So Far, My Favorite Places to Hang Up My Boots.

 Take those boots off, baby.

Because I came into this adventure sans YouTube, it has been a truly organic experience for me.

The lion’s share of thruhikers I’ve met “followed” a former hiker on “the YouTube” before venturing out themselves. They know every twist and turn of the trail, when and where they will resupply, and where they will stay and “zero.”

I didn’t know (and still don’t) what the trail held next (except the ponies—I know where to find the ponies). So when I hit what I thought was a dead end the other day, it took some serious problem-solving before I realized I had to go out along a narrow cliff edge next to a raging river.

Fun surprise.

Yep. That’s the trail.

Most of my hiking brothers and sisters knew exactly what the trail looked like before they arrived at this spot. No problem solving required.

But I digress.

I preferred to just hit the trail and figure it out as I went along, and that’s proven to be ideal for me. The Trail decides what we’re all going to do, anyway, and I’m learning to be supremely flexible and to problem-solve in the moment.

I try to get my students to celebrate their mistakes (if you’re not screwing up, you’re not pushing your boundaries, hence not learning), so I’m trying to practice what I preach.

I also had never heard of “slackpacking” or “aqua blazing,” but I thank goodness for both of those stellar options.

All this to say I hadn’t researched a thing except what gear I would need and the best and lightest versions of that gear.

 

 

When I thought “Appalachian Trail,” I imagined 2 or 3 weeks in the forest at a time—no cell service, no resupplies.

Real Red Dawn stuff, you know?

Well, without the Russian soldiers and the automatic weapons. Or the sexy/smoldering/haunted facial expressions; I could only hope to look so attractive during a foreign invasion.

But that’s not for me. While several weeks on the trail without a break might be doable for many, it isn’t feasible for me for many reasons. Here are a few:

  • It requires me to carry a heavier pack. If you figure 1.5 pounds per day in food, 14 days between resupplies means around 20 pounds of food. With a 19 pound base weight, that’s around 45 pounds with food and water. No thank you, Sir.
  • It doesn’t fit my comfort range for acceptable levels of hygiene. The trail is waaay too cold in the beginning for creek bathing. It’s getting better, and now, at the end of May, I’ve managed two creek baths without developing hypothermia. Standing under a hot shower at a hostel is one of the greatest pleasures out here.
  • It can rain for such a long time with so few breaks, I’d have to hike in wet socks and shoes if not for the laundry facilities and the boot dryers at the hostel. I’ve had a week where it rained at some point every single day—absolute downpours.

For these reasons. I’ve spent a surprising (to me) amount of time staying at hostels and even at a few hotels.

I’m not yet 500 miles in, but I’ve created a list of my top 5 favorite hostels so far.

I consulted a few other hikers here on the trail who contributed some valuable points to my analysis and who agreed with my rankings, but these are primarily my own opinions.

So, here they are. Please keep in mind a couple of things: 1) I am only listing the hostels I have personally stayed in. 2) I am only considering hostels about which I have positive things to say. I wouldn’t bash any particular person or hostel based on one short stay, unless the negative impression I got had been a particularly drastic or dangerous one.

My List of 5 Top Hostels Pre-Damascus:

  • 5.) Mountain Harbor (mile 395)
  • 4.) Chica and Sunsets (mile 109)
  • 3.) Around the Bend (mile 69)
  • 2.) Above the Clouds (mile 20)
  • 1.) Boots Off (mile 428)

5) Mountain Harbor in Roan Mountain, TN

Mountain Harbour makes the list for several reasons. First, cat.

Cat meows (screams) loudly for attention and then jumps in your lap and demands pets and pats and scritches until you comply.

I don’t know its name or if it even lives there full time, but Cat won my heart.

And second, breakfast. Second Breakfast. Seconds of breakfast. Like, first one helping (read “heaping plate”) and then a second helping.

Sweet Mother of All That’s Holy, protect and defend the Mountain Harbour breakfast. We praise its name. *bows head reverently*

They advertise the “Best Breakfast on the AT,” and this guy, Doug—the man, the myth, the legend— recommended the Mountain Harbor, so it was a no-brainer.

Doug!

And the breakfast did not disappoint: homemade everything. Soufflés and casseroles and quiches (oh, my!), baked shredded potatoes and cheese, tomato pie, biscuits and gravy, the best French toast ever. EVER. I dare you to say it isn’t the very best you’ve ever had. I will fight you. Plus breads and muffins and juice and coffee (with peppermint sugar and hot chocolate powder to add if you wish) and bacon and sausage and fried potatoes and cupcakes and pastries and, yes, more.

All homemade daily by the kindest, sweetest folks you could ever want to meet. Served buffet style in a homey kitchen with set tables in the dining room and kitchen and deck on which to enjoy your meal.

It’s like going to your favorite grandaunt’s house.

4) Chica and Sunsets hostel

My favorite thing about this place is that it only serves four hikers at a time. It’s intimate and private and homey and they also serve a nice breakfast.

The host and hostess are interesting and kind and helpful and accommodating. They’ve hiked the AT and are great sources of information.

More than that, they created the hostel after experiencing the trail themselves, so they created what they would have liked to have as hikers. This makes for a homey, comfortable, and intuitive space.

3) Around the Bend

I loved my stay at Around the Bend. First, it is a short walk off the AT, so you don’t need to arrange a shuttle or wait on a ride or hitch. You can arrange a pick up if you need to, but you can also just walk right up to it. For me, this is a big plus.

The inside accommodations are clean and new and very comfortable, and the bunkhouse beds get high points for comfort, as well.

The overall vibe of the place is relaxing and comfortable, too, without being so casual that it feels unkempt.

And the common space (much agreement here) has been one of the best so far. It’s newly remodeled with high-end kitchen appliances, and it has enough floor space to accommodate group stretches and impromptu yoga classes, both of which happened while I was there.

The view from the big West-facing windows is relaxing and can also be enjoyed on a comfy back porch while waiting for your laundry.

Plus, cats.

2) Above the Clouds

The first hostel I stayed in, Above the Clouds, set the bar for hostel stays. They do your laundry for you as part of your stay, feed you a solid dinner and breakfast, and have super comfy accommodations.

Plus, both cats and Nimrod.

Nimrod was the host with the most. He knows all there is to know about the AT. I got to be there on his birthday, and since he shared his cake with us, he has won a space in my heart.

He said he knew he was spoiling us, and we shouldn’t expect to get the same stellar treatment at every hostel.

He was not wrong.

The whole place is well organized and carefully run, and was the best introduction to hostels, in general, a newbie throughhiker could ask for.

The 12 or so of us staying couldn’t help but get to know one another and spend time chatting because the space and the atmosphere is so conducive to it.

And Number One:

Boots Off

Hands down, best hiker vibe.

Trying to articulate why is tough, though.

To the best of our ability, the other hikers and I tried to ID where the vibe comes from, and here’s what we decided:

  • The owner, Jim, is accommodating, comfortable to be around, and laid back while also being completely professional. He runs an organized, amenity-laden place without making it feel stuffy.
  • The staff (don’t let the trail name, “Grumpy” fool you) are equally as laid back as the owner, and so colorful! They are characters, for sure. Acoustic guitar-playing, expert fire-building, always ground-maintaining, experienced shuttle-driving, Subway cookie-sharing, wild story-telling characters—exactly what on-site hostel workers should be.
  • The many musical instruments are for guest use and, in my experience, are often and expertly used around the fire. The sing-alongs are plenty.
  • The fire is burning almost 24/7, and the comfortable seats around it can fit a large group. The fire ring is steps away from the picnic table-heavy front porch, perfectly placed for hanging out together without being on each other’s laps (unless you like that, which is also fine).
  • It is steps away from the trail, so it’s uber convenient and can fit so many hikers at once that it attracts crowds of hikers at a time.
  • They offer kayak and paddle board rentals along with short shuttle rides to and from the lake. You can also walk to the lake from here.
  • They offer an “aqua blaze” 8-10 miles around the lake that knocks out 21 miles of the AT in a few hours. I did it in a super lazy six hours on a beautiful 83 degree day, and it was a great respite from walking with my pack all day.
  • The showers are the best on trail. I’ll let you experience it for yourself, but suffice it to say it is the hottest shower I’ve experienced in the last 2 months, and the most enjoyable shower overall.
  • The artwork is perfect. The whole place is creatively and artistically done.
  • The design and arrangement of all the elements—from the office to the tent sites to the laundry service to the showers to the tenting areas to the kayak rentals—are efficient and intuitive. Anything you want to do is conveniently arranged.
  • It’s reasonably priced. Hello.

I know I’m a bit effusive about this spot, but the truth is my experience (and those of other hikers) here stands out from all of the others.

Partially because of the clientele it attracts:

And if you find yourself being judge-y, I have news for you. We may use the term “hiker trash,” but we use it fondly. You will not find more considerate, inclusive, community-minded, respectful, accepting, loving people than the ones you see in these pictures.

These are the “kids” who share what they have, include everyone, wash their own dishes, clean up after themselves, and treat people with respect.

These aren’t people you need to worry about; they’d give you the shirt off their back (if they, you know, owned shirts).

Nope, as a rule it’s the wealthier, more entitled folks who are rude, who won’t give you the time of day, will expect special treatment, and will leave their mess for others to clean up.

But again, I digress.

So once more I’ll say it: this place also stands out because of the unique, indescribable vibe.

I’ll tell you about my personal experience.

I made an online reservation with these folks and I’d had to change it twice. When I ultimately had to cancel (giving up my deposit—which was fair), the owner, Jim, went above and beyond to help me figure out a way to stay and to also keep my deposit.

Then, when I’d had my fill of hiking and tenting in the rain, I had a momentary breakdown, cursed the mountain and the weather and texted the hostel for a pick-up out of the wet.

The owner himself came to (rescue) get me from a nearby parking lot and recommended a good tent space for me away from the crowd hanging out around the fire pit, so I could have a quieter space to process the day.

Then the following morning, they arranged a slackpack for me to make up the miles I missed as well as working out an aqua blaze for me the following day. So instead of “zeroing,” I was actually able to cover 28 miles in 2 days.

Then a “glamping” tent opened up, and they moved me over there.

The large canvas “glamping” tent has a memory foam mattress and a charging station and a memory foam mattress and a small table and chair and a memory foam mattress and its own coffee maker and a memory foam mattress.

During my kayaking adventure, I strained some ligaments in my forearms and wrists, and was in a decent amount of pain that evening and the following morning. My own fault for sure, but again, the staff was super accommodating and helped me get into town to pick up a brace and some salve and a little ice pack.

The staff treated me like one of the family during my whole visit, including giving me a hard time when I ended up having to stay a bit longer (Yes, I AM a pain in the ass, Kelly). And also when I capsized the kayak in the last 5 feet of my all-day paddling adventure.

To be fair, I found it funnier than anyone.

I couldn’t see that the bottom dropped off, and I stepped out of the kayak onto… nothing., and promptly capsized. 🤦‍♀️

So there you have it, my Pre-Damascus hostel recommendations.

I stayed at a couple of other places that couldn’t really be called “hostels,” but I’ve left those out because they don’t really fit the definition.

Finally, for those of you unfamiliar with the concept, a hostel is a low-cost, community-minded place to pass a night or two.

Hostels offer a clean place to shower, to do your laundry, and to lay your head indoors at night. Some also provide food, resupply options, slackpacking, and shuttles into town for a few.

In return, guests help out, wash their own dishes, clean up after themselves, and offer whatever help they can during their visit. Consideration is the order of the day.

In addition, some hostels offer work-for-stay options. If you need some money knocked off your bill or want to stay for free, most places will let you do some work around the place in exchange.

These are the places where hikers gather and actually socialize—something that logistically isn’t always possible on the trail, itself, and for that reason alone, they’re integral parts of life out here.

We meet new people, catch up with hikers we haven’t seen in a while, and get news of the hikers we know in common.

Though hostel stays weren’t on my original plan, they—like most surprises on this trip—have become one of the highlights for me.

They are the best example of our Trail community outside of Trail Magic I’ve found out here.

And I know it’s been said a hundred times in a hundred different ways, but I’m here to reiterate it: if the global community were more like the Trail community, the world would be a better, safer, friendlier place.

Let me just extend a great, big “Thank you” to these hostel owners and their staff members for helping to keep the trail community together (and showered).

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Comments 2

  • Melissa Williams : May 30th

    I am so glad that you loved Boots Off, it’s in my hometown of Hampton and just up the road from my house. The people that run it are amazing and I’m so proud to have it here in Hampton. Also happy that you got to enjoy our beautiful Watauga Lake, most posts I read are people just mentioning hiking by it, you got to enjoy more of it, sorry for your pain. Good luck on your journey, I will be following you!

    Reply

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