Echo Canyon Park, Arizona
Camelback Mountain, an iconic peak towering above the greater Phoenix area, rises to a height of 2,704 feet. The trail to the summit gains 1,300 feet of elevation over a mere 1.16 miles—making the gradient over 100 feet per 0.1 mile—yeah, it's that steep. If you are willing to brave the steep trail and the often-blazing temperatures, make your way towards Echo Canyon Park and follow the Summit Trail to the highest peak in the Phoenix Mountains.
The five of us had just arrived in Phoenix and we were on our way to the Grand Canyon for our rim-to-rim adventure, but before leaving the Phoenix area, we just had to take a crack at Camelback Mountain. Before arriving at the parking lot, we could see the outline of the mountain, which truly does resemble a kneeling camel, from several points along the interstate—Camelback is a two-summitted mountain, the higher eastern summit forming the camel’s hump and the lower western summit representing The Head.
We were prepared for rough terrain, boulder scrambling, and the inevitable negotiating of loose rock and gravel, but we were not ready for the heat and the steep terrain—despite knowing the elevation gain in advance. It is hard to realize how steep the trail becomes even with the facts in hand—in fact, the trail is so steep in spots that a handrail is provided for balance. When we set off on the trail, the temperature was a scorching 102° F and we all knew that we were in for a strenuous hike.
The hike begins at the Echo Canyon parking lot, where you will find a ramada, an interpretive kiosk, and a drinking fountain. The trail descends a few steps and then heads uphill into Echo Canyon—a shallow drainage flanked by rounded cliffs to the north. The trail reaches the top of Echo Canyon in 0.3 miles—a bench at this point allows for a rest stop. Beyond the bench, the trail bends south under the towering east face of The Hump—note the chain link fence to your left that protects the houses below from falling rocks. You might want to take your time along this segment of the trail, because the climbing is about to begin—our first response to the scene ahead was a resounding, “Are you kidding me?”
Just ahead of us on the trail, we could see the beginning of the handrail section—a most gnarly scene! At this point, Dar was ready to turn around, but we convinced her that she could make it to the top. Determined, and hell bent for fun, we made our way up the steep incline—the views along this section, if you can take your eyes of the slick path, are incredibly beautiful! The five of us made our way up the slope and after about 20 minutes of climbing, the handrail ended and we were standing at the half-mile mark. It is here that the climb really gets interesting—if you thought the handrail section was tough, wait to you get a glimpse of what lies ahead.
Soon after leaving the handrail behind, the hardest segment of the hike begins—the trail climbs steeply up boulder-filled gullies and along airy ridge crests to a final rocky ravine that leads to the soaring summit of Camelback Mountain. In the hour that it took to climb the final 0.6 miles, we encountered numerous lizards, butterflies, and birds—of particular interest was our first sighting of a chuckwalla. We spotted the chuckwalla, a large lizard found primarily in the arid regions of the southwestern United States, perched on a boulder overlooking the Scottsdale area—his reddish midsection immediately caught our eye and confirmed for us that we were seeing a Common Chuckwalla. As mentioned, there were also several birds, including numerous hummingbirds, flying around the summit area along with several species of swallowtail butterflies.
The summit, 1.16 miles from the trailhead, marks the halfway point of the hike and affords a 360-degree view of Phoenix and the surrounding mountain ranges—look for Superstition, Usery, McDowell and Four Peaks. The summit is composed mostly of bare rock with a sheer vertical drop off the east side to the valley below—don’t get too close to the edge. We relaxed on the summit for about 15 minutes before retracing our steps back to the parking lot—pausing for group photos and wide sweeping landscapes complete with towering saguaro cacti. The return journey is much easier, and the handrail really comes in “handy” as you descend the steep slickrock—just take your time and enjoy the desert scenery—especially if the barrel cactus and ocotillo are in bloom, as they were on our June hike. The roundtrip hike of 2.32 miles took us 3 hours to complete, leaving the five us a little tired and hot, but totally charmed by Camelback Mountain—the crown of Phoenix.