While most of the Valley is cozy in bed, park ranger Allyson Brennan is outside cleaning bathrooms, picking up trash and getting South Mountain ready for the day.
Though the mountain welcomes about 2 million visitors each year, according to Park Supervisor Rick Plautz, many don't realize the work the park rangers put into the preserve or what they do on a day-to-day basis.
Brennan, 29, of Phoenix is out in the field at 4 a.m., making sure the mountain is ready for visitors by the time it opens an hour later. She and three or four other rangers go to all the trailheads to ensure they are clean and ready for business.
During a 10-hour shift, Brennan and the other rangers are in charge of about 110 miles of trail and more than 16,000 acres. She said there is always work to do, and the day goes by pretty quickly.
In the early hours, Brennan said she likes to stay close to the trail heads, so that she can answer any questions hikers, bikers or horseback riders might have.
At 7 a.m. July 22, she was doing just that at the Pima Canyon trailhead near 48th Street and Guadalupe Road. After hiking a small way up one of the trails, she noticed a couple weaving through unmarked ground below with a large plastic bucket and a hiking stick.
Slightly suspicious, Brennan walked down to make sure they were not removing any of the wildlife. Since South Mountain Park is a preserve, no vegetation, animals or even dirt can be removed, she said.
"The Sonoran Desert crust is so thin and so fragile, that it would take many years for (anything) to grow back," Brennan said.
Once she got closer to the couple, however, she realized they were not taking anything from the preserves, they were adding to them.
The couple said they lived across the street and had found a rattlesnake in their yard. They came to the park to release it back into the wild instead of killing it.
Brennan informed them that the diamondback may wander back to their house since it is within a 5-mile radius. She gave the couple some information and her card before they went home, so they could call if they ever saw another snake.
That is Brennan's job in a nutshell.
"That's our main priority is being out there," she said.
Of course, the rangers have many other duties aside from helping and educating the public. Brennan said her job includes enforcing park rules, which often means handing out citations, keeping the parks free of trash and vandalism, repairing trails, helping in mountain rescues and coordinating special programs to encourage the public to get outdoors.
"As a ranger, there are many hats that we wear," she said.
Brennan usually spends a good part of her day walking and driving around making sure park rules are being followed and checking for any vandalism. She said vandalism is a common occurrence at the preserves, especially at the summits' ramadas, and rangers often have to sandblast the stone to remove it.
Aside from keeping the mountain clean, Brennan said she also works to keep trails in good shape. Oftentimes, repairs need to be made if a trail washes out, or spider trails that may spring out of the designated trails need to be closed down.
Spider trails are paths made by the public, not the parks department. Many people wear them down, often as short cuts on zig-zagged trails. Brennan said rangers try to close them because they affect the desert.
"Any little bit of impact (from footsteps) is a huge impact," she said, adding that it is also a safety issue if people need help on the mountain but are off the trails, since rangers will have a harder time locating them.
Brennan said smaller repairs are usually done during the summer, since it can be dangerous to be out for long after 10 a.m. However, she planned on taking advantage of the overcast weather that day to get out and repair a broken sign on one of the trails.
"I really like the summer, because I can get a lot done that I couldn't in the winter," she said. "Summer is the time to get our programs ready for the peak season."
The peak season is basically every season besides summer, and the park has many programs to encourage the public to get out during that time.
"We try to get people out to enjoy our preserves and be healthy," Brennan said. "That's really what it's all about."
Two big events during the fall and winter are the Phoenix Summit Challenge and the Annual National Trail Trek.
The Challenge runs for a weekend in November and encourages anyone to climb multiple summits in the Phoenix Desert Parks and Preserves, according to the city's website. The summits include South, North, Camelback and Lookout mountains, as well as Papago Peak.
The 15th annual Trek, coordinated by Brennan, takes place in January. The 15.5-mile hike goes all around South Mountain, and participants are given food, water, transportation and prizes, the website said.
Brennan said the Challenge usually has about 800 participants, and the Trek can take 300. Last year, registration for the Trek filled up in two days, she said.
Aside from programs, however, Brennan's main responsibility is to the people and the preserves. She always travels with a lot of extra water and first aid kits, in case anyone should get in any trouble, since rangers almost always assist the fire department with mountain rescues.
Brennan said her job is great because she gets to be outside as much as she wants. As a kid, she always wanted to do outdoor activities, and she got her bachelor's degree in parks and recreation management at Northern Arizona University.
While Brennan went on to get her master's degree in public administration and would like to have a supervisory position at some point in her career, she said she loves her field.
"I always wanted to be working outside," she said. "I couldn't envision being in a cubicle all day."
Jolie McCullough is interning this semester for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. She is a senior at Arizona State University.