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Climbing Camelback Mountain

Updated on June 26, 2015
Camelback Mountain
Camelback Mountain | Source

Camelback Mountain map

I'd long wanted to climb Camelback Mountain, but, like the weather, I just hadn't done anything about it. It’s been on my bucket list for a while, but it keeps falling through a crack in the bottom, only to get swept under the rug and forgotten.

When my daughter and I finally decided to go, we remembered the warning that had come from several different sources: The hardest part about climbing Camelback Mountain is the parking. At 2704 feet elevation, the mountain emerges out of some of the most densely packed and expensive real estate in the Phoenix metropolitan areas, so if the parking lot at the Echo Canyon Trailhead is filled, there aren’t any countryside dirt roads to spill onto.

The parking lot was doubled in size to 135 spaces in 2014—which helps—but on busy days it can still fill quickly, particularly in the late spring and summer when the only civilized hours to hike are a few hours past sunrise. The Cholla Trail on the east side of the mountain is an alternative, with less competition for parking, but the Echo Canyon Trail is by far the more popular hike.

Isn’t this yet another irony of modern day living? The cowboy has to haul his horse down the freeway to get to the range, and hikers have to jockey their vehicles through the big city and compete for parking spaces just so they can us their own two legs. Luckily, on this cool December morning, we pulled into the lot just as someone was pulling out.

The infamous railing that is nearly indispensable to climb up the slick rock surface that has been polished smooth by countless pairs of hiking boots.
The infamous railing that is nearly indispensable to climb up the slick rock surface that has been polished smooth by countless pairs of hiking boots. | Source

The trail ahead of us

Both my daughter and I are in excellent shape, but for as long as I can remember, she has been convinced that some virus or bacteria is lurking right around the next bend, waiting to leap through her nostrils or penetrate her unprotected skin. Each headache is a developing brain tumor and every sneeze or cough is a sure sign that she will soon be attached to a hospital ventilator. “You never know,” she says.

Today, she brought the results of a recent screening for various environmental allergens that she had been tested for. And, in a rare event, she really is allergic to several plants, both cultivated and native, that are common to this part of Arizona. I’m intimately familiar with all of them but she knows none of them. To her, that means that every plant is a potential threat until proven otherwise. As we pulled into a recently vacated parking place, I watched her reach into her purse and nervously finger what I could only guess was an inhaler.

Camelback Mountain is an extremely popular venue, even on a mid-week Wednesday, so if you love mountains but hate loneliness, you will not be disappointed. Even though the hike is relatively short, it’s a steep climb, covering 1300 feet of elevation change in just over a mile. After passing a long series of broad steps formed by timbers, the dirt track trail surface quickly hardens into solid rock. A long, stainless steel railing is installed in one of the most vertical sections and it’s an indispensable aid to pulling yourself up over rock that has either been polished to a Teflon-like slickness or eroded into a loose patina of gravelly ball bearings from the tens of thousands of feet that have passed over it.

From here, there is a brief saddle and then a final scramble through a half mile of rocks and boulders to the summit. Leave your trekking poles at home for this hike; there is no soil to dig them into and you’ll need your hands just about as much as your feet to negotiate the boulder field, especially on your way down.

One of several boulder fields to scramble through.
One of several boulder fields to scramble through. | Source

Onward and upward

Because the mountain is in the city, it attracts a wide cross-section of people who may or may not be fully prepared for its challenges. The vast majority of hikers that we saw were in their twenties and thirties, then a glaring jump through the next couple of decades to 60 and above.

“My gosh, look at some of these old guys,” my daughter said as she followed me up another steep grade.

Her comment struck me as a little naïve. “What about me?” I said, stopping to look back at her. “I’m old, too.”

I wasn’t more than a handful of years younger than the so-called geezers she pointed out, so I felt a little offended when she didn’t give me the credit that my age had earned. I don’t mind being placed on a pedestal, as long as its height is age-appropriate.

“Well, yeah,” she said. “But not like them.”

She did have a point. The steep railing section required some extra exertion and though everyone struggled, a few of the over sixtyish hikers were bent over like Egyptian slaves dragging two-ton blocks of limestone along the banks of the Nile. Compared to the dozens of runners that passed us during the day with their chiseled quads and tanned pectorals, the older guys really did look like pending defibrillation candidates. Still, you had to respect their perseverance and slow but steady progress.

...and for a few precious moments of poetic justice, we were able to look down on the less fortunate below us.

Far less pitiable were the many svelte girls in their mid twenties who grimaced and grunted through these steeper sections as if they were building the same pyramid as the geezers. “I’ll bet their boyfriends dragged them along for this hike,” my daughter commented while we watched a few of them climb toward us. There are definitely easier “date hikes” than Camelback Mountain, and their painful looks of abject suffering were no doubt exaggerated to remind their boyfriends of that fact.

The author stands atop the pinnacle of Camelback Mountain at 2704 feet.
The author stands atop the pinnacle of Camelback Mountain at 2704 feet. | Source

We made it to the summit in about 50 minutes; not too fast, not too slow, just a moderate pace with a few water breaks and camera stops. The view from the top is a predictable 360 degrees of sumptuous resorts, green grass, swimming pools, and clay tile roofs – unbroken opulence, really, with only a few, small and undeveloped mountains poking through to remind you that this was once a desert. High above the smog, we watched the planes at Sky Harbor Airport take off through the same brown cloud that also blanketed the rich and famous; and for a few precious moments of poetic justice, we were able to look down on the less fortunate below us.

From the top. Looking across the city of Phoenix towards the south.
From the top. Looking across the city of Phoenix towards the south. | Source

Who goes up, must also come down

Just before starting back down, my daughter noticed a creosote bush a few feet away, and asked me what it was. I told her that it wasn’t on her allergy list and she blew her nose into a handkerchief, saying, “That’s good, because I was starting to get a little stuffy on the way up.” Had I told her the truth, that none of those plants were found on the mountain, it would have only freed her up to think about the slew of other possibilities, like shoulder separations or meniscus tears. So, I just left it at that.

As we carefully picked our way over, around, and between the same boulders that we’d just climbed, I thought again about how much I dislike gravity. Going down is always more treacherous than going up because the bullying effect of gravity forces you to use twice as many muscles and body parts to hold yourself back from its effects. I like climbing hills because I’m in control; with every contraction of my muscles, I’m beating gravity at its own game, forcing it to yield to my upward intentions. But going down, it’s payback time, and the fact that I usually spend half the time using my butt (as a third leg) only reinforces the righteousness of my bad attitude.

Negotiating yet another boulder field on the way down the mountain.
Negotiating yet another boulder field on the way down the mountain. | Source

We reached the bottom in a respectable 60 minutes and thought that our time was pretty good until we were passed by one of the same shirtless runners we had seen an hour ago. He was now running back up the mountain for the second time. While my daughter expressed her admiration for his sculpted, youthful exterior, I wearily unlocked the car and prepared to vacate the parking space that would allow the first in a line of six waiting cars to take our place. I couldn’t see how many were in that car, or whether they were male or female, young or old, healthy or frail; I only knew that, for them, parking was no longer the hardest part about climbing Camelback Mountain.


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