Site icon Mary Alice Rosko

Phoenix’s Camelback Santa: Only YOU could get me over that hump, Santa Claus

I was ready to turn around and head back down.

Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, AZ was doing a number on my bad knee and if I’m totally honest, my lung capacity.  Just what was I trying to prove by hiking the final bit of the 2.5-mile trail to the summit?  Sure, yoga pants were zipping by with no water–NO WATER, and don’t you ladies realize this weather is like a SAUNA to a Minnesotan?  I’d keep plodding, head down on the spandex highway, all the better to avoid engaging with whatever brand is written on people’s butts.  For some Arizonans, the 1427′ elevation gain is just a training run.  They pass you lightly up the spine of that gigantic camel lying down northeast of downtown.  So…not making it all the way up feels like a tiny failure, but now I’m finally old enough to know when to say WHEN.

And then I saw the candy canes.  Hiker after hiker coming down the trail chomping on candy canes.  Not the usual white-and-red-striped variety, no, my keen candy eye spied green-and-burgundy hues.  A lot of them.  Too many of a specific type to be a coincidence.  I asked a fellow hiker about the mystery canes and she said, “Those are from Camelback Santa.”

“Camelback huh?” I replied, always daydreaming about finding a miraculous bar or bakery on the summit of every peak, but the King of Christmas?  Out here shoveling sunshine?

“Camelback Santa hands out candy canes to hikers at the summit, or a lump of coal if you’ve been bad.  You should definitely keep going.”  Then she headed back down the trail sucking on the kind of candy cane you don’t see nearly as often.  Onward!  My shoes have wings and my hotel has unlimited ice.



Imagine my surprise when Camelback Santa had not only snacks at the summit, but a full-on evergreen as well.  A honest-to-Christmas miracle.  Some years, the line to snap a pic with him rivaled the one for Santa at Mall of America.  And HE takes appointments.  If you’ve been particularly naughty, beware the lumps of coal he dispenses.  They are heavy.  I made it to the front of the line, Camelback Santa and I embraced, then we made a complete heart shape by placing our two candy canes next to each other.  Friends, I tell you it’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being in a Hallmark Christmas movie.

John Cressey is the jolly elf behind Camelback Santa, as most everyone in Phoenix knows.  He’s been hauling a tree up that 2704-foot mountain for years and decorating it with birdseed ornaments.  He leaves it there for one month only.  But some folks would stuff coal in his stocking given a chance.  Park officials and conservationists have tried to shut him down, but so far, the tradition has clung to the rocky spine of that camel.

I’m heading back down to Phoenix soon, for my usual pre-Christmas getaway.  This year, I don’t know if Camelback Santa is going to be at the summit, equipped with coal and ‘canes.  The last posts on his Facebook page don’t address Christmas 2018.  But I hope he’s there, spreading joy and a little quirkiness around Phoenix.  It’s kind of my Christmas tradition now, and I think a little of the magic would go away with him.


  1.  Avoid the weekend.  Everyone hikes this iconic mountain, prepared or not, so if you do go on the weekend, go early.
  2.  The parking at both trail heads, Cholla and Echo Canyon, is negligible.  Be prepared to walk a bit from where you park your car or take a ride service.
  3. Be ready to use some handholds and balance, the trail involves some basic climbing near the top.
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