Camelback Mountain trailhead to reopen in new location as controversy lingers

The new alignment of Camelback Mountain's Cholla Trail connects directly to Invergordon Road in Phoenix.
Jen Fifield
Arizona Republic

Phoenix hikers are happy to hear a popular Camelback Mountain trail will reopen next year, but the controversy remains over the trail's extended closure and the city's plans.

The city is spending $1.3 million to build a new trailhead for Cholla Trail on Invergordon Road to replace the one on Cholla Lane, meaning hikers will no longer tread along the residential lane to get to the start of the trail. The city will also add public restrooms and water fountains, which were not available before.

Construction on the new trailhead began this week, and the trail is set to reopen by summer 2022.

The plan is an answer to the decades of complaints from the owners of the million- and multimillion-dollar mansions along Cholla Lane who said the hordes of hikers using the trail daily unsafely blocked the street and relieved themselves on their property. The realignment has been in the works since 2017 when the city secured an easement along the neighboring Phoenician property.

Many hikers applaud the city for finally adding bathrooms to the site. But, mostly, they are just excited the trail will reopen, said Jes Shapiro, an avid hiker who runs Camelback Culture, a local apparel line.

Some are still critical of the city for what they say is a lack of transparency during the process, and for not taking the opportunity to come up with a plan for on-site or nearby parking.

The new route has shifted the hikers from the border of one group of private properties to another, angering a different set of homeowners. Gene Morrison, who with his wife lives in one of the handful of mansions with a backyard bordering the new trail location, said he sees it as a public safety risk and a waste of money for the city to cram hikers between their houses and the neighboring resort property.

"No one thought it through," Morrison said.

Janie and Gene Morrison stand near where the new trailhead to Camelback Mountain's Cholla Trail is being constructed. They oppose the new trail location, which will border their backyard.

Morrison and his attorney Thomas Galvin of Rose Law Group, who is representing Morrison and a handful of other homeowners in his homeowner's association, said the city has kept them out of the loop as plans moved forward. But city officials said they have met with the homeowners group and provided the information requested.

The city is moving forward with construction before the terms of the construction and use of the Phoenician easement go before the City Council and are finalized — and therefore before Morrison and other neighbors have a chance to comment on them in public. 

Realignment of trail planned for years

On the east side of Camelback Mountain, Cholla is one of the city's most popular trails, used by some 10,000 hikers a month to trek the long way up to the mountain's nearly 3,000-foot-high summit.

Many Cholla hikers now pack onto Camelback's other trail, Echo Canyon, which Shapiro said is causing the trail to deteriorate faster and eliminating the chance for tranquility.

The city closed Cholla in March 2020 to make safety improvements after a boulder fell onto a hiker's legs, causing severe injuries. Since then, the city has removed unstable boulders, increased trail surface tread and added more trail markers. But the trail didn't reopen when the work was completed.

Signs at the closed Cholla trailhead on Camelback Mountain on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

The city has been discussing for years how to realign Cholla. In 2017, when the owner of the neighboring Phoenician resort, Host Hotels & Resorts Inc., asked the city to change the property's zoning so it could build residences on its golf fairways, the city approved the plans with a 100-foot city easement on the northern edge of the property for the new trail alignment.

Then-Mayor Greg Stanton and a few council members, including Councilmember Sal DiCiccio, who represented the area then and still does now, told opponents at the time that the council wasn't approving the new trail route, it was approving the rezoning. City staff reassured the public that the trail realignment would come before the parks and recreation board, giving people another time to comment before it was finalized.

That time came and went in 2018, according to city staff, and all has been quiet since.

Homeowners questioning the extended closure requested updates in April and got limited information, Morrison said. In October, he said a friend of his saw on the news that the realignment was moving forward.

"We hadn't heard anything," Morrison said.

The realignment didn't come before the council because it wasn't required to approve the design, the budget or the construction company, according to city staff.

Construction began despite the City Council not yet finalizing the terms for how bathrooms, city access, construction, design, drainage, fencing, renovations and more will be handled on the Phoenician easement. The letter of intent with the resort owners should come before the council "after the New Year," according to Jarod Rogers, a deputy director in the Parks and Recreation Department.

Asked why the city is moving forward before the item goes before the council, Rogers said the city wants to "get the trail reopened for the public as soon as we can."

"We do not anticipate a delay to the agreement slowing down the project," he said.

Why is the city moving the trailhead?

City officials say the new trailhead is mostly intended to make for a safer environment.

Hundreds of hikers would walk down Cholla Lane daily. Ignoring signs prohibiting drop-offs and parking, cars would try to drive down the lane, only sometimes to be turned away by rangers or police. Mix that with resident traffic, and DiCiccio said it was an accident waiting to happen.

DiCiccio said he doesn't see a way the city could have better informed the public about the issue.

He emphasized that the city has been discussing this for more than five years. "How many meetings do you have to have?" DiCiccio said, "Sooner or later, you have to make a decision."

He said residents should have understood back in 2017, when the Phoenician rezoning occurred, that the realignment eventually would happen.

But DiCiccio at the 2017 meeting specifically told those in opposition in the audience that "no one is voting on a trail today," reiterating what city staff and Stanton were saying at the time. 

Morrison, who has lived in his home since 2002, admits he opposes the new trail location in part because he simply doesn't want thousands of hikers behind his house. But he said he is also concerned with how this will affect parking, safety and traffic on Invergordon Road and public safety response times for stranded hikers.

Trail parking has always been a problem. The limited parking along Invergordon Road meant many had to rideshare in from a different location. That problem looks like it will remain, or even worsen, under the new alignment, said Seeley James, a Scottsdale resident and hiker.

Parking for Cholla Trail along Invergordon Road has always been limited. The parking plan will not change when the trail reopens next year.

James said he worries that the Phoenician owners have so much control over the trailhead, since it's on their property. The city has to abide by certain rules under the proposed agreement, or the company could fine the city — or potentially end the agreement.

"I expect Host Corp to drag their feet, because what real estate developer wants to have a hiking trail running anywhere near the multimillion-dollar homes they’re trying to sell?" he said.

James also worries that the construction of the new residences on the Phoenician property could slow down or halt construction.

Some are just looking forward to the trail's reopening. Jerry Van Gasse, a parks enthusiast and activist, said it's long overdue.

"The views coming up from that side are spectacular," Van Gasse said, "especially in the morning, when the sun is right on you."

Reach the reporter at jen.fifield@azcentral.com or at 602-444-8763. Follow her on Twitter @JenAFifield

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