#TravelTuesday: What Broke the Camel’s Back in Arizona

by Brook Benten Jimenez on September 21, 2021 in Travel,
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Mention Scottsdale, AZ to any outdoor adventure enthusiast, and their mind will go straight to humpdaaaaaay!  That’s not an idle Wednesday; it’s the last time they hiked Camelback Mountain, a landmark appropriately named for the mammal it resembles. 

But, Camelback is currently partially closed. Read on to learn how loose boulders, irked homeowners, and excessive heat broke the camel’s back, temporarily.

This beautiful morning view of Camelback Mountain was shot from nearby Mummy Mountain. Photo courtesy Brook Benten Jimenez

Camelback Mountain, between Phoenix, Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, is a destination for moderate hikers, because it features two trails of challenging terrain with 500-1,000 feet of elevation gain over a mere mile or two.  Echo Canyon is sometimes referred to as the “harder” side, because it requires a bit of scrambling at the top.  Cholla Trail, in actuality, was longer and harder for those afraid of heights. It had segments near the top that were dangerously thin.  One missed step could throw you off the camel’s back and into the pearly gates.  

Camelback Mountain get its namesake from the camel’s head resting on the ground, in front of the distinctive humpback.
Photo courtesy Visit Phoenix/Danny Upshaw

Loose Boulders

We speak of Cholla Trail in the past tense, because it is currently closed and under construction.  A 300 pound boulder fell in March 2020 and injured a hiker. Since then, the City of Phoenix has put months of planning into securing all of the loose rock to prevent another disaster. They are also widening the trail to accommodate far more hikers.  All of this takes time, and a reopening date has not been determined.  Much to the chagrin of adventure seekers, “living on the edge” of Cholla Trail may be a thrill of the past. But to the peace of mind of mothers everywhere, the wider trail will prevent injuries and deaths.  

Cholla Lane Homeowners’ Plea to End the Ascend

Another factor that will delay the reopening of Cholla Trail is relocation of the trailhead.  Multi-million dollar home owners on Cholla Lane have complained for years about the high volume of foot traffic on the road, accompanied with alleged theft, littering, noise and nuisance.  The boulder dropping was the rock that rocked the trailhead relocation plea into action.

When the trail does reopen, it will not be on Cholla Lane.  So, will it still be called Cholla Trail?  We’ll wait and see … but we may be waiting a while. The City of Phoenix Parks Department refused to comment on when the trail will reopen … Maybe because they don’t know, maybe because we’re living in unpredictable pandemic times, or maybe because relocating a trailhead is a mountainous amount of work and it’s going to be a long time.

On an earlier hike, the dramatic scenery along the currently closed Cholla Trail on Camelback Mountain, Phoenix, AZ. Photo courtesy Shellie Cockerham/All Trails

Excessive Heat

This summer, the City of Phoenix issued an ordinance to close Camelback Mountain from 11am-5pm on “excessive heat watch days.”  The order first went into effect on July 27, 2021, after heat exhaustion continued to cause illnesses of hikers on the mountain, requiring firefighters to rush to the rescue. Then, in turn, the firefighters required relief from the excessive heat they endured to perform the multiple mountain rescues. The week before the ordinance went into effect, a 31-year-old Massachusetts woman suffered a heat-related death on Echo Canyon.  

The City ordinance to close popular city trails on excessive heat days is something that has been advocated for quite some time. Although the trail is closed from 11am-5pm during excessive heat days, the sun begins rising before 6am in Arizona.  Wakey, wakey at dawn and you’ll have plenty of time to summit Camelback Mountain before restrictions kick in.

What To Expect if You Do Hike Camelback

Since Echo Canyon is the only trail available right now, let’s dissect it. Good news: It starts off as easy terrain for trail running.  

The start of the trek up Camelback Mountain along Echo Canyon Trail. Photo Brandon Sullivan

About 0.3 miles in, you’ll get to a steep pitch of layered rocks.  There’s a guardrail down the center of the rocks and a fence on the perimeter to grab a grip and trek up. (Tip: Pack your hand sanitizer for afterwards.) You’ll then experience some moderate hiking with a clearly marked trial. 

It’s not until you’re 0.9 miles up that you’ll encounter big, beautiful rocks that can only be scaled by gripping and pulling with your hands and pushing with your feet. This is the most difficult part of the hike, but the summit is worth the effort.  When you get to the top, you’ll see breathtaking views of the greater Phoenix area, Piewtewa Peak, and endless blue skies around you.

Hiking at Piestewa Peak, at 2,610 feet the second highest point in the Phoenix Mountains, after Camelback Mountain. Photo courtesy Visit Phoenix/An Pham

Tips for Safe Hiking

1. Pack twice as much water as you believe you’ll need. For Echo Canyon at Camelback Mountain, 80 fluid ounces of water in a Hydrojug worked well for me.

2. Research the trail ahead of time. Echo Canyon is notorious for attracting leisure vacationers, ill-equipped for the challenge of this hike.

3. Wear trail shoes or hiking boots. I’ve trekked Echo Canyon in other footwear, but wouldn’t recommend it.

4. Leave no trace. This is general etiquette on any trail. If you pack a snack, pack your trash.

5. Stay on the trail. Danger happens when you veer off the beaten path.

6. Buddy up. Echo Canyon is a moderate-difficult trail, and it’s both safer and more enjoyable with a friend.

Abide by the safety tips to safely enjoy the serenity that hiking Camelback Mountain has to offer. Photo courtesy Brook Benten Jimenez

Camelback Mountain’s Echo Canyon trailhead is located at 5700 N. Echo Canyon Drive Phoenix, AZ 85018.

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Cover photo courtesy Visit Phoenix/Visit Phoenix/dspaz.com

Brook Benten Jimenez, M.Ed. is a fitness content producer based out of Austin, TX.  She travels Texas and beyond seeking wellness adventures worth storytelling.  Follow Brook on Instagram at @BrookBenten.