Phoenix Finally Gets Serious About Removing Christmas Trees From Camelback Mountain Summit

At ground level, signs of Christmas are everywhere — from stores and homes to the wreath-adorned automobiles on freeways.

You might think hiking in one of Phoenix's mountain parks, where the goal has long been to keep things in as natural a state as possible, would be one way to get away from it all.

But for more than a decade, hikers bound for the summit of Camelback Mountain have encountered something more like the North Pole display at the mall: a huge, decorated Christmas tree, often complete with "Camelback Santa" handing out candy canes and posing for photos.

City officials seemed to long tolerate the tradition of hauling a Christmas tree to the summit of Camelback, Phoenix's famed, centrally located mountain.

Not this year.

It began this past weekend, when someone sawed the top half off a decorated, 15-foot-tall Christmas tree that had been brought up the mountain and apparently made off with it. Rangers removed the lower half, causing a stir among the tree's fans. Agitation increased on Sunday, after the group that had brought up the original tree claimed rangers had stopped them from carrying up a replacement.

As of Wednesday morning, a petition to allow people to mount a tree on the summit each holiday season had garnered more than 1,200 virtual signatures.

Supporters plan to speak against the city's action at today's meeting of the city council, which begins at 2:30 p.m.

News coverage of the flap has been pointedly pro-tree, along the lines of Sunday's piece on Channel 3 (KTVK-TV), "Valley grinch targets Camelback Christmas tree tradition; group not giving up."

"Camelback Santa," a local man who dresses up each year and greets fellow hikers at the summit (tree or no tree), announced on Facebook on Tuesday night that "we have arranged to have a replacement tree on Camelback by Saturday morning!" He claimed that "the Parks Department has promised not to remove the replacement tree."

But Gregg Bach, spokesman for the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department, said the city promised no such thing, and that rangers will remove any replacements.

Bach denied the city is taking a tougher stance on the trees than it has in the past, though he admits this may be the first time officials have spoken about it publicly.

The parks department has two main concerns regarding the trees: safety, and the ethos that visitors should "leave no trace" at the mountain parks. Rangers habitually remove holiday items, flags, makeshift memorials, and other things people leave behind, he said.

"This ties in to being respectful to the environment, respectful to the trail, and respectful to other visitors," Bach said. He acknowledged the trees have stayed on the summit for long periods of time in the past.

In fact, sometimes a Christmas tree remains on the summit through the holiday season, until it's removed by whoever brought it up.

Articles and blog posts about Christmas trees on Camelback's summit date back to at least 2004. News stories of recent years appear to have been entirely positive.

Yet not all hikers love the tree. And at the least, the tradition has caused Christmas trash — bits of tinsel, candy-cane wrappers, broken ornament bits, and other colorful rubbish can often be seen around the summit during the holidays. The tradition inspired a couple of rock-climbing teens to install a tree on the summit of Camelback's Praying Rock formation in 2012, resulting in trash strewn across a pristine plateau after a storm.

Even if city officials decline to allow the practice to continue, tree traditionalists may be hard to stop.

Max Dembow, a Scottsdale resident who has helped put up the tree in the past few years, tells New Times he doesn't know how rangers would stop, say, 50 hikers each carrying a 5-foot tree.

"I can promise you, you will see more trees on Camelback Mountain," he said.

Dembow belongs to the Scottsdale Adventure Club, several members of which have helped install and decorate a summit tree for the past four years. Usually, he said, members chip and pay for it. This year, a Scottsdale restaurant, the Beverly, sponsored the tree. It cost $600 and weighed 300 pounds. Several hikers carried it up the tough, 1.5-mile Cholla Trail to the summit on the day after Thanksgiving, as can be seen in an Arizona Republic photo spread documenting the effort.

"We decided we were going to go bigger this year," Dembow explains.

Bach assured New Times that the city had nothing to do with sawing the tree in half.

"Somebody else apparently had done that," the city spokesman said. "The [top] half was not there — just ornaments and tinsel around the [base of the] tree. They cleaned up some of that litter" and removed the bottom half.

An Arizona Republic story posted Tuesday evening quoted Scottsdale Adventure Club member Joel Borch as saying that last year, city officials removed three small trees someone else had brought up but were "cool" with the bigger one from the club. Borch also said he received permission from the city before installing this year's tree.

Bach told New Times that rangers who encountered the group on its way up the mountain on Friday tried to dissuade them from proceeding.

Asked why a Christmas tree needs to be at Camelback's summit, Dembow replied rhetorically, "Why do they put up a big tree in New York City or Tempe Marketplace?"

Dembow, who said he's Jewish, asserts that the tree is a holiday symbol and not a Christmas tree, per se. (Indeed, the tree usually sports a six-pointed Star of David.)

Some hikers may not want the tree there, he admits, but "holidays do occur."

Camelback Santa (who asked New Times not to use his real name, even though it appears in other publications), acknowledged that supporters can't control all of the trash from the summit Christmas scene.

"We've got to do a better job with that," he said.

But he's no "department-store Santa," he added, asserting that he's not promoting anything but holiday peace and love. He's prepared to take extreme action to preserve the tradition. If someone removes the next tree, supporters will bring up another, and another, until the city gets the message, he warned.

"I'll be happy to chain myself and sleep on top of Camelback to protect it," he said.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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