Summit Trail

Photo: Camelback Mountain’s Summit Trail is one of the most popular in the Phoenix area and climbs more than 1,200 feet in 1.2 miles. | Suzanne Mathia
City of Phoenix
By Robert Stieve

It’s true, climbing Camelback can be frustrating. The parking is a nightmare, too many hikers wear too much perfume, and the single-file line can feel like the queue at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Nevertheless, this trail is a must. It leads to the highest point in metro Phoenix. It’s an iconic landmark that can be seen from the window seats of approaching 747s. And it’s only 1.2 miles to the top. It’s short, but in that short distance it climbs more than 1,200 feet. Factor in the sunshine and the thermometer, and it’ll make anybody work up a sweat.

Like a lot of mountains, there’s more than one way to the top of Camelback. In this case, there are two: 1) the Cholla Trail, which approaches from the east, and 2) the Summit Trail (a.k.a. the Echo Canyon Trail), which approaches from the west. The latter is the most popular, and if you’re only going up once, this is the route to take.

It begins at Echo Canyon Park, which has very limited parking. From the trailhead, the hike immediately begins an uphill climb that won’t let up until you’re on your way back down. After a series of long steps, the trail winds around an enormous boulder, about the size of a Dairy Queen, which is used by novice rock-climbers as a training site. About 15 minutes later, you’ll come to a small saddle that offers great views of Paradise Valley below and the Praying Monk rock formation above.
From the saddle, the trail continues southward to another series of steps, which are followed by a set of handrails that help guide hikers up a steep series of boulders. There’s a final set of handrails before the trail tops out on the nape of the camel’s neck and winds to a narrow gully. From this point forward, there’s not an actual trail. You simply make your way over and around the many boulders that dominate the terrain all the way to the summit.

At the crown of the gully, views to the south open up — you can see downtown Phoenix and beyond. This is a good place to catch your breath and gear up for the hike’s most strenuous stretch, which is another field of boulders, similar to what you’ll have conquered in the gully. This gantlet, however, is much longer and much more difficult. Not only will you be trying to catch your breath, you’ll be dodging the downhill hikers who are gingerly skipping from rock to rock, just hoping to maintain their footing. In terms of balance, going up is easier than going down, but you won’t appreciate that while you’re trudging up and gasping for breath.

Eventually, you’ll come to another saddle, the third in all. Although your mind will trick you into thinking you’re at the top, you’re not. This is what’s known as Camelback’s false peak. Say a few choice words if you must, but keep on trekking. The true summit is just a few minutes away. When you reach the peak, you’ll be surrounded by exasperated hikers — because the summit is relatively flat and comfortably wide, people tend to hang out up there for a while, catching their breath, eating Mojo bars and taking in the 360-degree panorama. If you look in their faces, you’ll see that most of the hikers are feeling a sense of accomplishment, and justifiably so. After enduring the parking, the perfume and the mass of people, they’ve certainly earned it.

Trail Guide

Length: 2.4 miles round-trip
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation: 1,476 to 2,704 feet
Trailhead GPS: N 33˚31.287’, W 111˚58.417’
Directions: In Phoenix, go north on 44th Street to its intersection with Tatum Boulevard and McDonald Drive. Go right on McDonald Drive for one block and turn right onto Echo Canyon Parkway, which leads to the trailhead parking. The parking area is open sunrise to sunset, and parking is extremely limited.
Vehicle Requirements: None
Dogs Allowed: No
Horses Allowed: No
USGS Map: Paradise Valley
Information: City of Phoenix, 602-262-6862