Camelback Culture Community Spotlight: Camelback Santa

Posted by Jes Shapiro on

Camelback Culture is focusing our new Community Spotlight Blog on Camelback Santa. How many cities in the world give you the joy of getting a photo with Santa in front of such epic views? Those of us lucky enough to live in the Valley of the Sun have this joy available to us... we just have to summit a mountain first 

Camelback santa with photo elves

So who is the man behind the beard? Who is guy that gets to thrill so many on Camelback Mountain this holiday season? Meet John Cressey, a youthful retiree, living in Scottsdale. John is not originally from the Valley, he spent some of his childhood in upstate New York— which he jokes is like the North Pole. Later he lived in Cincinnati before choosing “lovely Arizona” as his second home— especially during the snowy season. Impressively, Mr. Cressey spent much of this past summer hiking the whole Appalachian trail from Georgia to Maine... 2,200 miles!

Not surprisingly, John’s first hike up Camelback Mountain was in mid-December of 2009.  He had just come to Arizona for the winter and was feeling a bit lonely. The Christmas tree on the summit made a lasting impression on him. So how did the idea for Camelback Santa take shape? Funny enough, he tells us it all started when he was in Las Vegas for Halloween. Lacking a costume for the night’s festivities, he dug up a Santa costume he had from a previous year for a Santa Claus pub crawl (CamelbackCulture gives props to Camelback Santa for knowing how to have a good time!) This was a genius move on his part. As he puts it: “If you ever want to be the hit of the strip, and drink for free all night long, dress up as Santa Claus! I had lots and lots of people stop me and have their picture taken with me... my takeaway from that weekend was that people really, really love Santa” 

Camelback Mountain Christmas tree

Back home, staring at the Mountain from the Scottsdale Greenbelt, he remembered the Christmas tree on top and thought: “wouldn’t it be nice if you had a Santa Claus to greet you?” In December of 2013, he slid into his red suit, strapped on his boots, parked on Invergordon and tried to work up the courage to head up Cholla Trail for the first time as Camelback Santa. Nervous and admittedly feeling a bit dorky, he stepped out of his car.  His apprehension was dissuaded when 2 passing vehicles honked at him. Those honks acted as Rudolf’s red nose, and lit his way. “Ok” he thought, “this is gonna work”

Camelback Santa with baby, ladies, Ruben and Sandy

John is in his seventh year as our jolly summit Santa. He considers it an honor to be a part of so many people’s Christmas pictures and even Christmas cards. Particularly, babies’ first Christmas moments, “I’ve had a few of those cards— that’s sweet and touching.” He laughs recalling a moment some parents asked for him to do the “Lion King” pose with their baby. He was nervous in the moment but “it was a cute picture and very popular.“ John does miss the days when dogs were allowed on Camelback, “I always loved having the dogs on my lap for their Christmas pictures… always a great memory.” He loves the photos people share with him. If you would like to share your photos with him, you can friend Camelback Santa on Facebook.

Camelback Santa and CamelbackCulture

Playing the role is not as easy as flying reindeer and sliding down chimneys. Santa brings up a 20lb. sack of candy canes each day he’s on the summit! On top of that, the natural tree now has to be carried up each day; the Camelback “Elves” often assist with this task. The tree is not left on summit over night for a variety of reasons, most obviously to work within the Phoenix Parks’ goal of leaving no trace. With this same goal in mind, only bird seed ornaments are allowed on the tree; adding the side benefit of occasionally witnessing a hungry bird or ground squirrel munching on them. We of course, have to mention the Camelback Grinch. For the last three years, the culprit has taken occasion to throw the tree off the mountain top in the middle of the night. Mr. Cressey recalls a time last year, he had just returned from an intense visit to the gym only to find out the tree was missing. “I quickly got into my formal dress and went out and bought another tree and carried it up.” “I was surprised I was able to get it up there in about 45 minutes by myself.” To make the event even more memorable, John’s efforts were shown live on local TV, getting tens of thousands of views!

Staff Sergeant Travis Bradley 

The tree this year has a special significance.  It is dedicated to the memory of all veterans, past or present, who have experienced PTSD— particularly, Staff Sergeant Travis Bradley. Bradley graduated from Arcadia High School and attended Scottsdale Community College.  He enjoyed hiking Camelback Mountain, until the events of 9/11 led him to the join the army.  Multiple tours in Iraq and 15 years of military service to our country caused the Staff Sergeant to suffer from PTSD and loose his life as a result on March 2, 2016. John met his brother last year on summit as Camelback Santa; getting to know his family brought about the idea to dedicate the tree this year to honor his memory. Travis Bradley was 36 when passed, he left behind two young children and a family that loved him greatly. The Community appreciates his service.

Camelback Santa and community

So what does Camelback Culture mean to Camelback Santa? What else but, Community!  “I think it’s very little known that there really is a community up there,” he tells us. “Its surprising how many people hike Camelback everyday or at least several times a week… and they all know each other!” John continues telling us he was surprised to find a “subculture” on the mountain. “Its very nice.  I’ve gotten to know some of the regulars.” Some of whom assist him with the tree and act as his elves. “Community is sometimes in places you’d never expect.” CamelbackCulture knows this to be true— we embrace this Mountain Family

Camelback Santa Naughty and Nice list

John Cressey tells us that Camelback “Santa loves everybody and supports and welcomes everybody no matter what their religion and where they are in life.” A value held by many in the Community.  Sharing a final message from CB Santa, he continues, “I’m looking forward to seeing you on top of the Mountain some weekend or the few days before Christmas or Christmas Day, from 8 to 2 o’clock everyday.  Come get your picture taken with Santa and a candy cane. Some of you guys— you’re getting coal again. Sorry, but Santa knows everything”

Camelback Santa with community

CamelbackCulture thanks John Cressey for his contribution to the joy of the Community!  Check back by for future Camelback Culture Community Spotlight Blog posts and follow us on Instagram and Facebook for more Culture - Clothes - Community



Follow Camelback Santa on social media:

Instagram: @Camelback_Santa

FaceBook: Camelback Santa

Join Camelback Santa on the summit Dec. 14-15 and Dec. 21 up to Christmas Day from 8am to 2pm


Thank you also to the Community members that shared their photos with us:

John Creesey @camelback_santa

Rod Comer

Jes Shapiro @jes_plus_az

Tipsi Tipsuda @tipsi_tipsuda 

Elizabeth Drummond @lizdrummond

Kubari Eady @kubari9

Seeley James @seeleyjamesauth

Wendy Rockett

Michelle Roybal @hikerocknroll

Grandma Sandy Kloch

Ruben Olson

Ben Shapiro @threehundredsunrises

Beth Gant @bethnicole22

the Bradley family

Eduardo Fernandez @iadventureseek

Jeremy Ogle @armsolo_

Andre Ashton @andreashton

Maria Lanigan @arizlenz

Robert Carter @cruciferocious

Please let us know if you were not tagged properly!



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