Celebrating the Warmth and Generosity of Beloved Trail Angel Donna Saufley

All of us in the trail community were heartbroken to hear of the passing of Donna Saufley on October 6 after a long and difficult battle with cancer. A long-distance hiker, former PCTA board member, and volunteer, Donna—along with her husband Jeff Saufley—helped create the generous culture of trail angels on the PCT. For years, Donna and Jeff hosted countless PCT hikers at their home in Agua Dulce, California, known as “Hiker Heaven.” Donna, whose trail name was L-Rod (short for Lightning Rod) will be missed by all.

To celebrate Donna’s life and the impact her spirit, warmth and generosity had on so many, we offer these memories of her.

To give back to the Saufley family, visit their GoFundMe page. If you have memories you’d like to share of Donna and/or your time at Hiker Heaven, please email them to us at [email protected]

Donna and Jeff Saufley (center) with hikers at Hiker Heaven. Photo by Tommy Corey.

When I Met Donna Saufley
By Mark Larabee, PCTA Advocacy Director

Donna Saufley introduced herself to me with the exuberance of a long-lost friend.

It was spring 2005 when I met her in Agua Dulce. I was reporting for a series I wrote that summer in The Oregonian newspaper about the Pacific Crest Trail and I’d heard early on that “Hiker Heaven” was a must-see. From my desk in Portland, I arranged to visit her when the hikers were there.

I’d been working with a trail crew on Mount San Jacinto the week before, and called Donna when I arrived in town. She met me at the store and (pre-Google maps) showed me the way to her home.

The ranch house in Agua Dulce was part organized sleepover and part Grateful Dead concert. Hikers were busy washing their clothes, making lunch, and fixing their gear. Others were sitting around playing guitars and enjoying a beautiful spring day.

I was amazed at the level of generosity Donna and her husband Jeff displayed, yet, after a couple days watching and talking to them, it all seemed perfectly natural.

Donna and Jeff became trail angels by accident. When they moved to Agua Dulce in 1996, they didn’t know a thing about the Pacific Crest Trail or the people who traveled on it.

“The hikers used to sit outside the store and open their boxes,” Jeff Saufley told me in 2005. “We really thought they were just bums in town—until we heard about the trail.”

The night of May 31, 1997, Donna Saufley bumped into a couple at the pizza parlor. The hikers, worn and dirty, asked if there was a motel or campground in town. No campground, she said, but there’s a hotel seven miles up the highway. Their spirits melted.

“Little did I know I was about to launch into civic activism,” she said. “I turned back and told them I did know where they could stay.”

By word of mouth and the Internet, the message spread year after year.

The Saufley’s two-acre compound became an oasis for weary northbound thru-hikers descending the San Gorgonio Mountains northeast of Los Angeles, where the cool of the mountains disappears into the consuming heat of the high desert.

When they reached the Saufley’s compound, thru-hikers were roughly four weeks and 464 miles into their five-month journey. They were hot, dirty, tired, and short of supplies.

Hiker Heaven and Donna’s welcoming arms got them back on the path.

Dirty clothes? You put them in a basket with your name on it and Donna would get them done—four to six loads a night during the peak of the hiking season between May and October. She had clean shorts and t-shirts to wear while your clothes were washing. If you needed a shower, you signed up on the board, clean towels provided.

They had beds in a singlewide manufactured home and a motor home, and cots in the garage—first-come, first-served. There were many tents set up in the yard. Food drops were in the garage, but if you needed to make a run to the store, you could sign out the blue Volvo wagon or the red Chevy Blazer.

When I was there in 2005, Donna Saufley worked 45 miles away in Pasadena at the Fannie Mae Corporation. By then she was taking three weeks off in May and June to care for hikers, greeting them with hugs and handshakes. Jeff Saufley ran his own business as an electrical contractor.

“Anything you do that you love, it’s not like work,” she told me as we sat around a campfire that first night. “We all have time, it’s just what we choose to do with it.”

That year she figured she hosted about 250 hikers.

“This is what I am,” she said. “It’s really about giving hikers a rest in this miserably hot place. We just get our joy from knowing that they feel better when they leave, and they have a chance to make it.”

For 17 years, Donna and Jeff’s place was truly a heaven for hikers. They defined trail angel culture. And when they finally shut it down in 2015, it was with the same conviction that they started it.

Donna was truly concerned about the impacts so many people were having on the trail and the landscapes around it. Ten became 50 and 50 became 200 and so on. Who could have imagined in the late 1990’s that more than 8,000 people would be seeking long-distance permits to travel on the PCT?

“This place is being referred to as a bottleneck,” Donna told me in a 2015 interview. She was referencing a Facebook spat between herself and others in the PCT community about whether the long defunct annual Kick-Off event and increasingly popular trail stops such as Hiker Heaven operated contrary to Leave No Trace practices.

“I don’t want to be contributing to the problem,” she said. “With the ever-growing number of hikers on the trail, I believe it’s unconscionable to do anything that causes groups to cluster.”

Vintage Donna. To her, the trail was more important that being a trail angel, which was damned important to her. She gave so much to so many people over all those years. And she gave so much to the trail.

Hiker Heaven. Photo by Andy Berger.


Donna (left) with Crystal Gail Welcome. Photo by Crystal Gail Welcome.

Hugs and Security from Donna
By Crystal Gail Welcome

I met Donna Saufley at Hiker Heaven in 2016. It was my first time on the PCT and I didn’t know yet that the post office locations weren’t always on trail nor open during specific times. I have a medical implant that requires periodic recharging. Utilizing USPS, I had been shipping my charge system along my route on the trail. Because of where I’d mailed the previous charge system and not being able to get a ride to the post office, I skipped that spot. I’d bounced the package but it went to a post office the next town over.

I was overwhelmed and a bit out of sorts when I arrived in Aqua Dulce. Sensing my anxiety and worry, Donna gave me a hug. She told me not to worry. She took me to the post office and let me stay in a camper for two nights—even though they were reserved for couples and older hikers.

She sat down with me and helped me plan my resupply route. She made me feel great. She went out of her way to make people feel safe. Later, she wrote a post about me and how honored she was to host me. She made me feel included and provided me with support over the years, as I continued my 4-year hike of the PCT. I will never forget Donna and her kindness.

Sunrise at Hiker Heaven. Photo by Raphaelle Domingue.

Dog Heaven at the Saufley’s home in Agua Dulce. Photo by Petra Orta.

Heaven for Hikers, Volunteers and Pets
By Anitra Kass, PCTA Southern California Regional Representative

I met Donna on my 2005 thru-hike. That year I think there were about 300 hikers going NoBo and it was a high snow year so I got a chance to spend a good amount of time with her at Hiker Heaven (it wasn’t yet called that).  Donna was a warm, welcoming and reassuring presence amongst us. The high snow year created quite a buzz and she helped us navigate that with advice and a place to lay low for a bit so plans could take shape.

I’d return to Hiker Heaven many times over the next 17 years and looked forward to the warm welcome Donna would greet me with.  Donna’s generosity with her time and resources for hikers is well known.  But it didn’t end with hikers, she had the capability of welcoming equestrians too, and I know she had put that info out there (although I’m not sure if anyone took her up on it).

Additionally, Donna welcomed our PCTA trail crews to camp at Hiker Heaven when they were working in the area. Finding a campsite with enough water to support a crew for 8 days in Southern California is notoriously difficult—and Donna’s generosity made it so much easier. It was the nicest camping spot our crews ever had. Finally, she opened her home to all dogs, big or small. If a dog needed a home it seemed to find one with Donna and Jeff. They had an amazing pack throughout the years. One time when I was visiting, her dear dog Buddy stepped in some poop…and then proceeded to track the poop around the guest house. Donna and I worked to clean it up and clean up Buddy, and that episode left us giving Buddy a trail name: he became Poop Foot.

I’ve heard that when you die, you are greeted by all of your pets who have passed before you. I like to think this is true. It gives me some solace to think of Donna getting a warm, welcoming and reassuring greeting from all of our trail friends—and by all her dogs who have already passed, Poop Foot leading the pack.

Donna and German hiker Thomas Paschen, with hiker boxes on shelves behind them. Photo by Thomas Paschen.

Author: PCTA Staff

The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to protect, preserve and promote the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail as a world-class experience for hikers and equestrians, and for all the values provided by wild and scenic lands.