Untrained but Not Untested: Speed Hiking the Echo Canyon Trail

I moved to Phoenix, Arizona in the fall of 2017 to work as a rock climbing guide. The extreme heat of the summer mellows into enjoyable climbing temperatures throughout the fall, winter and spring. One of the locations where I lead excursions is Camelback Mountain. The mountain gets its name due to its shape, which looks like the head and hump of a kneeling camel. Camelback is located in the middle of the Phoenix valley and is a popular spot for locals and tourists to climb and hike. Echo Canyon Trail is the most popular hike at the mountain park. The trail is approximately 1.25 miles long and has an elevation gain of about 1,280 ft. Hiking trails, like skiing or mountain biking areas, use symbols in order to signify the level of difficulty. Green circles are easiest, blue squares intermediate, black diamonds difficult and double black diamonds very difficult. Echo Canyon Trail gets, in my opinion, the unnecessarily scary grade of double black diamond. I suppose it is to let first-time hikers on the trail know this isn’t your average walk in a city park. The combination of intensity and desert climate can leave the unprepared dehydrated. Although the trail can be challenging in spots, there are hand railings in locations where one might need a little support.

While visiting Camelback, it is not uncommon to see folks trail running. This piqued my interest and I did a little investigating. The speed record on the Echo Canyon Trail is 15 minutes and 58 seconds, set by Jim Walmsley of Flagstaff, Arizona. My wife and I hiked the entirety of the trail at a leisurely pace with breaks and clocked an hour and 15 minutes. At the top you get an awesome panoramic view of the Phoenix Valley. As a rock climber, I am a natural competitor and decided I would hike the trail again the following day to see how fast I could get to the top. While I am a solid climber, I have never done any trail running, or normal running for that matter. I played plenty of football, hockey and baseball in my youth but I was never a runner per se.

My speedy hike was not an attempt at the record, but a self-challenge to see how I fared. It is October and the temperature is still quite high, pushing the mercury to the mid-90s mark on the thermometer. We are having unseasonably hot weather and set a record this week for heat at this time of year. The best time to hike the trail in these conditions is in the early morning when it is still cool. Having been to Camelback a few times, I know parking is limited and it gets jam packed in the morning. You can be waiting in line a non-insignificant amount of time to park if you do not get there before 6 AM. I decided I would rather contend with the heat as opposed to the crowds on the trail and got there around noon. I had a backpack full of a few liters of water and a smaller amount of sunscreen to take with me on my hike. I started my favorite podcast and a timer and got going.

I am not a trail runner and my strategy was to not pretend to be one. I hiked at what I would describe as a non-weenie pace and tried to maintain that pace throughout the trail. The first part of the trail has the easiest terrain. It has switchbacks at a relatively gradual incline on evenish ground. I could potentially have hiked this part faster, but I didn’t want to wear myself out for the more intense sections. I am most familiar with this section of the trail because it leads to the main rock climbing areas. The trail wraps to the left of the “headwall” climbing area and steepens. This section has some slicker rock and has a handrail for added stability if needed. I pushed through the area of stairs and slick ramps and maintained my pace. The rest of the trail involves scrambling up steeper, uneven terrain where you may need to use your hands for stability. As a rock climber, I am most conditioned for steeply inclined terrain and like to think this is where I can make decent time. I struggled to maintain my pace through the steeper sections and slowed my pace occasionally to recover. The intensity left my leg muscles feeling a bit like jelly. I pushed through the final bouldery steep section and stopped my clock. I was at 32 minutes and 2 seconds. I was pooped and found a nice shady spot to sit, recover and rehydrate. It is a beautiful view to take in and I sat longer than necessary to recover, enjoying where I was in the world.

I am not discontent with my 32-minute mark and it puts the record of 15 minutes and 58 second into perspective. The Arizona Diamondback center fielder A.J. Pollock completed the hike in 27 minutes and 20 seconds so I feel pretty good with my efforts. I am never going to be a trail runner, but I am drawn to do the trail in sub 30 minutes.

Echo Canyon Trail is a fun hike in the Phoenix area. Hike at a leisurely pace or time yourself, but get out and enjoy nature. Make sure to look up at the cliff face when you are hiking and you may see me climbing in my natural habitat.