Camelback Mountain sits firmly in the middle of the Phoenix Metro area and is bordered by Phoenix, Scottsdale and Paradise Valley. It’s central location and prominent shape make it incredibly enticing, attracting over 300,000 recreational visitors each year. Located on the north side of Camelback Mountain is a shallow cave, or grotto, where the ancient Hohokams practiced religious rituals. This fact, coupled with the mountain’s mystique have led some to refer to Camelback as the Sacred Mountain. During the late 1800s, the federal government reserved Camelback Mountain for an Indian reservation. By the 1940’s most of the land had fallen to private ownership. Gary Driggs, a local resident with a close association with the mountain, has fought to protect the mountain, successfully, since the early 1950’s. The area has been off-limits to developers since the mid 1968, thanks to Driggs and the Preservation of Camelback Mountain Foundation led by Barry Goldwater. A ceremony was held in 1968 in honor of the mountain’s preservation and was attended by President Johnson (the First Lady was said to have hiked Cholla Trail in high heals). The Phoenician, a world-famous resort built-in 1988, sits right at the south-eastern base of the mountain and it’s golf course wraps around to the north-east side near the trailhead.
Camelback’s accessibility is what makes it so dangerous. Novice hikers, weekend warriors and clueless urbanites have all flocked, at one time or another, to the mountain in the middle of the city for an easy afternoon workout in the sun. Many of them come unprepared. Camelback is no walk in the park and for those who arrive with insufficient water, improper footwear and a lack of respect may find themselves on the evening news. Every year, rescue crews respond to dozens of calls of stranded, injured or missing hikers at Camelback Mountain. People think that because the trails are in the city that there is somehow less danger here. In the summer of 2009, rescue crews were called out to Camelback over a dozen times in a single day, most related to dehydration.
Access to the Cholla Trail requires parking roadside on 64th Street just north of Camelback Road. This area fills up quick throughout the year so plan to add an extra couple of miles to your overall hike. The trailhead is located about a half-mile down Cholla Lane on the south side of the road. The beginning of the trail actually wraps around part of the Phoenician’s golf course. Then you start your climb, gradual at first, up rock steps and a narrow trail. At peak season much of this trail can be crowded forcing people to stop along the narrow path to let oncoming traffic by.
Once the rocky trail crawls around to the first lookout, you are at the eastern-most point on the trail and it cuts back to the west towards the summit. Watch your footing through this area because even though the trail is well-worn and not technical, there is plenty of loose rock and uneven ground to twist an unsuspecting ankle. On much of this trail, a bad step could send you reeling down the mountain, other times it may just mean a bad fall into an angry cactus. The climb is consistently uphill, though not steep at this point. Not until you’ve reached the saddle, about halfway up, does the trail become technical. From the saddle, route finding is accomplished by following old painted blue dots on the occasional rock. Following the dots, you climb up the spine of the mountain. “Spine” is a good description of this ridge-line since it’s mostly jagged, broken granite jutting into the sky like vertebrae. This portion of the hike is especially dangerous and I’ve known many hikers who have turned back. If you suffer from even a marginal fear of heights, the trail to the summit can be too much.
If you’ve never done the hike before, the summit sort of sneaks up on you. You’ve made climb after climb thinking “this is it!” only to see more climbing before you. Then all of a sudden, there you are…with everyone else! The Echo Canyon Trail also reaches the summit (from the west side) and you often find yourself on a very busy, crowded, chat-filled rock wondering where all these wheezing, sweat-soaked people came from. The crowd is usually pretty eclectic. Being in the middle of the city, you’ll have people in business clothes, Yoga gear, shorts, jeans, bathing suits and, yes, even in their underwear. All tired, sweaty and happy to have reached the top in one piece.
I usually sit at the top for at least a few minutes, check my time, maybe take a picture or two and just enjoy the view. The summit offers some amazing 360 degree views of the Phoenix area. Timing your hike to be able to see a sunrise, or sunset from the mountain is a must in my book. Whenever you hike it though, be sure you come prepared, have respect for the dangers on this mountain and try to leave it just the way you found it.
Cholla Trail at Camelback Mountain.
No trailhead parking. Street parking limited at Invergordon and 64th Street. Hikers must walk up the south side of Cholla Lane. Cholla Trail is only recommended for experienced hikers and has steep, rocky sections with drop-offs on both sides of the trail.
Trail Length: 1.5 miles (from the trailhead)
Elevation Gain: 1,250 feet
Oct. 1 to April 30 th: 7:30 a.m-5: 30pm
May 1 to Sept 30 th: 5:30 am- 7:30 pm
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