The first time Donna Saufley heard the term “trail angel,” she wasn’t exactly sure what it was but she knew she liked the sound of it. A moniker bestowed on people who go out of their way to make a long-distance hiker’s life a little better, trail angels may give a hiker a ride or place to stay, or just offer a cold drink on a hot day.

In 1997, Donna and her husband, Jeff, hosted a small group of hikers at their home outside of Agua Dulce, California. Donna had made a spur-of-the-moment decision to invite the weary hikers back for a night’s rest in the couple’s trailer after running into them at a pizza restaurant in town, and she and Jeff served the group a homemade breakfast the next morning.

The hikers were quick to declare that the act of generosity was trail magic and Jeff and Donna were trail angels.


At the time, Donna was figuring out what her next steps would be after having taken a severance package from her job as a customer service representative and while Jeff was running his electrical contracting business.

Donna wasn’t even aware that the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, which runs from the Mexican to the Canadian border, passed just a mile from their home. And she never imagined that those hikers would be the first of thousands they’d host over the next 24 years at what would become known as Hiker Heaven.

A view of the open outdoor area on the Saufleys’ property. It is mostly light-brown dirt or pebbles with ample space for guests to spread out. A rainbow and mountains can be seen in the background with bushes and some trees in the foreground.
At times, the Saufleys hosted more than 100 people a night tent camping in this open area. Photo: Mel Carll / SCV Center for Photography


“I didn’t know how big it was going to get; I didn’t know how long it was going to go. But I knew that I wanted to do it and that I was the right person for it,” Donna says. She and Jeff had always admired the people who would come to support marathon runners, lining the streets to cheer on complete strangers for hours. Hosting hikers could be their version of that.

In the beginning, Donna would often go into Agua Dulce and “cruise” for hikers to offer them a free place to stay, she says. In the mornings, the Saufleys often provided rides back into town or to trailheads, loading up their Subaru Outback with hikers and packs to drop off as needed.

Matt Geis, who hiked the PCT in 2002, ended up at Hiker Heaven because he ran into some other hikers in town who had borrowed one of the Saufleys’ vehicles. They passed him the keys to drive it back.

At that point, Geis had already been hiking the trail for a month. “The hike puts you in a vulnerable place where you’re attempting something bigger than yourself, so to roll into town and have someone you don’t know treat you as family – it sticks with you,” he says.

A single-level home with two entrances. Bright flowers hang in pots from the overhang and mountains are seen in the background.
The Saufleysʼ trailer home where guests can shower, cook food, sleep and relax. Photo: Mel Carll / SCV Center for Photography


Word of the Saufleys’ generosity quickly spread. On a typical day during hiking season, their trailer would be full and tents would be spread out on their 2-acre homestead, with hikers taking advantage of the space to dry soggy clothes, mend worn gear, rest nagging injuries, or enjoy pizza and beer from town.

Emily Toby, who stayed at Hiker Heaven on PCT hikes in 2009 and 2013, says the extraordinary thing about the Saufleys is they seemed to anticipate your every need.

“You would be thinking that it was a great time to mend your ripped pants and turn around and there was a sewing machine,” she says. She credits Jeff and Donna with restoring her faith in humanity through their “unquestioning generosity and kindness.”

Dedicating over two decades to hosting hikers provided Donna and Jeff with a connection to a time when it was more common for people to welcome strangers into their homes and offer a bed to a weary traveler, Donna says.

Over the years, they also thought about the parents and family members of the hikers, she adds, figuring it would provide peace of mind for them to know that their loved ones were being cared for while traveling such a great distance on foot.

As the popularity of the trail grew over the years, so did the number of hikers looking to stay at Hiker Heaven. Some nights Donna and Jeff would host more than 100 people. The crowds and demands on the limited resources at their home led the Saufleys to make the difficult decision to begin operating as an Airbnb this year, hosting a maximum of six guests at a time.

In preparation for their paying guests, the couple completely renovated the trailer that had been home to so many hikers over the years, redoing the floors, installing a new HVAC system and painting. While it’s a big change, Donna says she’s looking forward to having smaller groups similar to when they first started. “I remember people from the first five years of hosting more than I do in the last few years,” she says. “You got to know who they were and make real connections.”


Donna reflects on how much their lives have been deeply enriched by their guests and hopes to maintain the vibe that’s made Hiker Heaven a special place for so many. She says it has always been – and will continue to be – a place for people to gather around the fire and talk, to build camaraderie and share experiences.

“I’m ready to put on a business hat instead of my trail angel hat, but I still have a trail angel heart,” she says, “and that will be behind everything I do in my business.”