The 2020 Hiking Season Through the Eyes of a Trail Angel

Trail closures aren’t anything new in the hiking community. Obstacles like high levels of snow or fallen trees struck down by storms regularly take hikers off-trail. However,”in the case of a pandemic” trail closure procedures are not yet written in any hiker manual, leaving many confused at the fate of their hikes.

As social distancing orders began taking place in early March, hikers began slowly trickling off the trails. As the government realized social distancing was not enough to stop the spread of COVID-19, stay-at-home orders restricted any nonessential travel in almost all 50 states, which in turn most likely canceled all thru-hikes for the 2020 season.

“It is a drastic and heartbreaking decision made during a crisis the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetimes,” said Donna”‘L-Rod” Saufley. “I do not envy those having to make the call, but it is the right call under the circumstances. Sheltering-in-place and isolating is our most effective weapon in minimizing fatalities from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It is a weapon that is most effective if we ALL make the sacrifice.”

L-Rod and her husband, Jeff, previously owned Hiker Heaven, an iconic trail angel stop near mile 454 of the Pacific Crest Trail, in Agua Dulce, California. Hiker Heaven went up for sale last summer after 22 years of hosting hikers, and in those 22 years, L-Rod has never seen anything like this. Fire and snow have effectively closed parts of the trail, but there has never been a time when the hikers could bring disease and possibly death to people just by coming into towns or campgrounds.”

The decision is not only affecting hikers, but also trail angels and trail towns.

Saufley recalled that some trail towns rely on business from hikers for one-third of their income, which is a near-impossible deficit to try to make up for in the absence of hikers. However, small trail towns have more to lose than just business. Their health and safety are especially at risk, as many isolated towns face less access to medical care and assistance. If asymptomatic carriers come through these towns on their hikes, unknowingly spreading the virus, it’s very likely trail towns will be in worse condition due to disease than if hikers had never come through at all.

“…Coming through this pandemic with loved ones unscathed is the most important achievement of all. The return of the hikers to the trail will be welcomed and celebrated when that day comes.” – Donna “L-Rod” Saufley

Despite stay-at-home orders—which when broken could result in fines and even jail time—and various requests from the Pacific Crest Trail Association, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition for hikers to end or postpone their hikes, some refuse to put down their trekking poles. “I can’t even begin to express how disgusted and disappointed I am with those who are pressing on with their hikes despite the closures,” said Saufley. “It makes me ashamed to be associated with that segment of the hiking community. The apparent lack of respect for the closures now mandated are the most glaring examples of personal entitlement I’ve ever witnessed in the trail community. People are dying because of the unintended actions of others. Get a clue.”

Looking into the future, Saufley also shows concern for those planning to postpone their hikes, instead of canceling entirely. “My question would be, “Postponing until when?” I fear those expecting to get back on trail this summer and/or fall will be faced with similar travel restrictions and closures, as health experts are warning that we could see another surge of the SAR-CoV-2 virus later this year. Postponing until a future season may be the most viable, and would avoid more frustration and canceled plans. However, Saufley warns that the rescheduling may result in overcrowding of long-distance trails in 2021. There will need to be meticulous enforcement of the permit system, as there will still be “those who feel rules and limits don’t apply to them.”

At the end of the day, L-Rod believes what’s most important is to remember the big picture. “There are many out here who feel terrible their dreams and plans were shattered. Communities like ours are sad and heartbroken for them. However, much more than dreams are being lost around the world right now, and coming through this pandemic with loved ones unscathed is the most important achievement of all. The return of the hikers to the trail will be welcomed and celebrated when that day comes.”

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Comments 5

  • madeleine : Apr 13th

    Well-written and well-researched. i’ve been asking my friends who were to hike the PCT this year if they still intended to continue their plans. I’m want to show them this article in hopes it helps them understand the consequences that may follow their actions. i do hope for the best for thru-hikers in 2021. i also hope that a more strict permit system will be in place and over-crowding will be minimal, if at all

  • Allie : Apr 13th

    Thank you for this perspective. We knew trail businesses and hikers were hurting due to the pandemic yet hearing also from a trail angel completes the picture.


  • Gary Lockney : Apr 14th

    Glad to read about this issue from the other side of the hiker-trail angel relationship. I suspect few thru hikers would make it end-to-end without the generosity and hospitality of those along the way. Hopefully, the hard feelings wrought on the communities by those few who put them at unnecessary risk will have healed by 2021.

  • Carol Beers : Apr 16th

    Is it possible that those who had permits for this year but did not hike get priority for next years permits?


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