Neighbors Want Camelback Mountain's Cholla Trail Moved as Part of Renovation

Hikers walking on Invergordon Road to Cholla Lane. Could new renovation at the Phoenician Resort lead to a relocation of the start of Camelback Mountain's popular Cholla Trail? Some of the area's neighbors hope so.
Hikers walking on Invergordon Road to Cholla Lane. Could new renovation at the Phoenician Resort lead to a relocation of the start of Camelback Mountain's popular Cholla Trail? Some of the area's neighbors hope so. Andrew Pielage
A group of homeowners who live next to Camelback Mountain's popular Cholla Trail hope that new renovation at the Phoenix resort could be the solution for their long-held complaints.

They want part of the trail, plus the trailhead on Cholla Lane just north of Camelback Road, relocated to the Phoenician property — perhaps running underground in a tunnel at the start.

The switch would reduce the problems caused by hikers and related traffic, they believe.

Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio hosted neighborhood meetings about the issue last month, reportedly telling homeowners that a trail relocation was possible.

But for now, the Phoenix New Times has learned, the Phoenician isn't interested in moving forward with the plan.

click to enlarge ANDREW PIELAGE
Andrew Pielage
"Sal asked the Phoenician if they would be willing to do that," said attorney Paul Gilbert, who represents the upscale resort that was President Obama's choice of lodging while in Phoenix. "We had never agreed to it, and we didn't offer."

That's not how Cholla Lane homeowner Paul Berggreen recalled the situation. He attended the town hall meeting and a subsequent meeting at one of the affected homes with DiCiccio, city of Phoenix Parks and Recreation officials, and local police officers.

Berggreen said discussion at the meetings revolved around the idea that the Phoenician was offering to put the trailhead on adjacent Invergordon Road, where hikers park to use the trail. From this new trailhead, he said, Cholla Trail would run through an area that is part of a golf course the resort is eliminating.

Yet this would move the perceived problems closer to homeowners on East Vista Drive, just south of Cholla Lane. Berggreen, a Phoenix gastroenterologist, said he thinks a pedestrian tunnel that links Invergordon Road to Cholla Trail well past any homes would be the ideal solution.  

"A majority of the homeowners want the trailhead relocated further south onto the Phoenician property," according to the Arcadia Camelback Mountain Neighborhood Association newsletter published last week.

"DiCiccio estimates that it will take 1-2 years to relocate the trail and all of the homeowners agree that immediate solutions are necessary NOW to reduce the daily problems."

DiCiccio, who represents the city's District Six, didn't return a call on Wednesday.

Gilbert pointed out that, whatever was discussed, the Phoenician's Planned Unit Development, a 95-page planning document submitted to the city, contains nothing about a trail relocation. He wasn't willing to say it could never happen, though.

"As of today, we are not planning any Cholla Trail [re]location on the Phoenician property," he said.

Traffic problems and inconsiderate park users have plagued wealthy homeowners on Cholla Lane for decades.

From the public's point of view, though, lack of access to the stunningly beautiful, short trail is a bigger issue.

Cholla Trail, on Camelback's east flank, is one of two summit trails. Echo Canyon Trail on the west side receives more visitors, in part because of its 136-space parking lot.

Local and out-of-town hikers make an estimated 700,000 ascents to Camelback's 2,704-foot summit each year using the trails.

Preservation efforts were focused on Echo Canyon in the 1960s, culminating in the 57-acre Echo Canyon Park. Yet hikers routinely trespassed on private property to access Cholla Trail into the 1970s.

Gilbert said that in 1979, the Phoenician property owners granted an easement to the city of Phoenix for the trail's beginning section.

The resort opened in 1988 as the project of financier Charles Keating, who would eventually serve 4.5 years in prison for his role in the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan bank.

Cholla Trail, meanwhile, became a growing nuisance for homeowners as it gained in popularity. Residents complained of late-night parties, unregulated mountain biking, trespassing, litter, and noise. The city of Phoenix closed the trail in the mid-1990s over the concerns, but reopened it in 1998 under pressure from a hiking group.

Host hotels and resorts bought the Phoenician in 2015 for $400 million. This month, the company began its planned major renovation of the property. The project includes the elimination of one of the resort's three golf courses, and the addition of nearly 400 private homes.

Some homeowners on Cholla Trail and surrounding streets believe the resort's renovation may be their only chance for a long-term solution, said Berggreen, who's lived on Cholla Lane for 10 years.

Part of the annoyance is the sheer volume of hikers. The use of Cholla Trail exploded in 2013, when the city closed Echo Canyon for most of the year. Berggreen said the number of hikers remained higher since then, and that's increased the number of problems.

Cars aren't supposed to drive up Cholla Lane to drop off hikers, but sometimes they do. Hikers will walk up the residential street "eight across," taking up both sides of the road.

"Sometimes it's so crowded, it's almost like a street festival" on Cholla Lane, he said. "But the problem's also on Invergordon. It's out of control ... It's remarkable no one's been hit by a car on Cholla [Lane]."

Most hikers are polite — some aren't. One of his neighbors snapped a picture of a woman squatting to take a pee in one of the home's front yards, he said.

"You've got a lot of neighbors up in arms," Berggreen said.

They will have to live with the issues, it seems.

Gregg Bach, spokesman for the city of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department, said city officials are not aware of any plans for a trail relocation.

"We have a partnership with the Phoenician — the first half-mile of that trail is already on their property," Bach said. "Anything we would do is continue to work with all the parties."

The city is well aware of problems related to Camelback Mountain's popularity, Bach said.

Besides the Take a Hike, Do It Right program, which is designed to slow the heat-related rescues and fatalities on Camelback and other Phoenix mountains, the city reduced pet waste by banning dogs from both Cholla and Echo Canyon trails, he said.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.