Phoenix hiking tours on Santa’s ‘Nice List’

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • December 24, 2023

Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner Laurel Darren (center) is colorfully dressed for the holidays in this picture with guests on the summit of Camelback Mountain.

Perhaps I was an obvious target because I am perky and positive -- whether guiding one of the Phoenix hiking tours for my small business or traversing Camelback Mountain by myself, or with in-town pals or out-of-town friends visiting for the holidays.

Or maybe I was the comedic foil because I was dressed for the holiday season in all sorts of character and color combinations – which was a sure sign of a kindred spirit in on the joke.

Admittedly, I also am a tad LOUD sometimes -- SOMETIMES? I can hear my dearest friends laugh with an eye roll -- so my any protests and pleadings simply played perfectly into an always funny moment.

But whatever the reason, the do-gooder volunteering to greet holiday visitors to the summit of our local landmark as Camelback Santa annually rewarded my yuletide pilgrimage to the top with a lump of coal.

It always made for a laugh-out-loud moment – everybody getting a candy cane except the crazy lady with the big smiles, high energy and colorful outfits.

Until this year.


A candy cane signified my departure from the “Naughty List.”

How I graduated to the “Nice List” this time is both a Christmas miracle and holiday tale worth hearing.

Wild Bunch owner Laurel Darren used to always receive coal as a joke from Camelback Santa.

Wild Bunch owner Laurel Darren used to always receive coal as a joke from Camelback Santa.

Ho-Ho-Holiday hiking tours Phoenix
For the last 13 years, Camelback Santa has been a holiday fixture in the Valley of the Sun – helping spread yuletide cheer by posing for pictures while handing out his diametrically opposed stocking stuffers.

John Cressey is Santa’s real name, and his “real” job is working in the supply chain & logistics industry. He also helps out my buddy Matt Kalina’s Mad Desert Trekking as a Phoenix hiking tours guide, as well as guides for a food tour outfit in Old Scottsdale.

Since moving to the area from his native upstate New York, John also has become part of the extremely dedicated community of Camelback Mountain hiking enthusiasts. Among their good works are voluntarily picking up garbage left on the trails to keep them nice and helping visitors with everything from emergencies to encouragement.

This devoted group has engendered a supportive atmosphere on the local landmark where everyone feels like a team, and so people are helping each other and rooting each other on during a physically difficult challenge.

Prior to Camelback Santa’s first appearance, these incredible people also banded together during the holidays to haul up and maintain a bird-seed ornament Christmas tree at the top of the local tourist attraction.

John took the festive effort a step farther in 2010 after wearing a Santa suit to a Halloween costume party in Las Vegas.

On the drive home, John reflected on having such a great time and receiving such an amazing reaction from partygoers wanting pictures with the guy in the red suit -- and upon seeing the mountain, the idea clicked in his head: “What if we paired a Camelback Santa with the Christmas tree every year around the holidays?”

John also added a charitable mission to his madness – shining a light on the St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance.

He urges everyone who comes into contact with Camelback Santa to donate to the charity by simply saying, if you appreciate what I do, please give a little something for those in need.

There is much to admire in John’s effort with him donating more than his personal time to the cause. Rather than accept sponsors, John annually purchases with his own money thousands and thousands of candy canes at a bulk discount from a local grocery store.

John now dons the Santa suit to pull voluntary duty each weekend between Thanksgiving and New Year’s – from 8 a.m. to late afternoon when he has to depart to exit the mountain in time before dark as the park rules require. He also adds 4-5 more days the week leading into Christmas.

His fellow Camelback Mountain enthusiasts are right there with him – elves he calls them – some straight from the workshop such as Jingle, Twinkle or Alabaster Snowball. Others Christmas characters are represented by costumes, too, such as Mrs. Claus, the Whos from Whoville and The Grinch.

In fact, as part of the comical theater, The Grinch occasionally steals the Christmas tree to throw it over the side of the mountain, which requires the elves to scramble after it for retrieval.

Anything can happen on any given day when Camelback Santa is atop the mountain.

Which leads into how this guided Phoenix hiking tours owner graduated on to this year’s “Nice List.”

Wild Bunch owner Laurel Darren poses with Mrs. Claus atop Camelback Mountain.

Wild Bunch owner Laurel Darren poses with Mrs. Claus atop Camelback Mountain.?

Spirit of Rudolph guides Phoenix hiking tours
I heard through the grapevine that Camelback Santa needed some help to cover some volunteer shifts to be his official photographer. The job entails taking a hiker’s cellphone to snap that once-in-a-lifetime picture with Santa at the summit.

Easy peasy, I thought.

Besides keeping guests safe while showing them the beauty of our Sonoran Desert, my Wild Bunch Desert Guides take all sorts of memorable pictures for them on each of our five-star rated Phoenix hiking tours & Phoenix mountain bike tours.

However, for those that don’t know, I do have a complicated relationship with Camelback Mountain.

One of the first blogs for my new website detailed this love/hate connection.

I ultimately decided to scrap Camelback Mountain hiking tours from the menu of my small mom-and-pop specialty shop – preferring instead to refer that portion of the business to my longtime loyal and former guide Matt and his Mad Desert Trekking -- rather than deal with the daily headaches associated with our local tourist trap.

And I don’t regret that choice even though it would be beneficial to offer Camelback hiking tours again on a limited basis during the holidays because there are so many visitors coming to town wanting to experience the iconic adventure.

Also, while I hate to admit it, I have had several Camelback highlights since pulling the plug – including an unexpected Christmas gift detailed in this Blog.

I also occasionally forget why I hate Camelback to go up with friends – both those from in and out of town. The challenge is simply a lot easier and less stressful when done for fun.

The reality is Camelback is like the mafia for me – every time you think you are out, as Michael Corleone laments in Godfather 3, it pulls you back in.

So, helping Camelback Santa was another great reason to get back on that Camel.

Phoenix hiking tours for a picture-perfect holiday
Because every local media outlet does a story during the holidays – and Camelback Santa is even mentioned annually now on the Visit Phoenix website – many people are aware he is up there.

Some even make it a point to hike the mountain during the holiday weekends just to see him – like an annual pilgrimage to a shopping center or mall Santa.

But during my two-hour shift as the official photographer, I was struck by how many hikers still are caught off guard, which makes for a great surprise when they reach the summit for their arm-raising, I-did-it, “Rocky” moment to go, “OMG! There is a tree and a Santa up here? HOW COOL!!!

To say Camelback Santa is popular is an understatement. I bet I took over 100 pictures of him posing with hikers during my two hours by his side.

Besides the pictures, coal and candy canes, John has helped facilitate countless engagements over the years as well as offered a friendly ear for numerous Christmas wishes.

I suspect visitors to the mountain still would wear holiday gear in the spirit of the season, but the appearance of Camelback Santa and all of those elves adds so much good cheer, it makes the experience so much more memorable and exponentially better.

I know I always dress in the spirit of the season during holiday hiking. But this time, believe it or not, I showed some restraint and was pretty lowkey for once. I simply wore my candy cane socks. I didn't dress up more than that because this day for me was all about Camelback Santa.

I know I was honored to have a small part spreading holiday cheer. I was only shooting pictures, but people were so grateful.

It was such a nice moment and really reminded me of the warm feelings we should all be feeling at this time of year. It breaks my heart to think of people down, depressed and stressed during the holidays. Giving a gift makes you and the receiver both feel good. And here we are also giving back to charity and affecting so many other lives.

So, my heart is full this holiday season.

I was equally thankful to get an invite with my boyfriend Brett to join Camelback Santa for drinks to get to know John better after our day was finished.

It is such a pleasure to find out why people do what they do and learn what makes them tick.

John is such a great guy and we connected on so many levels – from Phoenix hiking tours to small mom-and-pop specialty shops such as my Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

I also discovered his mom passed away from dementia – which is the same demon I am struggling to manage with my own mother these days. I believe the universe brings people together for a reason, so that was a really cool connection to make.

It was quite the experience to be up there helping Camelback Santa – but it was even more epic getting to spend some time getting to know him better.

I am going to hike Camelback again when my friend Justin visits from Colorado – and hopefully I will get another candy cane (ha).

I should make this very clear: This Blog is not a call for action – save for donating to the St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance.

Camelback Santa is not actively recruiting more and more people to aid in the effort to spread joy and holiday spirit in our little corner of paradise.

Instead, my Christmas wish would be to see others inspired by Camelback Santa to give back to their communities in any way possible – and the selfless act of generosity neither needs to be as elaborate nor restricted to the holidays.

Doing something special for those around you helps make this world a better place for all of us. And certainly, we can all use more candy canes and smiles in our lives.

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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