The Phoenix Parks and Recreation department declines to provide any timeline for when Camelback Mountain's popular Cholla Trail will reopen, but says plans to relocate the trailhead could be finalized in a few months.
If those plans come to fruition, Cholla Trail will feature a bathroom and water fountain for the first time. The trail might also need to be renamed, as it'll have nothing to do with Cholla Lane anymore.
Camelback, the 2,704-foot-high mountain in east Phoenix, sees about a half-million summits a year by hordes of hikers, from out-of-shape hotel guests who end up needing a mountain rescue to local fanatics who run up and down multiple times each day. The two summit trails, Cholla and Echo Canyon, gain about 1,200 feet of elevation over 1.5 rugged miles.
Hiking trails across the Valley have generally been open during the pandemic. Yet to the consternation of many hikers, Cholla's been closed for maintenance since March, following a mishap in which a man was pinned by a 300-pound boulder that rolled onto his legs. Firefighters used special equipment to free him before taking him to a hospital for "extensive lower leg injuries." The entire trail is closed, with signage near the top telling people not to hike down the east side of the mountain.
Gregg Bach, Parks and Recreation spokesperson, said on November 13 that repairs on the trail are ongoing and that no reopening date has been determined.
The closure has been welcome news for some neighbors of Cholla Trail's trailhead, for the time being. Located just west of Invergordon Road off Cholla Lane, it's a primitive facility marked by signage, a bike rack, and a couple of garbage cans tucked in the middle of one of the priciest neighborhoods in metro Phoenix. Owners of the surrounding mansions have been trying for decades to close the trailhead because of concerns over automobile and pedestrian traffic, lack of bathrooms, trash, and potential crime.
A solution for the neighbors appeared after Host Hotels and Resorts bought The Phoenician, a swanky resort in Camelback Mountain's eastern foothills, in 2015 for $400 million. Backed by Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio, a plan developed to relocate the trailhead to Invergordon Road, connecting it to the Cholla Trail with an easement through The Phoenician's property. At the same time, a golf course bathroom would be renovated and provided for public use, along with a water fountain. Running water would be a potential lifesaver for the occasional victims of heat exhaustion on the trail.
When construction of the relocated trailhead will occur is also up in the air.
"Our neighborhood is grateful to have the trail closed during the pandemic," homeowner Tim Moman, who lives on Cholla Lane, told Phoenix New Times. "The massive numbers of hikers, car traffic, and other public safety issues that ignore COP [City of Phoenix] signs, rules, etc., have gone away since the temporary closure. Police and Parks readily admit that the issues presented with the pure volume were something they could not control."
In 2017, the City Council approved a new housing development on The Phoenician's land, and as part of the deal, Host paid $100,000 toward a possible trailhead relocation.
Although the relocation seemed to be an open question back in 2017, Bach said that at this point, no further City Council approval is needed to relocate the trail once the design is finalized by Host and the Parks and Recreation department.
The final cost of moving the trailhead will be far below the initial pricetag floated in 2017 of more than $2 million. Besides the $100,000 Host used for the trail design process, the city has spent $19,700 of Phoenix Parks and Preserve Initiative funds for trailhead restroom design.
The basic route and plan for the trail's new beginning are shown in a November 2019 rendering (below) by Diggs Studio for Host and the city.
Besides the bathroom and water fountain, the relocation design has hikers entering through what is now a construction road just south of East Vista Drive and walking through a newly constructed trail at one end of The Phoenician's golf course before connecting with the main Cholla Trail. The rendering shows how the new trail section would have trees for cover, but ideas that are still being discussed include a possible wall separating the hiking rabble from the multi-million-dollar homes they would be near, or a below-grade "cattle chute" that would hide the hikers. Those are apparently secondary considerations. The draft layout of the new trail opening as depicted in the rendering is complete, Bach said, and the final design issue relates to water drainage.
Even with the planned changes, the parking situation will remain as bad as ever. Cholla Trail hikers routinely get tickets for remaining in one of the limited spaces on Invergordon Road after sunset, parking on the road's many no-parking zones, or parking on other streets, where a convergence of the jurisdictions of Phoenix, Paradise Valley, and Scottsdale help make things more confusing.
The legions of Cholla Trail lovers would take the parking chaos over a continued closure, though.
It's unclear whether the trailhead construction would take place before or after the completion of the housing development. If after, the relocation wouldn't happen for a few years.
Bach wouldn't budge when pressed on how many months or years it might be before the trail is reopened.
"We appreciate the patience of the hiking community as we work to improve the Cholla Trail experience," he said. "At this point in the process we don’t have a confirmed timeline for its reopening and need to be able to ensure safe use of the existing trail before doing so. Camelback Mountain’s Echo Canyon Trail remains open, as do more than 200 other miles of hiking trails throughout the city, providing plenty of hiking options."
Projects Apparently Linked
Interestingly, the lengthy maintenance closure matches a recommendation to the city made last year by Moman's neighborhood group.
"Current Cholla Trail needs repair," reads a four-page "Cholla Trail History" submitted to Parks and Recreation by the group last year. "Work can be done concurrent with the new trail construction. Current trail could be closed temporarily while maintenance & new trail construction is completed." A long closure has precedent in the 14-month closure of Echo Canyon Trail in 2013 for renovations that included doubling the size of the parking lot and replacing porta-johns with a restroom building, the bullet-pointed document notes.
During the closure, park rangers could begin "educating" hikers about the new entrance coming to Cholla Trail. The homeowners' group suggested changing the name of the Cholla Trail and returning the current trailhead to a natural state.
The city has no plans to change the name of the trail, Bach said. But after conferring with Parks department staff, he acknowledged that the trail's closure may be linked to the relocation of the trailhead.
"Cholla Trail was closed to address maintenance and safety. The closure was not initially part of the relocation project, but could continue in conjunction with that depending on the final timeline for the relocation," he said.
Neighbors Still Battling Over Plan
Down the road from Moman and the neighbors on Cholla Lane, concerned neighbors on Vista Drive feel that the city is simply shoving the trailhead and its problems over to them. They banded together in 2017, hired a lawyer, and tried to stop the relocation. Some of them say they've had trouble just trying to find out what's going on.
Janie Morrison and a few other Vista Drive neighbors feel that the process has moved along much too quietly since 2017. In an October 2020 letter to one of her neighbors, Host lawyer Paul Gilbert apologized for "the City's failure to keep you and your neighbors informed," and said he's expressed his disappointment to the Parks department and Councilman DiCiccio.
Morrison said that she and her husband built their place on Vista Drive 18 years ago for the view of the mountain and golf course, and they never considered purchasing real estate near Cholla Lane, a short block over, specifically because of the massive number of hikers that walk through that neighborhood. The trail's new route would mean the hikers would instead walk past her backyard.
"They're shifting the problem," she said. "We won't have a backyard anymore."
Hikers will notice only that Invergordon Road itself has become more of a "disaster" if the relocation goes forward, she predicted.
The Vista Drive neighbors have potential leverage in the deal. A natural wash that drains rainwater off Camelback Mountain runs past their homes, and the city needs to divert water into it as part of their plan, Morrison said. In an upcoming homeowners association vote, the anti-relocation neighbors hope to take away the city's ability to utilize the wash.
Hikers Want More Input
Avid hiker and trail activist Jerry Van Gasse said he doesn't think Cholla Trail will reopen until the trailhead relocation occurs, and that any decision by the Parks department is unlikely until someone is brought in to fill the position of director. Longtime Director Inger Erickson was promoted to assistant city manager in July, and the department is now led by Acting Director Tracee Hall.
The Cholla Lane homeowners are "never" going to let hikers come up their street again after enjoying months of no traffic, he said.
Van Gasse, who has taken up other legal fights in support of local trails, had a lawyer send a letter to the city in February complaining about the lack of public meetings "nor any opportunity for the hiking community to provide input."
"They've never had a meeting with the hikers," Van Gasse said on Monday. "Talk about stakeholders — that's the biggest one."
"They are kissing up to the developers, like they always do," he added.
Action must be taken soon, from his point of view, or it could take three years or more for Cholla Trail to reopen.
The city has $75 million in Parks and Preserve Initiative funds and could easily fund the trailhead relocation and get the trail open sooner rather than later. He hopes to have the city hold a public meeting on the issue.
"It's time to double-down" the pressure on city leaders, he said. "We're going to push it."
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