There are two mountains in Phoenix, Arizona, USA that everyone seems to want to hike – Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak. Thing is, both of these mountains are very challenging. They are dangerous in the summer. And they have a variety of lesser known trails to serve those who might not be ready for the steep inclines. My guide today is for folks who want to hike Camelback Mountain, which I consider to be the more dangerous of the two mountains. Since there are SO MANY posts encouraging you to do this hike, this guide is going to focus on safety and some considerations which may make you look for other options.
Let’s talk about: (1) Who will most enjoy hiking this iconic Phoenix mountain. (2) How to stay safe on the trail. (3) Explore the trail options, (4) and explore the special place that this beautiful peak has in all the hearts of Phoenix-natives.
- 1 When Should You Hike Camelback Mountain
- 2 Safety on Camelback Mountain
- 3 Short Trail Guides
- 4 Camelback Mountain and Conservation in Phoenix, Arizona
- 5 Learn More About Arizona
When Should You Hike Camelback Mountain
When it comes to the Phoenix skyline, Camelback is about as iconic as they come. I’d argue even moreso than Piestewa. That is because the mountain has a unique shape that is created by a red sandstone bluff in the shape of a camel’s head. And to the immediate east of this bluff is a Sonoran peak that completes the illusion with the rise of the camel’s back. Besides its shape, Camelback has a unique red hue to it, and it is home to the native plant assemblage that makes Arizona like nowhere else in the world – saguaros, creosote, ocotillo, and more.
It is, inarguably, a charismatic mountain that calls to many.
But to hike Camelback Mountain can be dangerous. As popular as it is, this is NOT a hike that I would suggest for everyone. And frankly, it isn’t a hike you should feel utterly disappointed about not doing if you are visiting and you decide it isn’t a good fit for you. There are SO many amazing hikes in the Phoenix area. (Here are some guides with suggestions- (1) Pinnacle Peak Park and (2) Estrella Mountain Regional Park. But if you really want to see the mountain, you can also safely do so by checking out one of the shorter trails that explore the rocky head of the camel. See the section below on Bobby’s Rock!
Choosing the Right Time
No matter your hiking skill, safety on Camelback Mountain is all about your timing. First, for anyone not familiar with Arizona heat – it kills on this mountain and elsewhere every year. It is not a joke. Please stay safe and respect it.
First, BRING and DRINK water on the trail!
I would not suggest hiking Camelback in the summer. Late fall, early spring, and the winter are all ideal times. Check the weather though! I would suggest avoiding any time where the temperature is above 90 degrees. For some, I would suggest even cooler temps. I personally avoid hiking trails like these when it is over 85 degrees because I don’t find it comfortable.
If you must visit in the summer and you must do this mountain, only attempt the summit in the earliest of early mornings. Start at 4:30a or 5a and bring a flashlight.
You should also avoid Camelback during inclement weather. A light rain will make it slippery and dangerous, and AZ storms can quickly turn into a lightning storms. Furthermore, hiking on wet trails can erode them, which damages the environment and can cause boulders to come loose over time.
Gauging Your Skillset
Besides the potentially dangerous ambient conditions, anyone thinking to hike Camelback Mountain should be aware that the trail itself can be injurious. In particular, Echo Canyon Trail is very difficult terrain. There is one section of the trail where you will be using a pipe handrail to climb up a rounded cliff. After that, you will be weaving your way up and around boulders as you continue to climb up. Cholla trail had to be closed for in-depth repair due to someone getting seriously injured by a boulder falling on them.
Doing this trail safely requires both stamina and skill. You should know that you can safely boulder and have enough confidence with heights to remain steady on your feet while climbing. Sometimes, you might not know that this trail is too hard for you, until you try it. The best thing you can do, if you give Echo Canyon or Cholla Trail a try and you find yourself feeling exhausted, or lightheaded is to rest and then turn around.
Safety on Camelback Mountain
As with any hike, staying safe and healthy should be your number one priority. And you must remember, your safety is your responsibility and yours alone. This guide is NOT guaranteeing your safety on the trail or anywhere in nature.
So, with all that said, what can you do to make sure you hike Camelback Mountain in the most enjoyable and safe way possible? First, consider…
I mentioned it above, but I will say it again, always plan your hike in Phoenix around the heat. Along with your overall health and the weather, this is one of the most important elements of safety on Camelback Mountain. Signage at the trail will tell you not to hike when it is over 100 degrees F, but I start to feel sick and dehydrated at 90+ degrees F. Pick the cooler seasons, and if it is a hotter day, go in the morning.
Also, BRING and DRINK water!!!
For reference, the City of Phoenix’s “Take a Hike, Do It Right” launched after several heat related deaths: https://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/phoenix-warns-hikers-to-prepare-for-heat-after-recent-tragedies-7554143
In 2021, a woman visiting from Boston was led up the mountain by a local man without water and in the heat of a summer day, and she unfortunately lost her life due to this: https://www.12news.com/article/news/local/valley/family-of-woman-who-died-on-camelback-mountain-demands-more-answers/75-a749e864-881b-4b5c-a16c-1d06badb7174
Please, let your memories here be fond and hike Camelback Mountain safely.
Another danger on the mountain is related to the boulders. You will want to make sure that you have good, grippy hiking shoes for the trails. You will be climbing up and around boulders for much of Echo Canyon and parts of Cholla as well. Falling from one of these can result in serious injury. Good shoes, a careful pace, and listening to your body can all help you stay safe.
The boulders themselves can also be dangerous. Cholla Trail had to be closed for major repairs when a visitor got trapped beneath a boulder after simply moving out of the way for other hikers: https://www.theweathernetwork.com/ca/news/article/hiker-rescued-after-300-pound-boulder-crushes-his-leg-during-mountain-trek-camelback-arizona-phoenix
Short Trail Guides
Now that you’ve considered all the potential dangers of the trail, I will say, I think to hike Camelback Mountain is a worthy goal for visitors and locals alike. (Although it is far from my favorite hike in Phoenix-metro). And for the most part, people do stay safe on the trail. Thousands of people hike it annually. With the above in mind and a commitment to yourself, consider your options on the mountain and pick the one that might be best for you.
Echo Canyon Trail
Echo Canyon Trail, if you want to summit Camelback, is my suggestion if you are driving yourself and not taking a taxi/Uber. Primarily, this is because there is a nice parking lot here and bathrooms as well. That being said, the Echo Canyon Trail is very challenging.
This trail is 2.5 miles out and back and includes 1,420 feet of elevation gain.
From the trailhead, you will take a fairly average, desert trail up past the head of the camel. You will follow a few switchbacks through creosote-ladened Sonoran Desert, and then follow the trail around a bend that is sandwiched between a fence and the stone of the mountain.
Once you come around the bend, you will see the first of the challenges on Echo Canyon Trail – the stone cliff with its poles and divets. Here, navigating among people moving up faster than you and people climbing down, you will slowly scale the rounded, stone cliff. Don’t mistakenly think that this is the hardest trail section that you will face.
After the stony climb, you will follow the trail over the rough shoulder of the mountain and then down into a large chute lined from top to bottom by boulders. Now, you will climb up and up and up through the boulders. There is almost no regular trail in this section, but you will be hemmed in on either side by rock walls, so the odds of getting lost if you are paying attention to the signs and crowds isn’t too high.
Finally, you will come up to a false summit, and follow the trail up to the left in a final push to the top. You will have finished when you reach the metal pole at the top, and join the celebrant folks on the crown of the mountain.
The way down is the way that you came. To hike Camelback Mountain is as challenging down as it is up, though. You will need to carefully navigate all those boulders and the crowds with gravity pulling you downwards. Take your time and be polite to other hikers, whether they need to pass you or you are passing them.
Cholla Trail (Closed for Repair)
Remember when I said that a man got stuck beneath a boulder while hiking this trail? Well, that resulted in Cholla Trail being closed for repairs as it needed to be improved for safety reasons.
Now, the opening has been delayed due to wealthy people in the area not liking the public accessing the trail near their homes. (Public land is not public land if regular people can’t readily and easily access it).
Alternative Trail – Bobby’s Rock
You don’t need to do Echo Canyon or Cholla in order to hike Camelback Mountain. If you really want to experience this famous area, but you think that the trail itself is too difficult, there is a lovely, short trail called Bobby’s Rock. This is accessible from the Echo Canyon Trailhead and is a 0.18 mile loop. The trail is a bit rough, but it offers some really up-close-and-personal views of the stone camel’s head. You can see swifts and other birds nesting on and hunting along the stone cliffs. You can get some great views of Paradise Valley from here as well. And you can even people watch from the picnic benches along the way.
I personally love coming here on a cloudy day to catch some dramatic photos of the mountain side. I love this shorter trail and think it is widely underappreciated.
Camelback Mountain and Conservation in Phoenix, Arizona
When you hike Camelback Mountain, remember that this isn’t just a challenging and alluring mountain for hikers and visitors, it is a piece of Arizona conservation history. In the 1960s, local folks began to worry as people began building their houses higher and higher on the once wild mountain. They saw a potential future in which the beautiful heights of Camelback were owned and developed, marring the mountain forever. In the 1970s, with the leadership of Maxine Lakin and other legendary women, concerned citizens formed the Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council. This council advocated for the protection of the mountain and assisted the City of Phoenix in eventually acquiring the upper reaches of Camelback so that it could be protected for all into the future.
While there were some mountain preserves at the time (historic North Mountain and what is now Piestewa Peak), but not nearly what we have now. These women of the community helped instill a new vision in the City of Phoenix and its people, one with open desert spaces that served everyone and protected the plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert.
Now, when you explore the many wild places still to be found in Phoenix-metro, you can thank the inspirational Camelback Mountain and the women who fought to save it.
The fight isn’t over, however. Phoenix is the fastest growing city in the United States. Both its people and the nature here is at risk from uninspired development that cuts off desert preserves in the city from the surrounding desert. This chokes their plants and animals off from needed resources and making it harder for local people to access nature spaces. You can support efforts to protect the desert of Phoenix-metro through donated your time, money, or social media space to the Central Arizona Conservation Alliance or their partner organizations.
Learn More About Arizona
Whether you decide to give Camelback a try, there are so many wonderful things to do in the Phoenix-metro area. We have a guide on our home city that is growing almost every month. Check it out for more inspiration on hikes, food, museums, and more!
If you will be venturing out of Phoenix and into the rest of the state, we also have posts on hikes and towns across Arizona in our Guide to the State.
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