Perhaps you’ve arrived at Camelback Mountain’s Echo Canyon trailhead late in the afternoon, ready for a sunset hike, only to be told by the ranger at the gate to be back at your car no later than an eye-poppingly specific time, like 5:23 pm. At that point, we’re going to start ticketing every car left in the lot, the ranger might warn, as one did to Phoenix New Times a few months ago.
Every car? Not quite.
Last year, the city of Phoenix issued 621 parking violations to hikers, according to data that New Times obtained via public records request following that warning. That might sound like a lot, but it’s an average of 1.7 citations per day, for a mountain that saw nearly 445,000 visitors last year — an average of more than 1,200 people per day — according to numbers provided by the city.
All of the tickets that Phoenix issued last year were at the Echo Canyon lot, which has 132 spaces, including some for motorcycles and people with disabled stickers. Finding a space there is notoriously competitive.
None of the violations issued by Phoenix came from the Cholla Trailhead at the eastern end of the park, where jurisdiction is divided among Paradise Valley, Scottsdale, and Phoenix. There, cars can park in designated spots only along Invergordon Road, not Cholla Lane. The city of Phoenix did not issue any parking violations near this trailhead last year, but hiking guides and online accounts indicate that the other two cities do.
If you park along Cholla Lane, you’ll be towed, warns one hiking guide. “Make no mistake, the police will aggressively ticket anyone parked improperly in this area,” another says.
Of the tickets issued at the Echo Canyon lot, the overwhelming majority were for parking after hours. A dozen were for parking in a prohibited place such as the sidewalk or a disabled spot. Both Phoenix park rangers and the Phoenix Police Department issued the citations.
In most cases, the fine for parking after hours was $107. In one case, someone received a $290 ticket for parking in a disabled spot, and in another case, a person parking after hours got a ticket for $72, not $107. As of early March, more than 400 tickets issued throughout 2018 remained unpaid.
Camelback Mountain is officially open from sunrise to sunset, and so “parking after hours” isn’t limited to hikers who’ve overstayed their welcome after the sun has gone down. Eager beavers hoping to get a head start on the day can also be ticketed if they park before the sun is up, the data show. Midnight hikers and stargazers have been caught, too.
For example, on January 4, 2018, the city issued slapped 15 cars with citations. The first was at midnight, and the rest were issued between 5:50 a.m. and 6:16 a.m. Later that month, on January 25, six visitors had been ticketed by 6:20 a.m. (sunrise was at 7:29 a.m. that day). Starting at 6:08 p.m., 15 minutes after the sun had gone down, another seven were dinged.
The majority of the tickets — about 450 of them — were issued in the evening. Most landed on cars with Arizona plates, although about 100 went to California drivers. A handful of visitors from elsewhere, including Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, also came away from their Camelback experiences with a $107 souvenir.
Of the nearly 445,000 visitors to Camelback last year, about 250,000 entered via the Echo Canyon Trailhead, and about 195,000 via Cholla, according to the city of Phoenix.
The city has all but stopped issuing tickets so far this year. Between January 1 and March 4, 2019, the city issued just three violations. In the same time frame last year, it gave out 213 of them.
Gregg Bach, a spokesperson for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, said that “the increased visibility and on-site education by city Park Rangers” at the Cholla and Echo Canyon trailheads accounted for the difference in citations between 2018 and 2019.
What the data don’t show are the number of cars that parked before sunrise or after sunset that never received a violation. Given the perpetually crammed state of the parking lot at Echo Canyon Trailhead, even after sunset, far more people probably linger in the park outside of official opening hours and return to find no ticket on their car than those who do.