we’d have to climb down several rickety ladders, including a steep one about 12 feet high.
We enjoyed squeezing through narrow slots and climbing over and under boulders until the trail finally spit us out at the wide wash, where we walked back to the truck after a total of eight miles of hiking.
Somehow, eight miles wasn’t quite enough for us. After a snack and a short rest, we decided to briefly explore some of the nearby canyons that radiated in most directions from our campsite. We discovered a hidden nearby campsite that we agreed was the second-best campsite and would be the best one in summer since it was well-shaded by tall canyon walls. We also discovered three more slot canyons that we’d check out the next day since by now our Apple watches (and our legs) told us we’d hiked over ten miles.
It was a Friday night and we expected more campers would be arriving. A family with small children and a dog came by, asked if we were staying the night, then commented that they’d instead go to the nearby second-best campsite. Obviously, they knew the area at least as well as we now did. Several other campers came up our sandy wash, saw our vehicle and left.
We enjoyed a leisurely dinner as the sun dropped behind the western hills. Afterwards, Susan sat in the truck, reviewing photos and began preparations for bedtime. When she removed her hiking shoes, I armed myself with soap and water and surprised her with a foot wash to help remove the sand between her toes–an unavoidable side effect of desert hiking.
We were ready for a good night’s sleep after last night’s noise issues at the hotel. Unfortunately, late-arriving campers interfered with our plans. Given how spectacular our campsite was we weren’t surprised other people would try to claim it, but we hadn’t expected the noisy, after-dark arrivals. One seemed angry and roared off, sand throwing from his truck’s tires.
At about 10:30 pm, someone else arrived a couple hundred feet from us and proceeded to set up camp noisily without a care that others were nearby. For two hours they banged around in the dark and locked and unlocked their truck a dozen times, each time the horn reverberating around the canyon. Sleep wouldn’t come till well past midnight.
I’m glad you didn’t ride the rope down the abyss. Sounds like an amazing trail and a wonderful adventure!