Camelback Mountain: Two ways to the top of Phoenix's most dangerous trail

From anywhere in Phoenix Camelback Mountain calls. Short, always visible, and shaped exactly like a camel the summit looks friendly and inviting. It's anything but....the real Camelback is steep, slick, dangerous and the scene of dozens of  emergency rescues every year. Some people have even died on the trail.

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Camelback Mountain is located right on the border of Phoenix and the city of Scottsdale. There's two ways to the top; Echo Canyon Trail and Cholla Trail. Both are short, steep, and home to incredible views. Echo Canyon though is just a little more of everything.

More of everything because the trail is shorter, the hike is steeper, the rocks are crumblier, parking is harder to find, and the views are more diverse.

Both Echo Canyon and Cholla Trail start out the same way - finding parking. Echo Canyon boasts a brand new parking lot right next to the trailhead but unless you get there early be prepared to spend an inordinate amount of time driving in circles waiting for someone to leave. Cholla trail is only a little better. There's plenty of street parking, but the closest space is pretty far from the trail and on a busy day your 3 mile hike may turn into a 5 mile one.

Once you're on your trail of choice the hikes break down like this.

Echo Canyon starts off with a wide switch back trail into the canyon. You're surrounded by high walls from the very beginning but once you crest the first hill the walls start closing in. In fact about a half mile into the trail you'll be hiking with a protective fence to your left, special aide railing in front of you, and a 200 foot plus vertical face to your right. For me, this was the coolest part of Echo Canyon trail.

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As you near the summit Echo Canyon trail becomes less a trail and more a pile of rocks. At this point you're basically just picking your way up large boulders until you get to the top. It's easy to get lost, easy to slip, and easy to hurt yourself if you're not careful. Going down is even worse because most of the trail is covered with a thin layer of lose rock that makes foot blow-outs a once a minute occurrence.

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While Echo Canyon trail is narrow, Cholla trail is wide; both in terms of the trail and the views. Cholla trail climbs the east side of Camelback Mountain and covers a lot more ground. Echo canyon trail is 1.2 miles each way. Cholla trail is 1.8.

From the trailhead Cholla trail starts on the backside of the mountain and wraps around to the front. Besides some occasional stair like sections the first half mile is pretty smooth. There's good footing and excellent views of Scottsdale, the Superstition Mountains, Papago Park, Downtown Phoenix, and planes landing at SkyHarbor airport.

As you continue up Cholla trail heads back to the North side and puts you directly in the saddle of the mountain. The rock here is very worn down and there's some slick parts but for the most part the trail stays moderate. 

Just like on Echo Canyon, Cholla trail becomes much less of a trail as you approach the summit. The last 1/4 mile feels a lot like rock climbing. It's not completely vertical by any means but you really have to think about where to step and there's sections where you'll need free hands to pull yourself up.

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The summit itself is large and wide open. At 2,710 feet it's the highest spot in Phoenix and there's excellent views in every direction. 

Going down the top part of Cholla trail is best done on your butt, but as a whole I would say going down Cholla trail is easier. Primarily because the footing is better.

Overall, I can't say this enough. Camelback Mountain is no joke. No matter which trail you take you're in for a hike that is more than just a hike. You need to have good shoes, lots of water, and most importantly the smarts to know when to turn back. Lots of people get caught up in making it to the top and then either can't get back down or take a serious fall while doing so. 

Personally, my favorite Camelback trail is the hike to Cholla trail's saddle. At a little over a mile this hike has everything. Decent footing, a good workout, great views, and an amazing spot to relax and watch the sunset. Best of all.....you'll make it back just fine.

Directions: Echo Canyon Trail is located at 4925 E. McDonald Drive in Paradise Valley. There's a parking lot there with water and restrooms but it fills up fast. 

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Cholla Trail is located at 6131 E. Cholla Lane in Paradise Valley. You can't park right at the trail though so most people park on Invergordon Road. There's always a line of cars there so even if you're new to the area you won't miss it. Lock your car because unlocked ones can be a target.