Camelback Mountain Master Class: This is 'F'ing hard'

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • February 05, 2021

“We had an amazing time with Wild Bunch Desert Guides on our hike up Camelback Mountain! At the beginning of the hike, I told Laurel I was 16 weeks pregnant and my husband had some knee issues, so she made sure to find the best routes for us and to make sure we were going at a safe pace. I am so glad we hired a guide to tackle this hike and would highly recommend anyone else to do so also!! It doesn't hurt that Laurel was super fun to be around, too, especially when the hike got a tad bit tough!!” – AMS, Zionsville, Ind., on Tripadvisor, Feb. 2017

Laurel Darren (center) poses with a pair of guests after helping them reach the summit during a
Camelback Mountain hiking tour from the Wild Bunch Desert Guides. Pictures from atop the iconic
landmark are what most people see instead of the hard work required to get there. 

Upon arriving in Arizona from my native flatlands of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois, I never understood why people called the iconic Phoenix and Scottsdale landmark “Camelback Mountain.”

Then, one day, while bicycling on the area roads of my new home, a friend politely pointed out the silhouette of a camel complete with the head, the hump, and the hind quarters.

Boy, did I feel stupid! I still shake my head wondering how could I never have noticed that? 

Nowadays, nearly a decade since starting a new life in the Southwest, this transplanted owner of one of Arizona’s top-rated adventure tour companies can spot that exotic beast from anywhere in the vaunted Valley of the Sun. My Wild Bunch Desert Guides have helped hundreds of guests “ride that camel” on one of our guided hiking trips.

Air travelers to our corner of paradise are all greeted by that ubiquitous and inescapable camel. The mountain literally looms over our visitors as a must-do, bucket-list experience. Except – and take a deep breath here while I shout an unvarnished truth from the proverbial mountain top – CAMELBACK MOUNTAIN IS NOT FOR EVERYBODY.

And, just like my initial blind spot to the iconic peak’s name, few truly see and understand why I say that until A) rejecting my advice, B) insisting they CAN and MUST do Camelback Mountain, and C) likely finding a competitor willing to take their money for a desired Camelback Mountain guided hiking tour, before D) finding they are unable to get halfway to the top.

The lost money, wasted time and aborted effort put added weight on their regrets – even if they are able to overcome the common fears of retracing their steps and attempting to descend the steep declines of the mountain. As many Camelback reviewers have noted in the past, “it’s harder coming down than going up.” The truly unlucky Camelback hikers need to be rescued by helicopter.

So, I am neither being cruel when quizzing guests about their intentions and limitations, nor am I somehow hyping some exclusivity to ultimately squeeze a few extra dollars out of the journey. This is not Disneyland and Camelback is definitely not Space Mountain, where they can stop the ride to load you on the rollercoaster. This thrill ride don’t stop, and it is an hours-long grind.

No matter how good of shape you are in, whether you have finished 50 Ironman triathlons, 200 Leadville 100 mountain bike races, hiked 10 14ers in Colorado, or think you are something you are not -- Camelback is F****** hard.

A Camelback Mountain hiking trip is much tougher than you might realize.

Intro to Camelback Mountain hiking

Way back before I was a guide or operated the Wild Bunch, when I first moved to Arizona from Iowa in 2012, I was a road cyclist and adventure lover when I overheard someone talking about Camelback Mountain.

So, I looked it up one November day on Google Maps and decided to drive to the Echo Canyon Trailhead.

At that time, I had no idea there were actually TWO trails you could hike, but because Echo Canyon had an actual parking lot, I was taken there with zero clue what to expect. All I knew was that Camelback was a staple hike for locals, 20 minutes from downtown Phoenix, and everyone needed to reach the mountain’s summit at least once to experience the spectacular views of the city.

Like many of the casual visitors I now incur as the Wild Bunch owner, I Googled “Camelback Mountain hiking” and saw that day’s journey was a 1.2-mile hike to the top and thought, “How hard could that possibly be?” After all, I had Ironman triathlons, the Leadville 100, and the Boston Marathon among the many endurance challenges on my amateur athlete’s resume.

But as I slowly made my way up Camelback Mountain, I started to realize that this “double black diamond” rating was serious business.

An hour into the hike, I was not even halfway to the top.

I conquered the Camel that day, all right -- after 5 hours of hiking ... And climbing ... And resting.

I was truly proud of myself that I had done something super epic here in my new home.

When I took a job in 2013 as a guide at one of the adventure tour companies in town, I was introduced to the Cholla Trailhead-side of Camelback Mountain. You know, the supposed easier of the two sides?

Boy, was that a rude awakening. As I soon discovered, both are rated “extremely difficult” for a reason.

The same pre-hike thought process haunted me all the way to the top again. “Oh, this will be easy,” I found myself muttering more than a few times under my breath, “it's ONLY 1.4 miles to the top. How hard could that be?”

What I quickly came to appreciate about our iconic peak: Camelback Mountain rises to a height of 2,707 feet, with the loose-gravel trails to the summit gaining 1,300 feet of elevation in 1.16 miles. That is an incredibly steep grade of more than 100 feet every 10th of a mile, and that comes complete with harrowing drop-offs on either side of the trails in some spots.

The ascent on Cholla Trail is longer, thus more gradual, so slightly easier, but either side requires great cardio fitness to navigate the challenging, rocky terrain.

A Camelback Mountain hike features steep grades, so there is a lot of single-file climbing with the help of handrails.

Camelback Mountain hiking 101

Fast forward to today in 2021, as the owner of a private boutique Sonoran Desert hiking and mountain biking company I must be extremely honest and transparent with all my guests – as well as all you who are reading this blog.

People from all over the world call the Wild Bunch Desert Guides asking about a Camelback Mountain guided hiking tour.

Unfortunately, many guests have never hiked before in their entire life. However, Camelback is not a great place to start hiking.

After years of serving as a guide, I am also able to tell these callers Camelback is not necessarily the best way to see our Sonoran Desert. There are dozens of destinations as much or more scenic, some with the same elevation gain, that are logistically easier to reach and are enjoyably navigable for most ages and fitness levels. These other guided hiking adventures are a lot less crowded than New York City on a busy day and more affordable than Camelback, too.

I have had the honor of taking many guests up Camelback, but over the years, I also have had to make some serious price adjustments as my guides are out there longer and longer and longer.

Camelback Mountain is insanely busy all the time except in June, July, August, and September. Translation: That is the “offseason,” when the “dry heat” of the desert ramps up to the stifling temperatures of a pottery kiln. And those months, by the way, are when the “crazy people” come to town, sleep-in and go out at 10 a.m. or later to hike in 112 degrees with no water and end up in a helicopter rescue.

The Wild Bunch has come to find on average, no matter which side we are hiking with guests, it takes at least 2 hours just to get to the camel’s “saddle,” and then about an hour and 15 minutes to make it the rest of the way to the top. And then, coming back down is even slower because of the average person’s fear of falling on a steep descent.

Personally, while guiding guests, I have been on the mountain when multiple rescues have been in progress.

We have been stopped by tactical teams and held on the mountain until the helicopter has picked up an injured person and safely departed.

I also have been on the summit when a rescue was in progress for a visitor who hiked up the mountain, but was unable to hike back down, paralyzed by fear.

So you can imagine how my Spidey senses tingle when I get a call from a guest with absolutely zero background -- and is currently working toward getting physically fit -- yet they absolutely feel the need for a guided Camelback Mountain hike.

The city of Phoenix posts signs for a good reason at the main trailhead start locations that warn “EXTREMELY DIFFICULT” or “Double Black Diamond Rated.”

A Camelback Mountain hiking tour offers a great cardio workout, but that means hiking on the iconic
landmark is not for everyone, especially beginners. Heat and the exhaustive challenge also conspire
to make the journey rough on the young and old alike, as well as those working on improving their
fitness level.

Survey of Camelback Mountain hiking

Through the years, I have witnessed parents allowing 3- and 4-year-olds to go up the middle section of slick rock on a handrail section of the trail where the kids were screaming bloody murder. Bigger problem: The parents were unable to assist their distressed children because they were struggling just as badly to find some sort of footing on a section where there was safety to the left in a handrail.

There was another time when I encountered a parent mindlessly distracted and walking away from their 5-year-old to leave them in a panicked situation where they could not find their mommy or daddy. That can happen at amusement parks; not so much on Camelback Mountain.

I also have run into dehydrated hikers who failed to bring water – none, zip, zero, zilch. Again, this ain’t Disney. There are no stores or vendors, much less restrooms or drinking fountains on Camelback. So those hikers slowly became candidates for an airlift down the mountain and straight to a hospital because they never imagined or completely forgot a simple but essential detail.

I also have cringed to see girls showing up for a Camelback Mountain hike wearing stiletto heels and sundresses. Stop and read that again for full effect before repeating with me -- no, no, no, a thousand times no.

One of my Wild Bunch Desert Guides was thankfully on the scene one year when a gentleman from another party began suffering from the beginning stages of a heart attack. The Wild Bunch guide was able to start medical attention before assisting an emergency medical team when they arrived and waited for the rescue helicopter.

According to pre-pandemic figures provided by the Phoenix Fire Department, there were 90 helicopter rescues on Camelback Mountain in 2019. That is nearly an average of two per week.

If not for medical emergencies, such as the heart attack mentioned, the rescue calls are because of injuries suffered while hiking, including dehydration and heat illnesses.

However, a few hikers have died from falls over the years, especially those suffered after leaving the well-traveled trails to attempt dangerous, off-script stunts such as climbing on “Suicide Direct.” 

Park Rangers try and screen visitors arriving at the Trailheads, according to my all-time favorite ranger Mark Sirota in this AZ Big Media article. The screenings take into account everything from clothing to footwear to gear, as well as the age of the hikers and if there are children in their party – many of the same things we quiz our guests about at Wild Bunch Desert Guides so they are properly prepared for a guided Camelback Mountain hike.

The Cholla Trail closed in March 2020 just before the pandemic hit when a 300-pound bolder loosened by rain trapped and injured an unsuspecting hiker to require another helicopter rescue.

The city of Phoenix is nearing the reopening of Cholla Trail after working to both secure the rocks and repair the wear-and-tear trail damage done by constant use over the years.

Camelback was closed during the initial height of CoVid-19 concerns, but by Labor Day 2020, a rash of rescues were necessitated by hikers suffering heat-related illnesses during the hottest holiday weekend on record in Phoenix.

Even during a guided Camelback Mountain hiking tour, descending the iconic
landmark can be tougher than reaching the peak.


Practicum of Camelback Mountain Hiking

During a normal year, the city of Phoenix reports that more than 500,000 visitors attempt to summit the signature mountain. And therein lies a problem with a guided Camelback Mountain hiking tour – the popularity makes the adventure problematic on so many logistical and enjoyment levels.

From Dec. 1 through June 1, during the peak hiking season, you are literally staring at Joe from Jersey the entire way to the top while managing tight spaces on congested trails.

Imagine standing in a single-file line for a ride for hours at Disney World, and climbing as you plod forward, hanging on to a railing. The challenge becomes exponentially tougher during the descent – when you can see the steep decline in front of you.

If you are also scared of heights? Fuhgeddaboudit, as Joe from Jersey might say. Yo! Why are you even up here?

The popularity of Camelback Mountain also means there are problems parking.

Even when both trails are open, the available parking fills up quickly in the morning, and when the Echo Canyon parking lot is full, vehicles are prevented from entering until somebody else leaves.

When the Cholla Trail finally reopens, there is no designated lot, and parking along Invergordon Drive is crazy. Most of the time, you end up hiking a mile to the trailhead before you even get on the trail.

Hikers caught on the outside looking in be forewarned: Do not think you can just park in the neighborhoods near the trailheads -- residents WILL call the authorities, and those authorities WILL do something – ticket, tow, or sometimes both.

Park Rangers and local police manage the trailhead parking so please do not ask me to troubleshoot any problems. Even as an adventure tour company, Wild Bunch is in the same boat as you – nobody has preferential parking; it is completely first-come, first-served.

The Wild Bunch Desert Guides also have no control over park hours. Camelback Mountain is open sunrise to sunset. Period. End of story.

So please do not call asking if a sunrise or sunset hike is possible. No adventure tour company in The Valley can offer that special accommodation and take you any earlier or return any later. Hiking on those steep inclines in the dark simply is not safe.

Plus, you get ticketed by the Park Rangers if you are not off the mountain at sundown. The Park Rangers sit in the parking lots waiting for the violators to emerge. And yes, we must follow the same rules as everybody else.

The city of Phoenix also asks adventure companies to take their guests and hike other safer places when booking groups larger than eight people. So, let us take you where everyone in your travel party will feel like they accomplished something.

Please do not make us be "that guide" who must leave guests to sit and wait hours for the others to reach the summit and come back down the mountain. NEWS FLASH: We do not let anyone go DOWN the mountain alone under any circumstances – it is just not safe.

And for those wondering why we need to start by 8 a.m. instead of sleeping in while on vacation?

For a guided Camelback Mountain hiking tour with the Wild Bunch, we want to go early so we can beat the traffic (see above) as well as the desert heat. Temperatures rise quickly and can sneak up on visitors in the Valley of the Sun. Mid-day heat should be avoided at all costs, but especially on a Camelback hike.

Laurel Darren getting the boot during an epic summit on a Camelback Mountain hike.

Masters in Camelback Mountain Hiking

All that said, I have had several fun and truly memorable times on Camelback Mountain.

For example, there was an unforgettable summit with my friends Todd and Tracy.

Todd has a prosthetic leg. The first time Todd attempted Cholla Trail, he was fit enough, but unable to manage the trail due to not realizing how big some of the step-ups were with his prosthetic leg. He was so cool about this and I have a picture of the leg kicking my ass on the trail.

Todd made it a personal goal to come back to Arizona and hike up Cholla and down Echo Canyon, and sure as hell, that is exactly what we did.

I was so proud of what Todd accomplished because he trained his weight specifically to do this hike in a prosthetic leg.

We laughed, we cried, we had some serious moments and Todd even took a small spill, but at the end of the day, it was one of the most epic moments I have ever experienced in my entire life.

There also was a year when I dressed up as The Grinch – complete with full-on green onesie and face makeup -- and hiked to the top of Camelback on Christmas Day with guests.

After 3 hours of climbing, taking breaks and waiting at the rails, we finally made it to the summit where I encountered Camelback Santa for the first time. That is one moment I will always cherish. I bet I was in at least 25 different pictures and that was super fun.

Or there was the time Epic Ellen and I hiked three girls to the top to visit that same iconic Christmas fixture in the city of Phoenix.

Except for 2020 because of the pandemic, Camelback Santa and the Grinch are on the top of Camelback a few weekends in December and leading up to the holidays, handing out candy canes and coal to people who are naughty and nice.

There is a whole team behind Camelback Santa, who help with fundraising and other do-gooder efforts, as well as hike up the mountain a Christmas tree with bird seed ornaments to make sure that the holidays are celebrated on top of the most iconic landmark in all The Valley.

Over the years, the Wild Bunch Desert Guides has done its share of celebrating after helping guests who wanted to give up and quit on Camelback. But our guides somehow cheered them on and got them to the top to enjoy the unforgettable 360-degree panoramic views. Bringing those guests down was an even bigger feat, as they thought they never could do it, so it is satisfying and gratifying every time I think about helping get them there safely.

But please understand: This is not Everest and the Wild Bunch are not Sherpas. We can not carry guests on our backs to the top. So, I recommend any considering a guided Camelback Mountain hike to look hard at themselves in the mirror, because you should absolutely know that you can physically handle an extremely difficult challenge.

There are NO REFUNDS if you are unable to reach the summit or complete the hike.

A memorable Christmas celebration on the summit of a Camelback Mountain hiking tour.

Cliff’s Notes for Camelback Mountain Hiking

As my favorite Park Ranger Mark Sirota recommends, Camelback Mountain visitors simply need a little preparation so they can avoid the possible pratfalls.

For instance, remember the air is dry here and there is elevation gain, so hydrate appropriately before attempting a Camelback hike. And bring water because you will need to keep drinking, whether or not the temperature reaches triple digits the day of your journey.

Fuel up. Eat a little something before you get to the trail. It is a long morning when tackling Camelback and – SPOILER ALERT -- there are no coffee shops to stop in on the way up or back.

Hiking shoes or boots or shoes with tread are a damn good idea. Please do not wear shoes with a flat bottom with zero tread. I also love a good pair of Chuck Taylors or checkered Vans – but they are NOT ideal for Camelback, though.

Hike early to beat the traffic and the heat. Avoid mid-day hours when temperatures are the hottest. And do not forget the sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat to shelter your head from the sun and a loose cotton shirt to help keep you cool.

And, seriously, please do not think you are special and can get parking with your Jedi-Mind tricks. You will be so pissed if you do not get in the lot and must sit and wait, or you must park far enough away you have a serious hike on your hands before your Camelback hike.

Or, leave all these worries to the Wild Bunch Desert Guides. I sweat all the details with our guests during the booking process. Just please do not think I am crazy when explaining the many logistical nightmares and perhaps advising you to hike elsewhere..

Because of the extra challenges added by the pandemic, the Wild Bunch just re-started offering a Camelback hike on our website.

The only option right now is a half-day hike at Echo Canyon. That includes a backpack to borrow, extra water, snacks, and a guide with a strict 4-hour cut-off time.

The only start time we have available until June 1 is 8 a.m. at the latest. And I am open to negotiating for an earlier meeting time at the designated resort location, but I am unwilling to allow anyone to start after 8 a.m. for the many reasons stated.

Also, be aware that we are having guests park at a local resort, which adds an extra mile on the front and back end of the hike. As I described to you earlier in the blog, parking is a complete total nightmare.

Have I lost some business over the years because I am totally transparent and brutally honest about guided Camelback Mountain hiking tours? Absolutely.

Have I had people call me back later with regrets and admit I was right? Damn straight I have.

Have I refunded anyone's money for only making it less than half the way up? Nope. Sorry. I warned you.

The Wild Bunch Desert Guides certainly welcome you to book a guided Camelback Mountain hike with us, but I am never sorry for telling the absolute truth and making sure guests know what they are getting themselves into.

About the Author

Laurel Darren is the founding owner of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, a 5-star rated adventure tour company that offers guided hiking tours and guided mountain biking tours in Arizona’s picturesque Sonoran Desert in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. Arriving in the legendary “Valley of the Sun” in 2012 -- from the home of John Deere in the Quad Cities of Eastern Iowa/Western Illinois -- this corn-fed Midwest girl brought 30 years of athletic chops under her chaps. A 3-sport high school standout and former college softball player – who won her conference’s Athlete of the Year award as a prep senior – Darren has graduated to competing in many races as an adult, from road running and cycling, to cyclo-cross and Mountain Bikes, and even Duathlon and Triathlon “Ironman” competitions. Darren was a popular, top-rated senior mountain bike guide at Arizona’s Outback Adventures before branching out to start her own small adventure business in 2016. To book a guided mountain bike tour or guided hiking trip – or a combination of the two adventures – please visit the home page or call 602-663-0842.


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