Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Camelback Mountain's Echo Canyon Trail is Open for Hiking! (Well, Three-Quarters of It, and You First Have to Climb Cholla Trail to the Summit)

If you want to have Echo Canyon Trail all to yourself, there's no better time than now.

The trail isn't closed like you may have heard. As usual, the news media steered you wrong. Most of Echo Canyon is open. The catch is that you have to hike to the summit via Cholla Trail to access Echo Canyon.

It's worth it. Echo Canyon is never this depopulated without heavy rain or intense heat. A couple of weeks ago on a Saturday morning, I saw just five people on the trail at 7 a.m. when it was only 73 degrees. Last weekend, on June 8, I saw one woman on the trail during my entire down-and-up hike. I doubt many more came after us, not with the temperature rising so quickly.

Besides the solitude to be found amid the gorgeous, craggy vistas, the lack of people adds to the adventure factor. Echo Canyon always provides a potential for danger. For the solo hiker, an empty Echo Canyon becomes something akin to trails in more remote areas, where beautiful landscapes mask the potential for big trouble. Though you're never from nearby houses or the summit, as the crow flies, with all the mini-canyons and cliffs, plus my overactive imagination, I definitely got a "in-space-no-one-can-hear-you-scream" feeling. No head-to-rock contact, compound fractures or heat-related seizures allowed, not when it might be many minutes, if not hours, before help arrives.

The experienced Camelback hiker will notice that the trail has subtle clues of abandonment: extra gravel in some spots, weeds poking up where before they would have been trampled. So cool. And the workout is phenomenal, of course, with its two Camelback summits. A very solid, tough, scenic hike.

Lack of preparation is one reason the west side of the mountain isn't seeing many visitors despite a sign at the top telling people the upper three-quarters is open. The first time I hiked Cholla since Echo closed, I contemplated going down the other side but ruled it out because I didn't have the time or water. That's clearly the case for many Cholla hikers who might otherwise descend Echo Canyon and re-ascend the mountain.

Going up both sides of Camelback is one of my favorite ways to hike the mountain. Typically, I start from the Echo Canyon side, but I've have started from Cholla as well. It's a long hike, though. Cholla's 2.8 miles round-trip, and Echo is 2.4 -- so, 5.2 miles with 2,400 feet of vertical. I take anywhere from two-and-a-half to three hours to complete what I call the "Full Tour." (Less time with the currently shortened Echo Canyon trail.) I bring two one-liter Nalgene bottles packed with ice and water when it's warm or hot. An inexperienced, out-of-shape hiker might take twice as long.

The turnaround point is an ugly fence at the top of the steep handrail section. I was shocked at the sight of it. How dare they fence me out! Just till the fall, I kept telling myself.

How did everyone come to believe that all of Echo Canyon trail was closed? That's what the news media reported. I inadvertently spread some of the misinformation. But don't blame me and my ilk too harshly.  City officials told us the whole trail would be closed. It also says on the city's website that the "Trailhead and Summit Trail are closed through fall."

I'd been avoiding Camelback since the Echo Canyon closure, hitting the McDowells and South Mountain more often in its place. I love Cholla, but when it's crowded, it's too narrow for my liking. Worse than Piestewa Peak. But now with most of Echo open again, I've added C-back back into the mix, which is a great thing. Having missed it for a while and done trails nearly as steep, such as the east-side Tom's Thumb trail, which has a lot of switchbacks, I still believe Echo Canyon beats everything in the Valley in an effort-per-meter contest, not to mention the fact that it's the prettiest little red mountain outside of Sedona.




Cholla Trail in the morning.

Echo Canyon Trail, about 7 a.m., at 73 degrees on a Saturday -- and no one's here.



End of the line -- for now.

Smart water, dumb people.


I picked up about 20 empty water bottles in my last two Cholla hikes. Part of the reason trash accumulates on Cholla rather than Echo Canyon is the chossy down-slopes right off the trail. Easy for the occasional idiot to chuck a bottle, but tough for someone to clean up. When I have time, I enjoy the opportunity to down-climb those slopes, looking for solid rock to step on and being careful to avoid loose boulders and what look like cryptobiotic soil crusts.
  

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