Goodbye to Agua Dulce’s Hiker Heaven

This year’s class of PCT thru-hikers will have to find a new place to stop and rest after descending the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles. Hiker Heaven, the Agua Dulce oasis that is woven into nearly two decades of PCT lore, is no longer an option.

Trail Angel Donna Saufley closed “Hiker Heaven” this year. She said she is working to spread the workload over several people and nearby outposts. “I want Agua Dulce to be Hiker Heaven,” she said.

For 17 years starting in 1997, Donna and Jeff Saufley’s two-acre homestead was the place for hikers to resupply their food bags, refurbish their gear and reinvigorate their weary bodies for the muscle-draining heat of the high desert that lay ahead.

These legendary trail angels fell into helping weary PCT travelers by accident, but, over time, offered beds, showers, laundry service, cooking facilities and even vehicles to hikers needing a way to get into town for gear and supplies.

Donna said she closed Hiker Heaven because of principle. She was concerned about impacts to the trail.

“With the ever-growing number of hikers on the trail, I believe it’s unconscionable to do anything that causes groups to cluster.”

It’s an issue she’s been concerned about for years and one she said she’s tried to talk about in the PCT community. Around the end of January, there was a Facebook spat between Donna and others in the community about whether the annual Kick-Off event and increasingly popular trail stops such as Hiker Heaven operated contrary to Leave No Trace practices.

“This place is being referred to as a bottleneck,” Donna said. “I don’t want to be contributing to the problem.”

She said she couldn’t continue to operate in good conscious if Hiker Heaven had to potential to damage the trail.

“I couldn’t do what I felt was wrong,” she said. “I had to take the higher ground. We all need to be conscious about the impact that we make on the trail. I truly believe in Leave No Trace. It’s the most important thing we can do as stewards of the trail.

“It’s more important to me than being a trail angel.”

There are several bonuses for her that she didn’t consciously think about until she made the decision to quit. She’ll have more time to manage her family business. And she’ll get to spend more time with her new grandson, Daniel. She takes care of him several days a week. “When he’s here, I get nothing done. The time I have with him is so fleeting. You can’t get that time back. You can’t reel it back in.”

She also said the increasing numbers of PCT hikers have made it more difficult for her to manage.

“It’s untenable for one family to deal with the numbers. I really think the community can do it.”

She said she knew she was on a collision course with the hiker season and didn’t think she could have handled it all. It weighed on her.

The popularity of the PCT has certainly grown. Just a decade ago, a couple of hundred thru-hikers might have stopped at Hiker Heaven in a season. In 2014, Donna estimates that about 1,200 hikers came through.

“I can’t count them,” she said. “It’s a different experience than what it was back then. The hikers haven’t changed. They are the same as they were when we first met them – a wonderful group of people.”

The Saufleys and Hiker Heaven volunteers enjoy a meal on the lawn. Donna is third from left and Jeff is standing at right. Donna called them the “best volunteers in the world.”

The Saufleys and Hiker Heaven volunteers enjoy a meal on the lawn. Donna is third from left and Jeff is standing at right. Donna called them the “best volunteers in the world.”

Because the volume, for the past couple of years Donna and Jeff enlisted volunteers to help. The volunteers – whom she praised highly – have been running the show for the last few years, and even have been mistaken for the Saufleys.

“We’ve gotten removed from that closeness we once had,” she said. “I still have the satisfaction of helping people, but what I really valued most of all was getting to know people.”

She stressed that she’s not mad or upset with the hikers. “I still love the whole notion of it, but once I made the decision, it felt like a burden had been lifted. It never felt like a burden. I feel like this was the year that it would have become a burden.”

She’s made sure the hikers will be taken care of this year and into the future. The KOA campground, nine miles to the south, will take packages and host PCT hikers. They have a designated camping area for hikers, a pool, laundry and showers. Catering trucks will feed the masses.

In Agua Dulce and nearby Acton, two families have already responded to help hikers/equestrians as volunteers. Donna is spending time this year building a broader support network, enlisting community and church groups to take on some of the work.

“I’m not just quitting and leaving everybody hanging,” she said. “I know it’s all going to work out wonderfully. It may not be the same, but it will all be good.”

It’s clear it won’t be the same. The PCT community will never forget Jeff and Donna’s selfless hospitality. They are the definition of trail angels and they will be missed. Thanks to both of you from PCTA.

Look for more on Hiker Heaven and the Saufleys in the summer issue of the PCT Communicator magazine in June. This post has been amended to include more information about Donna’s reasons for closing Hiker Heaven.

Author: Mark Larabee

Mark Larabee is the PCTA's Advocacy Director. He is the former editor of the "PCT Communicator" magazine and co-author of "The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America's Wilderness Trail" published in 2016. Larabee is a journalist, part of a team who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for The Oregonian newspaper. He hiked the PCT across Oregon for a 2005 series for the paper and has been with PCTA since 2010. He lives in Portland.