Park Ranger Samantha Nickel: Lifeguard of the Desert

Mare CzinarMay 26, 2021
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City of Phoenix park ranger Samantha Nickel is uniquely qualified for taking on the crowds at some of the city’s hiking hubs. Nickel draws upon her experience in corrections, caregiving and airline bag wrangling for her current position in the city’s East Park district, which includes Camelback Mountain, Piestewa Peak, Dreamy Draw and Papago Park. Being able to work diplomatically with diverse populations in busy, physically demanding outdoor conditions comes naturally to the native Arizonan who recently completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Parks and Recreation Management at Arizona State University.

After going through a rough life patch in which she used hiking and nature to recover and reboot, Nickel decided to channel her love of the outdoors into a new career. “I have a love for the outdoors and an interest in the management of our public lands,” she says. “As a park ranger, I have the opportunity to educate visitors on our unique ecosystem.”

Her workaday responsibilities include maintaining a presence at trailheads, answering visitor questions, assessing trail conditions, organizing volunteer stewards for clean-up and repair, and enforcing park rules, which has been a challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have seen an increase in park users and people parking in the preserve or hiking off trail – both damage the land,” Nickel says. “Park rangers… aim to protect that land through education and sometimes enforcement.”

Off-trail hiking not only harms sensitive desert terrain, it’s also a leading reason why hikers get lost and injured and puts search and rescue teams at risk.

“At South Mountain Park [for example] there are a lot of social (i.e. unauthorized) trails. We have to know our trails and access points, that way we can direct rescue personnel to the appropriate location to access patients quickly. We are like the lifeguards of the desert.”

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City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department

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