Friday evening at the base of Squaw Peak, cars jockey for parking places right at the trail head so their owners won't have far to walk to their hikes. A white Toyota idles in the heat, waiting for a Volvo to back up, and as soon as it does, from out of nowhere, a Jeep Wrangler swings around the Toyota and screeches into the vacated space. Behind the wheel is a neomacho yupster in a baseball cap and muscle tee shirt. He's leering smugly beneath his Ray Bans as he gets out of his vehicle, and, oblivious to the disapproving comments of witnesses to the theft, struts across the parking lot and up the trail as if he hears voices in his head telling him: "Climb Squaw Peak, son. Don't let anything get in your way."

Under the shade of the ramada, a young woman in bicycle shorts and a tube top holds court. "We're all lemmings! I've never seen so many rude people," she rants, as her two male companions stare down at their Hi-Tec hiking boots. "You call this hiking? You call this the great outdoors?" Well, not exactly. It's great and it's outdoors, but "hiking" suggests solitude and nature, and there's nothing natural about slogging uphill with 500 of your closest friends. Squaw Peak is the most-hiked trail in the United States, trod by as many as 2,000 sets of feet per day, 10,000 per week, 520,000 per year. On a weekend in spring, it resembles old photographs of Chilkoot Pass during the Klondike Gold Rush, a continuous shuffling line of be-Reeboked soles from top to bottom. Even on 110-degree days, the trail-head parking lot is full and so are the overflow lots up and down the park. There are so many hikers, day after day after day, that the trail has been sliding downhill as much as five feet a year in some places and has been worn so wide that it can be clearly seen from downtown. Despite the current and much-debated repairs, the trail up the mountain may someday be a valley bisecting it.

Who are these people? There are a few confused outdoorsmen and women who still think it's 1957 and they're in virgin desert, odd pairs of street-shod grandparents on vacation and judgmentally impaired individuals who venture off the trail and have to be hauled out with ropes and helicopters by the fire department. The overwhelming majority are health-club escapees: shirtless bachelor accountants, 40-year-old real estate agents hopelessly trying to run off their middle-aged middles and babes in full makeup reenacting Nike print ads by leaning sweatily against sunny rock faces to suck on water bottles. Gotta climb, gotta be seen, and damn the heat.

Up on the summit, they obsess about personal bests--28 minutes, I'm training for the Boston Marathon, you know." They talk about personal goals--I've got a bowling ball in my backpack because I'm preparing for the Grand Canyon." They reveal personal intelligence deficits--I was up here once in a thunderstorm and there was so much electricity in the air that my hair stood straight up." Women on the trail carry on loudly about how they don't understand their boyfriends; their boyfriends mostly ponder whether Squaw Peak is a harder climb than Camelback Mountain. Somehow the two thoughts seem related.

Actually there's not much difference in difficulty between the trails. Camelback has 56 more feet of vertical drop from summit to trail head, but Squaw Peak's trail is two-tenths of a mile longer. Ultimately it's a question of style.

Camelback is elite, the place the sophisticated entry-level businessman takes his best girl to impress her with his physique and neon attire. Couples march up narrow canyons, stern-faced, with great ritual and little apparent enjoyment--but they look great.

Squaw Peak, on the other hand, is for trolling, for loose jaunts, for the likelihood that even if you start off hiking alone, chances are by the time you're coming back down, you will have made a friend or two, provided you haven't been knocked off the mountain by a runner.

Squaw Peak is Phoenix's answer to Los Angeles' Venice Beach, without the skateboards, fire eaters, rollerbladers and mimes--so far, at least.


@body:Every hiker seems to have a mental snapshot of the trail taken on his or her first hike, whether it was three months or 30 years ago, and has enough proprietary feeling about the mountain to tell everyone else what to do.

The trespasser who leaves the trail to take a shortcut is likely to get an earful from his or her peers. "For a trail that has upwards of 10,000 hikers a week, there are very few infractions," says Jeff Spellman, a park ranger. "You'd expect to find beer bottles and stuff, but even if I see a Kleenex by the side of the trail, by the time I come down, someone will have picked it up." Though the regulars point fingers at people who violate the rules, what's really happening on Squaw Peak is that the very people who hike it most frequently are pounding it into dust as they are loving it to death. Late in 1989, the City of Phoenix hired SWCA, an environmental consulting firm, to ponder needed repairs to an urban trail in a natural setting, and SWCA sent a consultant named Ron Borkan, who brought along Ken Kehoe. They made their report, wrote up a master plan and the city took it from there.