Monday, July 13, 2015

Trip Report: Ladder Canyon, Mecca, California

Declaimer:  This is not a surf story, but rather an adventure story.  I do not really wish to begin another blog site, but I do wish to share my experience of this wonderful place.  So from hence forth, think of this site as Mostly Wave Stoke, and some other kinds of stoke as well.  Hope you enjoy and excuse the change.

Every April, I drive my family down to Palm Desert, California to visit with my parent.  Ultimately, the is nothing wrong with the place, but after a day an half of sipping cocktails and reading books poolside, I begin to get antsy.  In previous years I have skied off the top of the tram and nearby at Tahquitz Rock.  But that was when there was snow.  In other lean years I headed over the Palm to Pine Highway and surfed around Trestles.  But that was when there was swell.  In April of 2015, there was neither snow, nor swell.  I needed something to do.  Lucky for me, my wife had told a colleague that she was headed to the desert for the week, and that colleague suggested that we check out a hike at the Ladder Canyons.  At first I was suspect.  I had been on a few desert hikes in my life.  And while the desert is truly a fascinating place, the California deserts had failed to inspire me with their beauty.  As it turns out, one can still be pleasantly surprised when one is willing to explore.  Lucky for me, my wife did.

Entering the Big Painted Canyon

This leg of the hike is exposed to the sun, and best done early.

One of the many spur canyons off the Big Painted Canyon.

Ladders are found along several of the spurs to help with access.

Atop a twenty five foot ladder.

Further up canyon things open up plenty.

Along the trail out of the canyon to the upper plateau the vegetation becomes more desert like.

A view back into the upper basin, where the canyon walls give way to slopes.

On our first morning at the resort we stayed out, we went down to get free coffee and pastry.  But nothing in this world is free.  The price to pay was to listen to a few people offer us tours and adventures and services they had for offer.  No big deal.  We spoke with an outfit that offered adventure and bike tours, and asked him if he knew much about the Ladder Canyon.  Turns out he did.  He also told us about how that area has had more rescues than any other region in the valley.  There are no signs along the trails, and a wrong turn could have serious consequence.  He suggested that we hire his company to take us out there, at just $95 a head.  At least it included a light lunch.  But we decided we would take his rescue story with a grain of salt, given the fact that most of the ret of the valley is either urban or farm land.  So, we spent the next few days poking around the internet and collecting some information.  

Desert blooms and spines.

A busy moment along the trail.  

The Salton Sea.

Geologic formations along the western vistas.

San Jacinto and looking back toward Palm Springs.

The high point of the hike.

Stone effected by pressure, wind and water.

The trail winding its way along the high lands, before its descent into the slot canyon.

Probably the best piece of information we gathered was to take the trip from right to left.  Or rather, to head up the Big Painted Canyon and back down through the Ladder Canyon.  The Ladder Canyon is a slot canyon, and hence is more shaded and cooler than the areas surrounding it.  We were also lucky enough to come into some cool weather for April.  Palm Desert had a forecasted high of around 72F on the day we went, as opposed to a typical average of 92F for mid April.  That worked out well, because we did not get a super early start, which is highly suggested in more regular weather.  That said, if you ever find yourself venturing out for this hike, be sure to bring plenty of water, and get an early start if it is going to be warm.  Most of the hike is in the sun, and the breeze can be slight.  

Seriously, this hike was much more stunning than expected.

Layers and colors.

Several trails split and wind along the highlands.  Best to pay attention along the way.

Looking down into the Big Painted Canyon.

From where we came.

A view of the ladder we used earlier to access the spur we hiked.

A bit better than cocktails at the pool.

Think the far rocks have been bent?

The area around Palm Springs is quite interesting.  Miles upon miles of resorts, hotels, pools and golf courses.  The valley stretches from San Gorgonio Pass in the west to the Salton Sea, 65 miles to the southwest.  It is flanked along the south by San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains and Joshua Tree to its north.  The eastern end is mostly developed land littered with tourist.  The central section is home to the locals and the south eastern end gives way to asparagus and date farms.  It is flat.  The slope leading up to the high desert of Joshua Tree is rugged and eroded, but it was still quite the shock to find these canyons.  There is not a ton of information out there about the hikes, and this was the first I heard of them.  So, I did not have high expectations.  And while they are no match for places like Zion or Canyonlands, they do offer up some spectacular views.  And a bit of exercise.  

Heading the wrong way can have its rewards.

Yes, this is southern California.

An area I called the precipice.

Wisps and flowers.

End of the trail.

Desert landscape.

Entering into the slot canyon.

The upper sections range from 30 inches to 4 feet wide.

The direction we took I think is preferable, although we passed several groups headed in the opposite direction.  Besides finishing the day in the cooler canyon, you also get wonderful views of the Salton Sea when traversing the Mecca Hills highlands.  There are a few things to know if you take this route.  Firs, you need to be aware and watch for changes in the trail.  There are no signs along this route, in either direction.  The Big Painted Canyon wraps around for a few miles.  You want to remain in the main canyon.  The spur canyons are fun for some in and out adventure, but as far as we know, they do not lead to any where near where your car will be parked.  The entrance to the Ladder Canyon is about a half mile from the parking area, and it will be on the left hand side.  There is actually a sign there, which is just an arrow pointing to the left.  If you continue up Big Painted Canyon, the canyon will have a major split in it about another mile or two further up.  Stay to the left.  This is not necessarily obvious, unless you consider the route.  Otherwise, both forks look similiar.  About a quarter mile beyond the fork, the trail will turn abruptly to the left and up and out of the canyon.  There will be cairns and rock arrows around this area.  But is would be easy enough to miss if you are not paying attention.  

Getting deeper in, the walls increase in height.

The tight canyons offer a cool place for leafy vegetation to take hold.

And real flowering plants.

The winter heat of 2015 led to an early season for blooms.  

The middle section was a bit wider, and broader.

Into the heart of things.

Not the deepest or narrowest of slot canyons, but a slot none the less.

Looking down into a section connected via a ladder.

From there the trail winds up the hillside and tops out in the Mecca Hills.  Eventually, the Salton Sea will come into view.  Perhaps a mile after you leave the canyon, you will encounter an intersection of sorts.  The left most trail continues to skirt along the rim of the Big Painted Canyon.  You can continue along this trail, but you will need to return to the intersection to get back to the cars.  The left most trail eventually ends at a point above the lower intersection of the big Painted and Ladder Canyons.  It is a beautiful spot, but a down climb is just not likely to end in success.  In fact, just past the intersection people have placed rocks across the trail and written the word "NO" with stones.  You want to take a right turn at the intersection, and then a left shortly after, following the trail that begins to head sharply down hill.  If you remain in the highlands and continue straight after the initial intersection, you will have the option to return to the parking via the Small Painted Canyon.  But then you will miss the Ladder Canyon and the shaded areas of the slots.  Please research this hike before attempting to do it.  

A selfie.

Heading through one of the tighter sections.

Beautiful light in here.


Looking skyward.

One of the lower ladders.

And another.

The entrance/exit is blocked by this rockfall.

Escaping through the narrow opening.

In short, if you ever find yourself antsy while sitting around a pool near Palm Springs, this is one of your options to get out and explore.  Of course, there are others, including taking the tram past 8000 feet, hiking and climbing (or skiing in a good year) near Tahquitz, as well as visiting Joshua Tree.  But this here hike was quite the find for us and fairly unique for California.  And we were still back at the pool with a cocktail in hand by the afternoon.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Remembering the dog days of winter.

This has been an odd year.  Of course, most everyone has heard about the drought.  It sucks.  The skiing sure took a hit this year.  And our water reserves are low.  Yet, there were some really awesome things about this past winter.  One was the swell.  While it was not an all time winter, especially for the spots in town, it was a damn fun winter.  The lack of storm systems diving south kept us mostly under a calm, warm high pressure system, that kept conditions on the north coast prime.  And while a six foot long period northwest swell barely registers at head high most places in town, once you get up the coast you can find waves and breaks that are pushing double overhead.  So it is sure nice when the weather cooperates to allow you to head out and explore.  And get away from the crowds.  If you know where to go.

This wave rarely ever works.  It is just a long, crappy, lumbering close out.  Until it is not.

On the other hand, this wave seems to always work.

Sure, it can be a burger, but a burger with some zesty hot sauce on it.

Being a lumbering not wave, the SUP world has discovered their place.  Nothing like a paddle to get through a flat section.

Except for when the swell gets big, and deep, enough to connect the parts of the reef.  

The other nice thing about fine winter weather is when after a morning surf charging double overhead bombs up at the creek, you can go home, retrieve the family and spend the afternoon chilling on the beach.  It is hard to complain about a 70F day at the water's edge in mid February.  Hanging out in board shorts, building sand castles, exploring the reefs and feeding the anemones.  If I had wanted to to do any of that this past first weekend of June, I would have had to have on a beanie and a hoody, just to stay warm.  And it is even better when you have an overhead swell hitting a reef to your left,  and a point to your right.  To give an idea of how good this day was, these pics were taken over a random half hour, while playing and running around with a three year old.  Those with real cameras, and actually paying attention, would have scored some killer pics all day.

When the left is good, it is good.  Waves like this just draw up onto the reef and go forever.

How many of those guys on the inside are hoping for a wipeout?

On the better sets, you can ride all the way to the shore pound.

The rights are kind of hard to see, as they break so far out on the point.

But you can still see the tops peeling for ever.

What this winter lacked in size, it more than made up for in consistency and conditions.  Hell, it seems like it has been good around here since last autumn.  Sure, we have had a few flatter periods, but it has rarely gone super flat for more than a day or two.  And if we needed to survive on wind swell for a week here or there, ground swell was sure to show up the following week.  In fact, the brief periods that lacked swell I found most welcoming.  It allowed for me to actually get some work down around the house instead of having me heading for the waves every chance I got.  Sure, it is not quite like winter out there right now, but we have had swell for most of May, and June is starting out just fine.

Connecting it all the way through the inside allows for a short paddle in.

North Point was having a very good day.

Even with a crowd in the water, some peaks just seems to always sneak through.

Sitting on the beach, you are looking right into the lefts.  Kind of a fun angle.

Not much of a barrel on this wave, but plenty of drawing walls to play around on.

Some people pine for summer.  I guess if I lived in Boston, I might as well.  But I pine for those fine days in winter.  Usually, those are the days in between the rain systems, when everything lines up, and we get a long enough period of high pressure for things to warm up along the coast.  In a drought year, that is most of the winter.  Sure, drought sucks, and we really, really need rain.  But if it is not to come, we should just then enjoy things as they are, and get down to the beach in our sandals and take some selfies and send them to our friends who live in Boston.  Where there are still piles of (very dirty) snow in random parking lots where they piled it up all winter just to clear the roads.  

This wave is not for everyone, but it sure looked fun this day.

Looking like a classic high liner.

Even the smaller ones were setting up nicely.

Just a magical winter's day.