Suggested Prereading: A Hybrid Trip to Phoenix, Arizona
A recent trip to the Arizona capital gave me the opportunity to hike several urban mountain trails. Below are my takeaways. My hope is that you can use this information the next time you find yourself in Phoenix with an urge to get your Edmund Hillary on.
Day 1: Camelback Mountain via Echo Canyon Trail
Summarizing Phrase: Bustling Bouldering
Trail Type: Currently out-and-back, but someday the Cholla trail to the summit will reopen and then it could be a point-to-point.
Description: If you enjoy bouldering and don’t mind a heart-pounding workout on steep grades, this is the route for you. Reasonably centrally located within the greater Phoenix area (a mile’s walk from Mountain Shadows where we were staying and 20 minutes by car from downtown) and offering the highest natural viewpoint in the area, you’re probably not going to be able to escape the crowds. Sometimes that’s damn annoying, but here it added to the sense of camaraderie.
Because of the occasional hand rails, Zion’s Angels’ Landing comes to mind, but the Echo Canyon Trail doesn’t have the precipitous drop-offs and deadly exposure, so it’s not the most apt comparison.
Stats: 50 minutes up, 60 minutes down
Worth repeating? I did repeat it—just as soon as the husband arrived in Phoenix. It was even more fun the second time around. Take II, though, had some extra bonuses. Not only did I have a hiking companion, I also had super-collapsible carbon fiber hiking poles that the husband surprised me with when he arrived. Further, we ran into some L.A. Dodgers who were hiking the route as a team-building exercise and we had some friendly chit-chat with two Chicagoland women we met at the top and down-climbed with.
Hiking Poles? Unless they’re collapsed and stowed, they’re just going to get in your way going up, but on the way down they were very welcome.
Day 2: Piestewa Peak Summit Trail in Phoenix Mountains Preserve
Summarizing Phrase: Ugh, my knees.
Trail Type: Out-and-back, but there are so many trails here you could make it a lollipop hike or a point-to-point.
Description: Like Camelback, this route is described as a “heavily trafficked out-and-back trail.” I did it on a Monday morning, so though I wasn’t alone, it was far from heaving. Also like Camelback, it’s classified as an “extremely difficult double black diamond” hike, which again, I dispute for any fit and experienced hiker.
The most noteworthy thing about this hike was the trail terrain. Not a flat surface anywhere—a total patella-buster.
Stats: 50 minutes up, 50 minutes down
Worth repeating? I did repeat it . . . with the husband. This time it was a Saturday morning and the trail was very busy. Annoyingly so? Yeah, at times, but still fun.
Hiking Poles? If you’ve got ’em, bring ’em. Your knees will thank you, especially on that down climb.
Day 3: Pinnacle Peak Trail in Pinnacle Peak Park
Summarizing Phrase: Wait—am I in Vail?
Trail Type: I treated it as an out-and-back, but since the turnaround point is the opposite trailhead, you could view it as a point-to-point . . . to-point.
Description: Requiring a 20-mile drive northeast of our resort in Paradise Valley, the Pinnacle Peak Trail wasn’t heaving with tourists the way Piestewa and Camelback were. Rather, based on observation and unintentional eavesdropping (and yes, I’m judging a park brochure by its cover here), it seemed more populated with wealthy local retirees and beautiful, trim soccer moms hiking with their equally fit bestie from spin class (the kids were with the nanny, naturally).
This was the most “Vailesque” of all my hikes. (If you’re a regular podcast listener, you know that by Vailesque I mean stunningly gorgeous in an artificial, contrived way.) You can’t actually hike to the pinnacle, only skirt it. (Like a Ming vase at an art museum, you can look but not touch.) Pinnacle Peak Park had certain features that weren’t available (or weren’t as nice) at the other parks:
- Nice facilities and useful, safety-minded signage at the trailhead. And no joke—even the bathrooms smelled perfumed.
- a consistently smooth, wide, flat trail surface
- a commitment to keeping trail runners in line
- simple but aesthetically pleasing barriers made of trendy rebar to keep people on the path
- regular mileage markers, occasional seating along the trail, and attractive, educational signage pertaining to the local flora and fauna
Stats: I didn’t record my splits, but it was 1’40 total hike time (including lots of stops to admire the signs, seats, and barriers).
Worth repeating? I suppose. By the time I return they’ll probably be offering mid-trail cappuccinos . . . and mani-pedis.
Hiking poles? If you’re very attached to your poles, they won’t hurt, but you don’t really need them.
Day 4: National Trail (Trail 44), North Mountain Park
Summarizing Phrase: Gritty, Not Pretty
Description: What a difference a day (and a zip code) makes. Located in a more run-down part of Phoenix, the park had a hiking experience to match. Everything ritzy Pinnacle Peak Park had, North Mountain lacked. It started with a labyrinth of different parking lots connected by twisty roads. I had a hard time knowing which lot to park in, and signage for the National Trail (aka Trail 44) was not obvious. The trail starts at one parking lot and ends at another. As such, I ended up hiking the trail counterclockwise, which was a mistake.
The descent again resembled Piestewa and was tough on the knees, but at least it felt more parklike.
Emerging into a parking lot that was different from the one I parked in and seeing that the entire hike had taken only 35 minutes, I decided to turn around and hike it clockwise, which turned out to be a better way to approach this hike.
- counterclockwise—10 minutes up, 25 minutes down
- clockwise—25 minutes up (and a much better workout), 15 minutes down
Worth repeating: not when there are so many better hikes nearby
Hiking Poles? I didn’t have them at the time, but they would have been useful in both directions, except on the pavement, of course.
Have you hiked in Phoenix? Would you hike in Phoenix?