Phoenix to Vote on $2M Plan to Relocate Camelback's Cholla Trailhead

Hikers on Cholla Lane headed toward the Cholla Trail trailhead.
Hikers on Cholla Lane headed toward the Cholla Trail trailhead. Ray Stern
The Phoenix City Council is set to vote next month on a $2 million plan to relocate a trailhead on the city's iconic Camelback Mountain — a move that would please the owners of nearby multimillion-dollar homes.

Cholla Trail, the east-side summit trail on the popular park, gets a good share of the estimated 700,000 people who trek to the top of the 2,704-foot mountain annually. To access the trail, hikers must first walk west to the trailhead on Cholla Lane, a residential street boasting some of the most exclusive properties in metro Phoenix.

The council is scheduled to vote on the issue on October 4 as part of a package of changes that would add hundreds of homes and condos to the Phoenician Resort property near the trail that is currently home to part of a golf course.

The relocation project would cost "around $2 million," a price that would include the demolition and refurbishment of the existing trailhead, city spokeswoman Tamra Ingersoll said.

Craig Steblay, president of the Arcadia Camelback Mountain Neighborhood Association, said residents have been working with city staff and City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who represents the area, on moving the trailhead.

"Almost everyone is optimistic," Steblay said. "The only thing that could prevent this is money."

Last spring, as the Phoenix New Times reported, DiCiccio suggested the possibility of the trailhead's relocation at homeowner meetings. At that time, Paul Gilbert, the development attorney for the Phoenician, said the resort never offered its property for the move and didn't agree to it.   But he didn't rule it out, either.

This week, Gilbert told New Times that the Phoenician was agreeable to use its land for a trailhead on Invergordon Road, and would chip in $100,000 for it.

The exact location of the new trailhead on Invergordon Road is still uncertain, but would likely be well south of homes on Vista Drive.

click to enlarge Homes and condos are planned for part of the golf course on the Phoenician in this area near Cholla Trail. - RAY STERN
Homes and condos are planned for part of the golf course on the Phoenician in this area near Cholla Trail.
Ray Stern
"Several neighbors have asked" for the new trailhead and a new trail along the Phoenician's northern property boundary to "take the traffic off Cholla Lane," Gilbert said. "We're meeting with the city now to work out the terms and conditions. It's still fluid."

The existing trailhead has no adjacent parking or restroom, but Steblay said he's heard the new trailhead could include a restroom and lighting. A new trail that would cut across Phoenician property from the planned trailhead to the trail would likely be recessed or otherwise obscured by landscaping, he said.

In any case, the proposal would not make the parking situation for Cholla Trail any better. Hikers now compete for a limited number of public parking spaces on Invergordon Road, and police are typically busy writing tickets for anyone parked on residential side-streets and other no-parking zones.

DiCiccio did not return messages. But his chief of staff, Samuel Stone, sent a statement indicating the councilman supports the plan to move the trailhead. He said he hadn't yet heard the $2 million figure quoted by Ingersoll.

"The trailhead will not be relocated for a couple of years, at least, as the area dedicated for the new trailhead will first be needed to serve as a construction vehicle access point for the development," Stone said. "During that period, the city will undertake design and site studies to determine the proposed structure and cost of the trail."

The Phoenician's original property owners granted an easement to the city of Phoenix for Cholla Traill's beginning section in 1979.

The resort itself opened in 1988 as the project of Charles Keating, a corrupt financier whose lavish spending on John McCain and four other U.S. senators — known as the "Keating Five" — morphed into a public scandal. Keating, who died in 2014, later served four-and-a-half years in prison for his role in the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan bank.

The upscale resort — one of former President Obama's favorite places to stay in Phoenix — is now owned by Host Camelback, LLC, a subsidiary of Host Hotels and Resorts, which bought the place in 2015 for $400 million. Host began an ambitious renovation project earlier this year that will fix up the hotel and its environs and add more than 300 new single-family homes, townhouses, and condominiums.

Gilbert said 321 of the homes — of 338 that the Phoenician wants on the site — have already been approved. City planning documents indicate the City Council still needs to vote on the location of those homes, which are in the general area where the owners wanted them, at the site of an existing golf course near Cholla Trail.

No one has raised any "significant opposition" to the development plan, which will leave plenty of open space on the east side of Camelback Mountain as well as an easement for the lower section of Cholla Trail, Gilbert said.

While some of the two-story units may reach up to 54 feet in height, according to city plans, the Phoenician has agreed to keeping all the rooftops lower than 1,420 feet in elevation to preserve the area's scenic views.

Gilbert also said the Phoenician has agreed to preserve the old Jokake Inn, a defunct, historic hotel on Phoenician property that some area residents want left alone.

Steblay's neighborhood association has links for the latest development plans on its website.

Whether or not the Cholla trailhead gets moved, the new homes will feature private access to Cholla Trail, Gilbert said, adding that the location still hadn't been determined for a connecting trail that would have to be built from the homes to Cholla Trail.

Echo Canyon Trail on the mountain's west side draws the most hikers. Both Cholla and Echo Canyon are steep, "double-diamond" trails that provide hikers with a roughly 1,200-foot elevation gain. A $4 million renovation at Echo Canyon park in 2013 expanded the small parking lot and added restrooms.

However, hikers' use of Cholla Trail has exploded in recent years, Steblay said. Neighbors on and around Cholla Lane can't wait to relocate the trailhead.

The existing trailhead "is just driving them crazy," he said. "There's no restrooms — guess what happens in your front yard. Hopefully by October 4, everybody will be singing 'Kumbaya.'"
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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.
Contact: Ray Stern