Camelback Mountain – Phoenix, AZ

Mona and I were married on April 1, 2017. Yes, April Fool’s Day.*

As we approached our first anniversary as a married couple, we wanted to have a big adventure. My parents kindly leant us the use of a townhouse in Scottsdale, Arizona so we could have a weekend getaway to celebrate. With our destination determined, we quickly decided that our adventure would be to summit Camelback Mountain.

Camelback Mountain is so named because its shape resembles the head and hump of a camel lying on the ground. I personally think the resemblance is amazing. While driving throughout Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, the mountain range was clearly visible and it was hard for me not to be distracted by the beautiful vision of a giant sandstone camel resting on the landscape.

There are two trails that summit Camelback Mountain. The most popular is Echo Canyon. It is a 2.4 mile out and back hike (about 1.23 miles each way) ascends 1,280 feet from the trailhead. For comparison, this is like climbing from Fifth Avenue to the observation deck of the Empire State Building. On the other side of the mountain is the Cholla trail (pronounced choy-ah). It is a 2.8 mile out and back hike (about 1.42 miles each way) that reaches the same summit.

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We opted for the Echo Canyon trail because we had gotten tips from family members who had hiked it before and there was parking at the trailhead. We arrived at 7:00am, less than an hour after sunrise, but we were already late to avoid the battle for the limited parking spots available. We spent about twenty minutes circling the parking lot with other late arrivals before finally finding a nice hiker who had just descended the trail and allowed us to take his space. If you’re going to hike Echo Canyon, learn from our mistake and get there at dawn to take advantage of cooler temperatures for hiking and better parking opportunities.

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The first part of the trail is a moderate incline over a dirt path, which works well for beginners or less experienced hikers who want to experience some of Camelback but would not be able to reach the summit. Then railroad ties form a steep staircase with fencing on the left and the mountain on the right forming a narrow passageway. From the ties, it is the steepest part of the trail, which has been described by some as the most difficult. To provide some assistance, railings are installed so people can steady themselves or pull themselves up over the smooth rocks.

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Mona had an easier time of this section than I did. She went to the left and used a railing along more fencing to steady herself as she ascended the steep footholds. I was not so bright. I thought I saw a trail on the right side but after several feet I realized that I had managed to strand myself on smooth rock with no further way up. I had to back track, partially climbing and partially sliding, until I reached the bottom of the pitch and could follow Mona’s path back up.

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A short, moderate hike follows to the next rail section over another steep incline though not as difficult as the one we had just passed through. I can certainly imagine that some hikers are disappointed with the installed rails and fencing. But I think they are necessary for safety. There are a lot of people on the trail and these steep inclines can be difficult for even experienced hikers. While they may detract from the natural state of the terrain, I think they are necessary for people to safely ascend and descend the mountain over these patches.

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After the rail sections, it is just over half a mile of rock scrambling to the summit. The rock scrambling is what really attracted me to Camelback Mountain. About a month before our trip, we’d hiked with Trail Mavens in Death Valley and I got my first experience scrambling. I was instantly in love.

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I loved the rocky pitches on the second half of the Camelback ascent. With scrambling, hiking becomes a full body experience as hands as well as feet become essential to overcoming the obstacles. I loved the dirt on my fingers and the scrape of granite on my palms.  I loved how all the stray thoughts in my mind disappeared so I could focus completely on each step.

Reaching the summit was amazing. While the distance was short, the terrain and incline had been intense so that as we mounted each pitch only to discover another section of trail it started to feel like the top of the mountain was an elusive, unachievable dream. But when our feet finally touched ground with no more ground above it, I felt every step had been worth the effort. I posed by the summit marker with a ridiculous, happy smile.

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The view was amazing. I had often admired Camelback Mountain from the ground and standing at its summit brought a sense of inversion. Down below were Phoenix, Paradise Valley, and Scottsdale spread out in an urban sprawl. I could see the small squares of houses and buildings. But where was I in my car, looking up in admiration, at what had once been a mere dream? In the far distance were other mountains that became a hazy blue that blended like a shadow into the bright cerulean of the sky.

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Standing on the summit of Camelback Mountain with my wife, I can honestly say that I was truly and genuinely happy. I was happy with the struggle of our hike. I was happy with the view. And I was happy to share the experience with the woman I love.

If there was one thing that detracted from the experience, it was the large number of other hikers. The trail was very crowded. This might not have been as much of a problem if everyone was conscious of others on the trail, but that wasn’t always the case. Mona complained about people rushing up behind her and placing their fingers in her next foothold. I had an unfortunate experience on the descent when a man began literally pressing against me as I climbed down. We did our best to step aside to let others pass and wait when those ahead of us were moving more slowly. Not just to be polite, but to prevent accidents that can happen on a steep, rocky trail.

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While it is a popular trail, it is still a dangerous trail. Hikers have lost their lives due to accidents, dehydration, and hyperthermia. Only two months before our visit, a hiker stopped breathing and, despite efforts to resuscitate him, he died on the trail. Countless others suffer injuries and accidents that require rescue, often through the coordinated efforts of local authorities to airlift them off the mountain.  

I had a small scare on my descent when a patch of gravel I stepped on gave way and took me down with it. I slid several feet down before I was able to grab another rock to stop my descent. Once the immediate crisis passed, I realized I had almost gone over a small ledge that after dropping me several feet would have sent me hurtling down a steep, rocky slope off trail. When I later told my cousin about my fall, she told me she had a similar experience climbing Camelback. During our hike, we saw a number of people also fall due to a misstep or a rock giving way.  Fortunately, all were able to regain their footing and continue their hike safely.

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During our stay, we had an Uber driver who assisted in helicopter rescues on Camelback. He told us that rescues are not uncommon for a variety of reasons. But for him the most frustrating reason hikers require rescue is not bringing enough water. It’s one thing when someone has an accident that couldn’t be avoided, but it’s another thing when someone doesn’t take basic precautions necessary to safely reach the summit.

Despite the trail’s notoriety for injury and death, the number of people we saw hiking without anything at all surprised Mona and me. We saw people hiking without protective clothing and even without water.

After reading about the trail and it’s dangers, Mona and I decided to hike with small packs that included at least a liter of water in the hydration bladder, an extra bottle of water, a couple fruit bars, sun protection, trekking poles (for balance on the descent), and a first aid kit. We wore wicking layers of clothing, sunglasses, and brought hats. The packs weren’t heavy or burdensome. They actually made us feel better to know that even though this was a short hike we would be prepared for anything the mountain might throw at us.

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I’m sure there are additional things we should have carried and there are other hikers with more experience who will criticize our packs as excessive or deficient. But I’m grateful for what we took. I’m glad we never felt dehydrated or hungry. I’m glad that had I suffered a minor injury in my fall we would have had some medical supplies to deal with it.

Once we reached the trailhead, it was definitely getting warmer. One of the reasons for hiking so early is that the temperature is cool just after sunrise and allows enough time to complete the roundtrip, about 2 to 3 hours, before it gets too hot. It was about 60 to 70 degrees when we hiked that morning. Then it was over 90 degrees when we recovered by the pool that afternoon.

I would recommend the Echo Canyon Trail to anyone looking for a challenging hike around Phoenix. But with a few caveats. Be prepared and be polite. It will make the experience much more enjoyable for you and your fellow hikers.

 

*At least one of our friends is not entirely convinced we’re married. He’s sure that our wedding was a prank and we just haven’t announced the punch line yet. I’d say that I’ve done nothing to warrant his distrust, but sitting here I can think of at least five things that would make him think I was capable of such an expensive and well-orchestrated hoax as a fake wedding. For the record, we really did get married.