Bighorn sheep graze in a wash near the Art Smith Trail in Palm Desert. Credit: Peter Young

We have survived the sweltering desert summer heat—as well as that awful August/September humidity—and it is finally time to get back out there on the trails to enjoy this perfect time of the year!

One of the most majestic, off-the-beaten-path and adventurous trails in our area is located in the hills along the eastern Coachella Valley: Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Trail. A few years back, I hiked this trail with a group of friends for the first time—and I was in awe! I had absolutely no idea that anything like this even existed here in the desert. I can assure you that my words will not do it justice: It’s definitely a must-hike!

The Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Trail is a moderate 4.5-mile loop trail located in the Mecca Hills Wilderness, about 15 miles east of Indio. To reach the trailhead, you’ll have to deal with a rough 4.5-mile drive on the unpaved Painted Canyon Road. Unfortunately, dogs are not allowed on the trail—and it’s not for everyone. One big reason why: There actual ladders placed along the slot canyon wall to climb up or down, depending on the route you take. I highly recommend taking the clockwise route—up Ladder Canyon to the top of a hill where you will have the most spectacular panoramic views, including the Salton Sea and beyond to the south. You then hike along a ridge for a while before dropping down into the wash for a long walk in thick, soft sand back to the starting point. If you follow the painted arrows and rock arrows, it will take you in the clockwise direction, where you will climb up, not down, the ladders. That point is between a quarter-mile and half-mile up the wash from the parking area.

The view after climbing out of Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon. Theresa Sama

The Hiking Guy (hikingguy.com) has more detailed information about the trail, including some great pictures, on his website. His site is definitely worth checking out—and be sure to follow his advice to prepare accordingly and bring at least one liter of water, more on warmer days, as this is backcountry hiking; although there are shady spots in the slot canyons, other sections are exposed. It’s also a good idea to wear long sleeves and pants to protect yourself from cuts and scratches, since you’ll be doing some rock-climbing and scrambling in the canyons. This hike is not recommended at all during the hot summer months; people are often rescued from these canyons when they are not prepared.

I recommend always checking the Friends of the Desert Mountains’ trails-status page before planning your hike, as Painted Canyon Road and Box Canyon Road can be closed seasonally due to weather conditions. This page also includes the status for other parks, canyons and preserves in the area.


Another fascinating and favorite hiking trail that has been most rewarding recently—including sightings of the endangered peninsular bighorn sheep—is the Art Smith Trail near Palm Desert.

The Art Smith Trail is easily accessible, best hiked September through May. Dogs are not allowed on this trail, either. The trailhead is located along Highway 74, about four miles south of Highway 111, across from Friends of the Desert Mountains and the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument Visitor Center entrance.

In its entirety, it’s a long, hard trail—more than 16.5 miles out and back—but it is also what you make of it, as you can turn around at any point and set your own pace. For example, you can can go out about three miles, with an elevation gain of around 1,500 feet, and catch some great views while enjoying the peaceful ambiance of the desert. If it’s your lucky day, you may even see a herd of the endangered peninsular bighorn sheep meandering.

My good friends Peter and Mary Young live in Palm Desert and take a daily walk to the Art Smith Trailhead; quite often, friend and neighbor David Toltzmann will join them. They’ve lately been entertained by herds of bighorn sheep grazing down in the wash near the Art Smith Trailhead. While being mindful and keeping their distance, they’ve quietly captured some amazing photos and videos of the bighorn sheep grazing in the sparsely vegetated wash areas. They’ve also seen younger sheep frolicking, and the larger rams engaged in head-to-head battles for dominance. My friends said that even the younger “teenage” males/lambs, while frolicking around, have tried combatting with their little horns like the bigger rams—but once they were head-to-head, they just froze, like they didn’t know what to do.

“It was so cute! It has been such an amazing sight to see,” said Mary. “You just don’t see them like this—so many of them! It’s fun to watch!”

It’s mating season for the desert bighorn sheep, meaning they will be out in herds and much more active. Please be careful and mindful to keep your distance and not startle them. As tempting as it may be to move closer to get the perfect picture, remember to use the zoom function instead, to keep both the wildlife and ourselves safe.

Enjoy the desert trails and cooler temperatures!

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Theresa Sama

Theresa Sama is an outdoor enthusiast who writes the Independent’s hiking/outdoors column. She has been running and hiking the Coachella Valley desert trails for more than 10 years and enjoys sharing...

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3 Comments

  1. Interesting article! Thank you for including our comments & photos. It is a thrill hiking the Art Smith Trail & seeing the Big Horn sheep grazing.

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