Last week, during my school’s spring break my dad and I got the chance to fly out to Arizona to visit my grandparents. I had the idea for the trip about a month ago, and circumstances seemed to fall into place to allow us to get some plane tickets and quickly plan the trip. My dad pretty much left our itinerary up to me, which meant that I had plenty of lofty aspirations for hiking during the four-day stay.
Of course, many of those hikes were in the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, March is apparently a precarious time to plan a trip to the Grand Canyon. It would have been a three hour drive from where we stayed, and roads were reportedly unsafe and washed out from an unusually rainy winter. All these factors limited us to hikes that were a bit closer to the Phoenix area. While I definitely want to get to the Grand Canyon (especially to see Havasu Falls) sometime soon, the adjustment did not turn out to be much of a loss at all.
We focused on two major hikes during our stay, the first being Camelback Mountain. Since we were staying just outside of Pheonix, it was only about a 30 minute drive to either of the two trails up Camelback, and we figured we might as well do it. It wasn’t until I started looking further into trail information that I realized this wasn’t a venture to take lightly.
The two options for climbing Camelback are Cholla trail and Echo Canyon trail. Both are under three miles round trip, but rated “extremely difficult” on several hiking websites. I started to get a little nervous when I saw this, but Dad said he was up for anything, so the next morning we left the house before 7 AM and made our way to the Echo Canyon trailhead. We chose this one despite Cholla being called “slightly easier” because Echo Canyon had a designated parking lot.
Immediately, it became clear that the “extremely difficult” designation was not to be discounted. As we got out of the car, the mountains stood dauntingly above us, unrelenting red rock casting shadows over the canyon. We took a picture of the trail map, made sure we had plenty of water, and set off, a bit nervous but very excited.
The hike begins with a steep but manageable section of rocky trail leading around to the side of the mountain, where the real challenge begins. As we looked ahead, we saw a lengthy incline of rock, too steep to traverse upright. Luckily, there is a railing in the center of the trail assisting those ascending and descending.
I saw a few people making the climb without the assistance of the railing, but considering that I’d never attempted a hike like this before, I stuck close to it and focused on placing my feet carefully.
Progress was slow and the climb was exhausting, but we eventually made it past that section and towards one with a chainlink fence alongside it to assist in balancing on the way up.
After this, the trail paused at a beautiful lookout to one side of the mountain. We paused to rest here and snap some pictures.
The remainder of the hike was slow and challenging as well. Sections of upright walking were few and far between, and the trail was comprised primarily of steep stretches of rock that we sort of half-climbed, half hiked. We encountered novice and experienced hikers of all ages as we approached the top, all of whom assured us that we were nearly there.
When we finally reached the peak, we were glad for the cool breeze whipping around the rocks, for the day had already grown hot by about 8:30. The landscape opened up around us, exposing miles of rock and fields and towns.
For anyone looking to do this hike or the Cholla trail, I’d advise you first to start early. Beginning by 7 AM would probably be ideal, because once the sun is directly on you, the difficulty increases and fatigue comes much faster. To the same point, bring lots of water, more than you think you’ll need. Signs at the trailhead also warn hikers to turn around before half their water is gone.
Second, check weather conditions. The peak temperature during our hike was probably about 70 degrees. I wouldn’t want to have faced anything higher. The spring, summer, and early fall months are considered off-season for these trails for a reason. Also be aware of rain, though. If there’s a decent change of rain, I would save this hike for another day. The rocky terrain is difficult enough dry. I wouldn’t take the risk of scaling wet stone or facing intense wind at that height.
Third, don’t go on an empty stomach, but don’t eat a heavy meal beforehand either. Bring a few snacks and be prepared to break and refuel if needed. We didn’t end up needing more than water on our trip, but you certainly don’t want to end up lightheaded or with low blood sugar on this hike.
And finally, when you’re done, I recommend Scramble for a post-hike meal. It’s only about a ten minute drive from the Echo Canyon trailhead, and serves up a variety of delicious breakfast and lunch options, as well as smoothies and coffee drinks. The best part is that it’s quick and everything on the menu is locally sourced.
The other major hike we did was in Tonto National Forest. There are quite a few different trails in this area, which isn’t far from Apache Junction, but we ended up aiming for the Pass Mountain Tail to Cat’s Peak.
The trailhead here is not as clearly marked. There is no building or information center, just a sign and a small dirt parking lot.
I was tracking our location on the AllTrails app, so we started out without issue, but found ourselves unable to follow the intended path. It seemed to drop right into a ravine and magically reemerge on the other side. We learned much later that this was indeed the case, but that there was a path down to the ravine. Since we couldn’t figure this one out and didn’t want to go off the path, we followed another clearly marked trail, the name of which I can’t seem to track down.
It was an out-and-back, probably about two miles each way. It began as a dirt path that snaked through shrubs and cacti, but as it got further up the mountain, turned into a loose rock trail and became much steeper. The scenery was beautiful, especially on an overcast day as it was. This trail was not nearly as challenging as Echo Canyon, but definitely still got my heartrate going, especially toward the top.
The final lookout and turnaround point was between two peaks, so that the mountains jutted into the sky on either side of us, but there was sufficient flat space to accommodate a fire pit. The layout allowed us to take in the view on both sides of the mountain, which was beautiful.
This hike did not feel particularly desert-like. It was cool and overcast and slightly humid, but absolutely beautiful. I actually recommend going on an overcast day if possible, because there is no shade on the trail. I also advise tough-soled shoes, because walking over lose rock on soft-soled or weak shoes would be pretty painful after a while.
When you’re finished in Tonto, you can do what we did and stop in on the nearby Goldfield ghost town and take a ride on their zipline. The cost is only $12 a person and the view of the Superstition Mountains from the top is spectacular. There are lots of other things to do there, but the weather sent us away before we could explore more.
BONUS: I wouldn’t quite call this a hike, but Papago Park in Tempe, Arizona, is home to the famous rock formation that provides a great lookout over the town. It’s just a 0.3 mile walk from the upper parking area to the rock, so its worth a short stop if you’re into great views but don’t have time for a full out hike.