This would be my fourth time up Camelback Mountain. I had previously braved the crowds of Echo Canyon twice and the relative seclusion of the Cholla Trail once with Chris. He had some friends in town this weekend, some friends who were interested in a desert hike, so we decided to take them on the definitive Phoenix mountain. One small change: we would go up Cholla Trail and back down Echo Canyon, completing a full length hike of the mountain's ridge.
Starting on the east side of the mountain is nice for a few reasons. There are less people on this trail. Echo Canyon is by far the more popular route up, with a nice parking lot and railings along the tricky spots, leaving Cholla to the more adventurous. The other reason is access. The trailhead for Echo Canyon is gated and guarded until sunrise. There are signs against parking on Invergordon Road (the main access to Cholla Trail), but that doesn't stop people from in the early AM hours to start the climb.
We arrived at Invergordon Road a good hour before sunrise and started walking under the light of a full moon. E Cholla Lane takes you to the trailhead, which is easy to miss in the darkness, and then you're climbing up above and around a verdant golf course. Hiking within sight of a bright greens in the middle of a city in the middle of a desert is a real low for me. Anyways, we climbed quick along the path, skipping over the wide railroad-tie steps and cruising along the gravelly path. The trail switches back and forth often, but between the full moon and the well-defined path we had no problem keeping on it.
After a few hundred feet we noticed the sun beginning to brighten up the eastern sky. It was a welcome view. None of us were too concerned about the mild high temperatures today or with time. I had little to do in the afternoon and Chris and his friends had a few touristy stops planned out. We scrambled up a nasty rock face and came upon a small view overlooking the colored sky.
After a nice pause we continued forward, quickly breaking out on the shoulder around 2000'. Now our path changed from a ridgeline climb to a steady walk along the side of the ridge. It was mostly flat, a welcome break from the early steep climb. Above us the ridge continued to climb, creating the second of Camelback's two humps.
This section of the trail can get a bit congested. The path is narrow and is on the side of a steep hill, leaving little room to move out of the way for oncoming traffic or quick hikers. We bumped into a handful of groups here and awkwardly pushed our way to one side or the other, letting quicker people around or descending people descend.
The sun finally broke free from the horizon just as we reached the main saddle. Now things got real. Until now we were on a nice trail, climbing 600' to the hillside and another 200' along the hill path. Now we had 500' left along an exposed, boulder-strewn ridge less than a half mile long. The four of us gazed up at the people crawling up the steep rocks on the last leg of the climb, shifting up their own hand-picked routes over huge boulders and steep rock faces. This is my favorite part of Cholla Trail.
Chris's two friends were not used to desert hiking. Or hiking in general. One was wearing a pair of ancient Converse sneakers and the other had a bum knee that she was nursing. Still, they were itching for this last leg. The first climb of the hike, back near the trailhead, had knocked the breath out of our group. Now we were composed. Over half of the elevation was behind us now, any doubts about making it to the top gone. All we had was left was 500' of technical climbing over a sharp knife ridge.
We tackled the technical session with vigor. On a few sections we were forced to climb up steep rock walls, on others we balanced along a skinny cut, and others we simply followed a thin path around boulders. Our group broke up and reformed along the way as different options lured us apart and brought us back together. It was fun going, easy to lose track along, and before we knew it we broke upon the summit of Camelback Mountain.
As usual, the peak was crowded, at least fifty people chatting and resting from a variety of backgrounds. Chris and his friends started taking a few selfie-style pics with the distant city streets as a backdrop so I snuck off to a quiet section. I wanted to capture a few good views of the steep northeast-facing cliff and Echo Canyon to the north. The cliff in particular is interesting, a direct drop some hundred feet high that would make a great rappel.
When I caught back up with the group they were ready to head down. We debated for a few minutes on the best descent. Chris and I had talked about going down Echo Canyon, the other trail on the mountain, which would leave us three miles from our parking spot. A boring three miles along semi-busy roads under the late morning sun. Everyone seemed okay with this, though, so we headed down the west side of the peak away from our original path.
The highest leg of this trail was a steep descent down boulders and rock faces within a narrow gorge of rock. The harder sections were tough on the knees, sudden drops some three or four feet in height that one could either leap down or slowly lower over. I chose the latter. My knees are torn up enough after mishaps in the Upper Peninsula. The rest of the group did as well - Chris has bad ankles, one of his friends a bad knee, and the other bad footware. We made slow and cautious progress down into the canyon.
There were plenty of little jokes floating around as we went. We dubbed a tall and spindly hiker the 'Mountain DJ', as he zipped past us with speakers in his pack blaring out some abrasive rap music. After seeing a few signs warning people to stay on the trails we accused one another for being 'trailblazers'. Silly smalltalk to eat up the time as we made our way down past slower groups and let ascending people pass by.
Echo Canyon proper is a neat little saddle between the main hump and the spire recognized as the camel's head. That spire is surprising sudden compared to the rest of this ridge, sharp rock walls soaring up on all sides. I still wonder if there's a reasonable way up that spire or if it's only visited by equipped rock climbers.
Our trail plunges down next to the spire over a rock wall steep enough to warrant solid metal railings and chisled foot holds. It's not the only section of this route that has railings, one of the boulder patches we already passed also has railings, but this one really needs it. Without a handhold climbing this wall would involve a lot of full-contact scrambling. It was fun to descend past the people huffing up the climb, even if it meant dodging around a few dozen people.
The rest of the descent was relatively easy, steep gravel interspersed with railroad tie steps to a parking lot. It was surprising to see how many people were near the trailhead, either waiting for the full group or just meandering around. Over the morning we'd already seen at least a thousand on the mountain, most of it on this side, and here were even more. Camelback Mountain can be disgustingly busy.
We didn't wait at the trailhead. The four of us cruised past the crowd, through the parking lot, and set out east on McDonald Drive. We were on a boring sidewalk now that bobbed up and down mildly under our feet. There were a few cramps here and there, with water depleted and normal paces confusing our stressed muscles, nothing too bad. In less than an hour we were back in our cars and heading out.
Technically there is still one more route I have left to complete on this mountain: climb up Echo and descend Cholla. Not sure if it's worth it, though. I've more than had my fill with the crowds here. The solace of the Superstition Wilderness is already drawing my attention to the east, and beyond that (and to the north) are more familiar pine forests. Both sound much more appealing than the hot, gritty hikes through thick crowds that the Phoenix hikes have to offer.