Painted Canyon hike had not been on my radar till I decided to make this solo photography trip to Joshua Tree NP. I got the impression that it was just an easy family hike (4.5 miles) when I looked up some photos online. Well, I would say that Painted Canyon offers much more than that, to say the least. It is an fascinating geological exploration playground for adults with scenic landscapes that was not only pleasing to the eye but also found nowhere else. Bring a plenty of water and plunge into this colorful, high-walled and sandy maze of slot canyons!
HOW TO GET TO PAINTED CANYON
To get to the trailhead to do Painted Canyon hike, there’s only one road, and that is Painted Canyon Rd. It is an unpaved, sandy at times, dirt road.
If you’re coming from the Greater Los Angeles area, it’s likely that you would take I-10 E, CA-86 S and then 66th Ave to get on Box Canyon Rd. Once you reach Painted Canyon Rd., that’s where the dirt road begins.
If you’re coming from San Diego or even Borrego Springs, it makes sense to take CA-86 N till you could get on 66th Ave.
However, if you’re coming from the east of Mecca Hills Wilderness, take I-10 W and then take exit 168 to get on Cottonwood Springs Rd., which turns into Box Canyon Rd, in the south of I-10. Then, stay on it till you hit Painted Canyon Rd. This is the route that I took because I was coming from Joshua Tree National Park.
And lastly, if you’re coming from the south of the Salton Sea, you’d want to take CA-111 N. And then take 70th Ave., Hayes St, and then 66th Ave.
Note: At the junction of Painted Canyon Rd. and Box Canyon Rd., there’s a sign that reads 4WD is recommended (for a rather seemingly apparent reason), but my Honda Civic made it without even minor concerns. The drive can be very wobbly as this dirt road is not well packed down with traffic. When I got to the trailhead, I saw at least two cars that had no high clearance or were not 4WD, besides mine. Please let your comfort level decide whether or not to drive on this dirt road.
WHEN TO DO PAINTED CANYON HIKE
All year-round to do Painted Canyon hike. However, check the weather. Since it is a desert hike, heat can be a very issue to avoid. Also, it can be very windy.
ITEMS YOU MUST BRING
- Plenty of water – Especially if you want to turn this Painted Canyon hike into a long, rock scrambling, dry-canyoneering hike
MY PAINTED CANYON HIKE
I planned to do Painted Canyon hike as soon as leaving the park.
But, first, my morning began early at Cholla Cactus Garden to catch the sunrise. Cholla Cactus is one of the desert plants that indicates that I was in the low desert land, or in this case, the Colorado Desert.
The Colorado Desert is a part of the Sonoran Desert, and learning about the Sonoran Desert helps you understand a little bit about the climate, geology and plants in Joshua Tree National Park. California Department of Fish and Sonoran Desert Region Map shed some light on the subject as well. And also, Map of Joshua Tree NP delves a little bit into each part of the park, particularly in Pinto Basin.
Although I was rather disappointed by the fact that I couldn’t photograph the Milky Way the night before, it didn’t dampen my spirit to capture what else was available. And the sunrise in Joshua Tree NP was not disappointing at all!
Cholla Cactus Garden was the perfect spot to enjoy and capture the sunrise. Especially the clear night sky was now filled with the rain clouds that had slowly moved in before dawn, adding extra layers of texture.
The sunrise was slowly waking up the low desert.
In terms of photography, the coolest part was that the light changed constantly as the sun rose higher and higher. I couldn’t stop pressing the shutter as the whole mood changed every second.
What was expected to capture was topped by each moment of the sunrise that came next.
Then, I realized that I was all by myself. I saw no car on the nearest lone road (Pino Basin Rd.) that ran diagonally across the middle of the park. It was crazy to think that there was not a single soul sharing this moment within 10-15 air-mile radius.
Then, the sun rose higher and eventually surrendered itself to the overlay of amassed rain clouds.
But the sun persisted. The rays pierced through a crack of opening in the clouds and spotlighted a small portion of the barren lands, as if it was time to play.
And it was time for me to move on.
Next order of the trip – Painted Canyon hike.
I was driving through this Ocotillo patch. And it was a deja vue all over again. I felt like I was transferred back to Hellhole Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert! Look at the grim sky!
And I loved it!
These Ocotillos were patiently waiting for rain.
Some Ocotillos were healthy. Some were not.
Then, it was time to move on again.
I was quite surprised by the explosion of wildflower blossoming on the sides of the road! Especially, Creosote bush, a predominant plant in the Colorado Desert, was popping up everywhere.
Datura wrightii aka Sacred datura, looking similar to morning glory flowers, caught my eye and I had to pull over. I didn’t count them, but at least 7-10 bees were busy hovering over these flowers and collecting nectar from them.
In spite of the fact that this exotic looking flower is the Tomato family member and tolerates the harshest conditions, there’s one thing that one must keep in mind – it may be fatal if ingested by humans even though its root can be used for surgery and applied to wounds.
I made a quick pit stop at the Cottonwood Visitor Center on my way out of the park. And I noticed that the lone Ocotillo right by the visitor center was growing healthy. The flowers were also blossoming in bright red celebrating spring in desert.
As I was getting close to the south entrance of the park, I noticed this particular area where Ocotillos were growing more healthy and its flowers were blossoming really well. And it was Cottonwood Canyon, which encloses the park from the south end.
As I was exiting the park, the rain clouds were fast approaching, spilled a few rain drops over all the area. However, it never turned into even a light shower.
And I was already on my way to Painted Canyon.
Driving on Box Canyon Rd. was interesting to say the least. It was full of different rock formations in this Mecca Hills Wilderness that had to offer. This also briefly talks about the relationship between the Wilderness and the San Andreas Fault.
Of course, learning about the San Andreas Fault helps understand how Painted Canyon came about and why it offers such fascinating landscapes. The Field Guide to the San Andreas Fault, written by David K Lynch, PhD, astronomer and planetary scientist, living in Topanga, California, would be a good start.
When I arrived at the trailhead to do Painted Canyon hike, a couple of large groups were exiting the canyon. Based on the look on their faces, they seemed to have enjoyed the hike. It gave me comfort although I didn’t download a single gpx file for this particular Painted Canyon hike.
You can view the track of this hike recorded with Gaia GPS and refer to it when you hike in terms of what to look for, depending on what kind of hike you’re seeking – an easy Painted Canyon hike or a rock scrambling, almost dry canyoneering, slot canyon hike.
You can download the Painted Canyon hike gpx file there.
It turned out to be quite an adventure for me.
This set of two ladders must’ve gotten the trail the name Ladder Canyon Trail. But I wondered why. Painted Canyon Trail would’ve been more appropriate. And I started seeing the evidence with a set of my own eyes.
Note: I do not know how many ladders are actually there. However, I only saw two of them till I got up to the top of the canyon. And I saw none in the slots later.
As if somebody recently spray painted them in color, the shades of the colors in these rocks were vivid.
Green. Red. Turquoise blue.
And a few shades of brown. And almost dark purple.
Note: The bottom of this entire Painted Canyon was covered with sands, which made rather difficult to walk. Just imagine that hiking in the beach for at least a couple of miles.
And then I came to this area. I was sure many individual hikers contributed to this, but I thought it was an engrossing part of the experience in the canyon. Even these stacked rocks were colorful!
Then, orange. Purple. Grey. And green.
I thought it was quite enthralling to see the green rocks next to dark purple/brown walls of the canyon juxtaposed against the bright blue sky. How cool is that?
After missing the turnoff and walking up and down for a few hundred feet while searching for it, I finally found the part of the trail that led me to hike up the hillside.
I emerged from the canyon.
Under the blue sky filled with the clouds I was looking at what I was not able to see the day before when I was up at Keys View – the Salton Sea.
Note: You get to see the Salton Sea closer when you drive on Painted Canyon Rd. to get to the trailhead. I just wanted to make a point that the view of the Salton Sea is clearer from Painted Canyon because it is closer.
This is the first pile of rocks (Lat: 33.63361, Lon: -115.99321, please refer to one of the junction waypoints in the track created with Gaia GPS) that any hiker would come across. And this is the point where he/she is supposed to turn right, instead of going straight.
And I didn’t know that and I went straight.
The trails split a few times along the way.
Of course, it didn’t matter for me, because I was already on the wrong trail by then.
And any of you sees these three heaps of rocks, you are definitely on the wrong trail.
Obviously, I paid little attention to a couple of signs telling me that it would be a dead end once I looked back. I had no choice but retracing back to the junction (Lat: 33.63361, Lon: -115.99321), where I made the wrong turn.
The trail that I wanted to be on had a pile of rocks and a heart shape created with rocks.
I turned around and looked in the direction of the radio towers in the far distance. It seemed like quite far away now.
After hiking down for a little bit, I came across a junction (Lat: 33.62929, Lon: -115.99561), where this Painted Canyon Hike trail split into two, one went down the hill to the left, and the other stayed on the same elevation and went straight.
I probably should’ve taken the trail that went downhill. Instead, I kept marching forward.
And then I finally came off the top of the canyon. A group of 5 or 6 guys who went up the same way that I came down. So, I thought that the end of Painted Canyon Hike was near.
Well, what I didn’t know was that it was the beginning of the maze of dry canyoneering in this Painted Canyon Hike. (Please refer to this point: Lat: 33.62476, Lon: -115.99826.)
And I was in for slot canyoneering!
These slot canyons came in all kinds of sizes, depth, width and heights!
It was like an obstacle course!
It totally reminded me of the rock scrambling in Goat Canyon!
Because the boulders were piled up against each other in this narrow canyons, there was only a little gap to climb through.
Literally some slots were so narrow that my shoulders almost touched both sides of the canyon walls!
After a couple of rope drops and rock scrambling up and down endless part of this slot canyon, I finally came to this relatively wide part of the canyon. And I thought to myself that I was finally getting close back to the main canyon!
This particular slot was so narrow that I had to take off my daypack, hopped sideways while holing onto the pack.
Then, I came to this. After a couple of times of rope drops I thought I was done with it.
And this one made it even difficult to bring my daypack down along with me because it was so narrow!
Once making it down, I turned around and looked up at where I was less than a few minutes ago struggling to bring down my daypack with me.
And the last part of the challenge in the this slot canyon was the crawling under this giant boulder to get to the other side.
After this section, it was over. I was out of the slot canyon.
Will I do Painted Canyon Hike again? Absolutely!
The main part of the struggle on this Painted Canyon Hike was carrying my daypack containing my full frame camera and an extra lens along with a tripod. I’ll be better prepared next time.
Have you visited Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree NP? Have you ever hiked in Painted Canyon? Have you ever got lost in the canyons? Have you ever reached the dead end before? Have you hiked in those slots canyons?
Thanks for reading.