The new Echo Canyon Trail alignment at Camelback Mountain will add another quarter mile to the popular Phoenix summit climb, easing an erosion-causing steep grade near the start.
The renovation is just part of a $3 million project by the city of Phoenix that will be closing the trail and trailhead near McDonald Drive and Tatum Boulevard from Monday, January 28, until sometime in the fall. It's a long overdue makeover for one of the region's most visited outdoor-recreation spots. Phoenix's beloved mountain park has suffered in recent years from traffic jams in its tiny parking lot and the pounding of millions of footsteps on its rocky flanks.
Cholla Trail, the narrower, more obscure summit trail on Camelback's eastern side, will remain open.
See also: - Echo Canyon Trail and Trailhead at Camelback Mountain to Close January 28 for Renovations - Camelback Mountain Parking Options Considered by Phoenix Include No Parking Lot at Echo Canyon Trailhead
For the next few months, workers will build two new entranceways into Echo Canyon: one for residents of a nearby housing community, and one for park visitors. The new parking lot will have 132 spaces, up from 68. And no more disgusting porta-johns -- hikers will finally be able to use a real toilet before tackling the hill.
All this goodness comes with a price, (besides the three mil). The main sacrifice for park users will be the trail and park itself, but that'll just be temporary. Regulars like us will have to get used to a whole new trail, if only for the first half-mile.
New Times obtained a draft copy of the alignment (see below) before taking a conference call with several Phoenix officials for this article.
The trail alignment and decision to close the trail for so long raises questions in our uber-hiker's brain, and perhaps in yours, too. We chatted with: Jarod Rogers, landscape architect and trails coordinator, Chris Ewell, landscape architect, Tim Merritt, parks supervisor, Ken Vonderscher, deputy director and David Urbinato, parks and recreation spokesman.
As you can see in the draft provided by the city, the alignment up to the saddle at the north end of the Headwall is almost entirely new. Officials say that represents the bulk of the Echo Canyon trail renovations; two other short sections will be changed.
Right now it's about a quarter-mile from the trailhead to the saddle, and officials say that's too steep. Water runs down forcefully, carrying debris loosed by the boots of hikers. The effects of erosion can be seen clearly on the dirt around the railroad ties placed along the trail in a previous maintenance project.
The new alignment increases the length of that section to a half-mile. All of the wooden steps will be removed, making for a step-free trail up to the saddle. Rogers says the trail to the saddle will be "cross-slope, so water goes off the trail rather than rushing straight down."
"It will still be steep," he promises. "You still have to get up to that elevation."
True, but that does change the lung-bursting ratio of the summit climb. Echo Canyon Trail now gains about 1,200 feet in 1.2 miles. After the renovation, it will gain the same amount in about 1.45 miles. That puts it closer to the distance of Cholla Trail, which is noticeably less steep than Echo Canyon as it gains 1,200 feet in 1.6 miles. Both trails are still considered "extremely difficult" by the city of Phoenix, so we're not talking about a major difference. But Camelback's frequent fliers will feel the change.
The draft alignment also shows that the new trail makes a large impact on what was previously an undeveloped area of the 57-acre Echo Canyon park, (the entire mountain park is about 361 acres). Revegetation is planned for the old trail, which looks like it could impact access to some bouldering areas.
The "trade-off" for the new alignment, says Vonderscher, "is we have to go through a basically untouched area."
We wondered why, if most of the new alignment was different, couldn't the old trail remain open during the work. We've been to other popular trails in the country that were being renovated, but weren't closed.
"We're basically removing anyplace to park at all," Ewell answers. "And the whole site, where you would normally get to the trail, is going to be under construction... The whole area is going to be demolished. There's no good way to get somebody through there safely."
The construction period is expected to last six to nine months. Public hearings preceded the plans, which were vetted through the city's parks and recreation board. Officials believe the public is well-prepared for the closure.
"This has been a couple-year process," Merritt says. "It's such a congested area."
Officials know the new lot won't solve all the congestion problems.
From our experience, a parking spot still won't be assured on good-weather days. That could lead to the same circle-the-lot game that's been going on for years.
The city will likely continue to staff the trailhead with rangers: "We want to have some kind of presence there," Merritt says. But the new facility "will take a lot of pressure off."
Other factoids about the renovation:
Besides the trail's beginning portion, engineers have identified two 100-foot sections of trail further up toward the summit that will be repaired. If those improvements are seen to be beneficial, the changes could be expanded to other parts of the trail.
No new handrails or fences will be part of the project.
Some new signs will be installed. A sign at the aforementioned saddle will warn people of the difficulty of the trail ahead.
"They'll understand what they're getting into," says Vonderscher. The sign may contain "additional interpretation" to help hikers who want to turn around at that point feel like they've achieved something, he says.
The officials tell us that rock climbers and even BASE jumpers who find their way onto various cliffs in the park might not be hassled during the closure. (Climbing has a long history at Camelback, going back at least to the 1940s.)
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But after the conference call, we visited the park to hike the trail a couple of times before the closure and got a different story from a ranger. We were told that anyone caught on the west side of Camelback Mountain during the construction period could be arrested, and that the construction crews have been told to call the police if they see anyone out there.
Someone will push their luck, no doubt. We won't -- we'll be patient and wait for our favorite trail to re-open this fall. Or maybe it'll be late summer, if we're lucky -- we like it sweaty.
It won't be the same trail -- not exactly.
But we'll love it just the same.