Residents of Phoenix are blessed with mountains in the middle of the city’s urban sprawl, offering some great opportunities for hiking, without the need for a drive to the country. Sure, you won’t experience solitude, and the natural setting is somewhat tarnished by busy freeways and a smoggy haze. But, some great views of the city, and the opportunity for some heart-pounding exercise make trails like the hike up Camelback Mountain worth the effort.
Let’s start off with an honest admission. This trail kicked my butt. It probably didn’t help that I had hiked the Piestewa (Squaw Peak) Trail earlier in the day. It also didn’t help that I had done quite a bit of hiking every day for several previous days. At least I was hiking in late February, so Phoenix was at least 20 degrees cooler than in the summer — but it was still in the 80’s.
This is the goal: an incredible view of the Phoenix area from the top of Camelback Mountain. This mountain is an iconic landmark in the Phoenix area, and it’s quite a feeling of accomplishment to reach its 2,704 foot peak. Sure, that doesn’t sound terribly high, but keep in mind that the trailhead is around 1,400 feet, so you’re going to be gaining A LOT of elevation.
Let’s start at the beginning. The trail is only moderate at first, as it hikes through the lower reaches of Echo Canyon. You’ll see some nice cactus along the way…
… along with some neat rock formations. This first portion of the trail is .37 mile, which seems like a small, harmless number — but I was already feeling tired when I reached the saddle…
… where there’s a nice view to the west, including Piestewa Peak…
… and to the east, where a number of peaks including Thompson and McDowell can be seen on the horizon.
If you’re only interested in taking a short hike, this saddle would make a very nice turn-around point. I, however, was determined to visit the peak of Camelback, so I decided to press on. After all, the end of the trail was only .77 miles further. Another harmless small number.
Immediately after leaving the saddle, this trail had me questioning why I actually think I enjoy hiking. Essentially, the trail turns into a staircase that climbs a 100-story building. And while a normal stair-step lifts you 7 inches, these massive steps required a rise of a foot or more. Do that a couple hundred times, and guess what? You’ve only made it 1/5 the way up this hill.
Oh, and you might think that ugly fence is what makes this part of the trail unappealing. Sure, the fence sucks away any sense of a natural surrounding. But far worse are the unbelievably healthy and muscular athletes who sprint by you as you struggle to suck air into your lungs. These people probably run up and down the hill every day. If you’re not in fantastic physical shape, you’ll start to feel self-conscious, very quickly.
The staircase eventually comes to an end, but the miserable incline never does. As I passed this marker, I couldn’t believe I had only gone a half-mile, out of the 1.14 mile one-way total. The trail was simply one rock after another, after another.
And then, things got worse.
As you get closer to the destination, you’ll reach this rockslide. Yep, this is the trail. There’s no definite path, you just hop from one rock to the next, in the best way you can figure. I swear, along this part, I saw one particularly bouncy person pass me going up, then down, then up again.
Thank goodness for some odd little dinosaur-like creatures called chuckwallas, that live in the rocks along the trail.
Taking pictures of them was fun, but it was really just an excuse to take a break.
At 3/4 mile, the trail keeps going up…
… and up…
… and up. Finally…
… you’ve made it, and there’s the view you were hoping for.
Here’s another view of Piestewa Peak, the mountain I tackled earlier in the day. That trail was much easier than this one, perhaps in part because it’s the one I did first.
Be sure you pay close attention to where your trail exits the top of the hill. Also remember that, in this part of the country, you’re in killer bee territory. That sign warned of an active hive nearby. Oh yes, this is exactly where I’d like to be, when I get attacked by killer bees.
Take a while to enjoy the view, then hike back the way you came. It’s easier going down, but you’ll probably end up with shaky legs by the time you reach the bottom. Unless you’re one of those ridiculously fit people that made me feel like an overweight slug. In which case, just do the whole hike again. And say hello as you pass me along the way.
The Bottom Line
All joking aside, I’m incredibly envious of those who have this great trail in their backyard. I’d like to think I’d be in better shape if I had a challenging and rewarding hike like this one near my home. And while this hike was somewhat miserable, it was very rewarding and fun, too. If you’re in Phoenix, and you don’t have time, or don’t want, to drive out of town to find some “nature”, this is a great place to get some exercise and rise above the smog.
Camelback Mountain is located northeast of downtown Phoenix. It’s very close to downtown Scottsdale. If you’ve located Camelback Road, a major east-west road, you’ll pass just south of the mountain.
There are two trails that provide access to the top of Camelback Mountain. The Echo Canyon Trail begins on the mountain’s northwest side. From Camelback Road, take 44th Street north. It will curve, and become McDonald Drive. When it curves again, make a right to stay on McDonald, then watch for the turnoff to the Echo Canyon Recreation Area. The hike described below begins here.
You may also try the Cholla Trail. The trailhead is off Cholla Lane. From Camelback Road, take 64th Street north to Cholla Lane.
Parking is free at both locations, but be warned: these trails are very popular, and the parking areas fill up quickly, especially during cool winter weekends. The city warns everyone not to park illegally or idle while waiting for a spot to open, or you will get a ticket or a tow.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive around Phoenix, to Camelback Mountain: