Camelback Mountain is a prominent feature of Phoenix Arizona and surrounding areas. Every year locals and visitors from all over the world make their way to one of two trail heads to attempt a summit to the top of Camelback. This is a rewarding hike, but don't let the short distance fool you, the hike is almost entirely uphill. If you enjoy stair climb type workouts on uneven ground, in intense heat, you might find this trail is your jam.
Before getting started on this hike, let's talk reality. People have died on this mountain, and it occurs more frequently than you might think. From 2010 to 2019 Camelback Mountain claimed on average over one life per year, and for every death, there have been hundreds of injuries. Some are minor and require no assistance, but many require rescue services and even the use a of helicopter to extract hikers from the mountain. High temperatures, going off trail, and being from out-of-town are risk factors that increase a hikers chance of injury or death. Going off trail is not recommended. It's bad for vegetation and is a leading cause of accidents. Some hikers go off trail on purpose, but others can miss signs, lose the trail, and get lost. Heat exhaustion is a serious condition and can lead to confusion and coordination problems, causing a hiker to lose their way and to fall.
Despite the potential danger, Camelback Mountain has an allure that attracts many people, more so than other nearby mountains and trails. When I hike camelback, I find the more I want to hike camelback. It's addicting. There are regular hikers, locals, who hike this mountain several times a week, and some do it every day of the week. Some do it for the physical exercise, and some for the almost religious experience the mountain offers. I spoke to one hiker that climbed Camelback 300 times in one year, taking a picture of the sunrise each day from the summit. He sprints up and down the mountain like he's made of helium. Another frequent and friendly hiker is a grandmother in her 70's, and yet another is a local on-air television personality. The hikers of Camelback are diverse, but one thing they have in common is a passion for the trail. The Arizona sun can be brutal, and never so much as when it's directly overhead. Because of this I recommend doing what the locals do, hit the mountain early at sunrise, or late in the day a few hours before sunset. The air is coolest is the mornings but it heats up quick. If you arrive at 9am in the summer, you will be under direct sun by 11am, and this can be a miserable experience with little shade to protect you. Going early in the morning is best. The parking lot opens at sunrise, and you can get most of a hike in without seeing a lot of sun. At the top there will be a brilliant sunrise waiting for you. When you get down you will have completed an intense workout, and have the rest of the day to enjoy and feel good about your accomplishment. The Echo Canyon parking lot was expanded in 2013 and doubled the parking spaces to 135, but even with this, the lot can fill up fast. I've seen many a car waiting for someone to hike down so a parking spot opens up. During the early days of Covid-19 the city of Phoenix shut down half the parking lot to limit cars and hikers on the mountain. There were days in the spring of 2020 you had to get there right as the lot opened. If you were 10 minutes late it would be full already by 5am. One time I waited in a line of about 50 cars at 4:45am (sunrise), because the ranger was a few minutes late and cars were piling up near the entrance road. A great time to hike is a few hours before sunset. This is my personal favorite. The sun is low in the sky and the shadows are long, and there are a lot of shaded parts of the trail to keep you cool. I prefer hiking Echo Canyon in the summer time when it's 105°F an hour before sunset, much more so than hiking at 10am at 90°F when the sun is directly overhead. Since it is later in the day and hotter, parking is usually not a problem, but be sure to get down before sunset. The trail closes at sunset, and park rangers can give out tickets to cars that stay later. They want people down so they don't have to do rescues in the dark.
Besides Echo Canyon Trail there is Cholla Trail. Cholla is on the east side of Camelback Mountain but has been closed for most of 2020, ever since a 300lb boulder rolled onto a hikers leg. The plan is to improve this trail to make it more safe. It's currently under renovation. Some consider the Echo Trail the more difficult of the two, but having done both, I consider them to be about equal. Cholla is a little longer and the trail itself is harder to follow near the top. Overall the elevation gain is the same and the trails meet at the summit. One reason people prefer the Echo side is because there is the designated parking lot, and facilities (bathrooms). Cholla doesn't have this. For Cholla Trail hikers have to park on a designated street (N. Invergordon Road), and walk a bit to get to the actual trail head. The area around Camelback Mountain is filled with multi-million dollar homes (on both sides) and the rich people don't want you parking on their streets. There are strict rules so definitely heed the warnings: do not park outside any designated parking areas, and do not speed in these neighborhoods. Police are quick to hand out tickets.
Echo Canyon Trail starts off with a short decline, followed by a long incline leading through impressive rock formations and desert foliage. This leads to a series of switch backs until you get to a view point rest area where there are benches, and views to take in. At this point your heart should be pumping pretty good as the trail has mostly been uphill. If you aren't feeling confident, this is a good point to turn around. The trail only gets more intense from here. For those continuing, the trail veers right and you come to railroad tie steps leading up (actually everything from here on out is up), and after that the first of two handrail sections. Not long after the first handrail section is the second. A lot of hikers take a rest at the top of the second handrails as there are flat open spots to down some water, and take a break. Moving on you come to a ravine filled with boulders. There are no handrails or steps to help you here, and none further up the mountain either. You are on your own. A lot of hikers use their hands to assist scrambling up the boulders. The next part is more gradual uphill, until you crossover onto the Camels back. This is about halfway. After that there is constant steep uphill and boulders, and for a long distance. Some parts are steeper than others. This area is sure to wear out even seasoned hikers. You can see what you think might be the top, but it's an illusion. Eventually you make it to the top of this area and there are extensive views, but you aren't done. The trail turns left and you'll have to make a final push to the summit. At the summit there are 360° views to greet you, and you can finally rest and celebrate your accomplishment. It nice at the top, and there might even be a soft breeze. This is a great place to take photos, but be wary there are no guard rails or warnings, and some edges are a straight down drops - hundreds of feet down. Stay away from the cliffs. Once you are rested and hydrated, head back down the same way you came up. Be aware, you lungs and heart were working on the way up, but it's your knees and ankles that will be working on the way down. Some find descending can be harder than going up.
Recommended Trail Gear
- Water (at least 1 liter per person)
- Cell phone (fully charged)
- Good sturdy shoes
- Good level of fitness
When hiking Camelback, plan appropriately and bring plenty of water, especially in hotter months. I also like to bring wireless headphones to jam out to, sunglasses with a rim built for whisking sweat away from the face and eyes, and a light backpack to hold water, keys and cellphone. A knee brace can come in handy also, as can hiking gloves. Going down can be as tough as going up.
- Hiking Echo Canyon Trail can take anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 hours on average. There is no charge to park, and there is a drinking fountain and bathrooms at the trail head.
- Watch out for wildlife including snakes, lizards, and bees.
- Loose gravel can be slippery. Watch your step.
- The mountain may be closed at any given time if a rescue is underway. It used to be they would close down only the trail where the rescue was occurring, but in 2019 they started closing down the entire mountain.
- The record for number of times Camelback climbed in one day is 11.
- The record time for a roundtrip on Echo Canyon Trail (bottom to top, and back), is reportedly 14:48 - which sounds insane.
- On Christmas day morning some hikers are reported to carry a Christmas tree to the top, and hand out candy canes.
List of unfortunate deaths, compiled from news stories last decade (2010-2019). Heed the warnings and don't become a statistic on this mountain. 2011 (May) - A 25-year-old man from Arizona dies from injuries sustained from a fall while solo climbing. 2012 (Oct) - Three men go off trail, are attacked by a swarm of bees, and are stung hundreds of times. One of the men, a 19-year-old from Arizona, falls 150' to his death. 2014 (May) - A 23-year-old man from Seattle dies, possibly due to heat exhaustion and falling. His body is found off trail three days after going missing. 2014 (Aug) - A 50-year-old off-duty Phoenix firefighter and a 15-year-old family friend die from injuries sustained during a rappelling accident. 2014 (Sep) - A 22-year-old male student from Brazil dies after showing signs of heat exhaustion. 2015 (Jul) - A 48-year-old woman from England dies of heatstroke. Her body is found off trail. 2016 (Apr) - A 18-year-old woman from California dies from injuries sustained after falling 60-100' from an off trail area dubbed 'Suicide Direct'. 2016 (Jun) - A 56-year-old man from the United Kingdom dies from a suspected fall. 2018 (Feb) - A 42-year-old man from Florida dies suddenly while hiking with his family. A medical condition causes him to stop breathing and his heart stops. 2018 (Aug) - A 54-year-old man from Missouri dies after a suspected fall from a cliff near the summit. 2018 (Dec) - A 55-year-old man from Arizona dies a few days after sustaining injuries from a fall while hiking with his family.
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