How a Georgia Couple Created the Perfect Start to Hiking the Appalachian Trail

The Hiker Hostel in Dahlonega, Georgia.
The Hiker Hostel in Dahlonega, Georgia. Josh Saint
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“One of the best parts of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, regardless of what state you’re in or what kind of weather you’re experiencing, is the people you meet. Hikers look out for one another, check in on each other, and keep each other accounted for at camp that night. That community often extends to the service providers and people who live in trail towns, and we are proud to continue our part of the Appalachian Trail.”

-Leigh and Josh Saint, GA>ME 2000
Leigh and Josh Saint have become, well, “saints” for other thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail. They own the Hiker Hostel , based in Dahlonega, Georgia, and act as a great first impression for thru-hikers starting their journey on the AT, as the hostel is not far from the Southern Terminus. The Saints wanted to reassure and encourage thru-hikers right from the start of their journey, easing fears before hikers started the trail and encouraging them to keep going for at least another day when they think they’re ready to quit.

The Saints know the ups and downs of being a thru-hiker: the pair hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2000. They had never even heard of the Appalachian Trail until a college friend from North Georgia University took them on their first backpacking trip in 1993. It only took one experience, and they were hooked on hiking.

RootsRated asked Leigh and Josh to talk about their experiences from the idea of opening a hostel to its success 12 years later.

The Saints during their AT hike in 2000.
The Saints during their AT hike in 2000. Leigh Saint

When was the moment that you realized you wanted to open up a hostel on the AT?

Josh:  I started talking about this idea of opening a hostel in the Dahlonega area before we were even out of Georgia. I recognized quickly that there was a need for a comprehensive service to help hikers get to the trail. Leigh and I met a lot of hikers the first few days, and one of the biggest topics of conversation (besides gear and pack weight) was how they got to the trail and how difficult it was putting all of the pieces together: shuttles, grocery store stops, outfitter stops to replace gear they forgot, etc.

When did The Hiker Hostel become a reality? 

Leigh:  The thought lingered with us throughout our journey. Having lived in the area and hiked the trail, we had a good understanding of what hikers would need and how to make it happen. Shortly after finishing the AT, we started looking for a building site for the hostel, driving every side road we could find that might be within walking distance of the trail. Our main motivation for opening the hostel was to service would-be thru-hikers with a “one call that’s all” concept. It took a few years to replenish our bank accounts, and in 2003 we purchased the land to build up The Hiker Hostel.

The Hiker Hostel under construction.
The Hiker Hostel under construction. Leigh Saint

The Hiker Hostel opened in 2004 at 7693 U.S. Highway 19, 23 miles from the Springer Mountain Approach Trail, 10 miles from the Woody Gap trailhead, and 3 miles from downtown Dahlonega.

Based on your AT experience, what did you make sure you wanted to have and do for hikers at the hostel?

Leigh:  Our main goal was for thru-hikers to be able to make one call to us and have all of their questions answered and needs met: shuttles, lodging, showers, laundry, resupply options, internet, shipping packages, backpacking and gear knowledge, and trail-specific knowledge. There is no real “standard” for hostels, but we wanted to set a high standard. The word “hostel” has a negative stereotype associated with it already, and we wanted to break that stereotype.

The Hiker Hostel features container cabins as one option for guests.
The Hiker Hostel features container cabins as one option for guests. Josh Saint

The Saints certainly did break the stereotype, offering more upscale lodging (compared to most AT small-town options) and amenities that would make the hikers feel comfortable on the start of their journey. Guests at the Hiker Hostel can choose from bunks, private rooms, or container cabins. Amenities include:

  • Breakfast

  • Kitchen facilities with fridge, stove, and microwave

  • Internet and phone access

  • Shuttle services to all AT trail crossings in North Georgia; to/from Atlanta North Springs MARTA station and Gainesville Greyhound/Amtrak station; and to town Wal-Mart for additional supplies.

The Hiker Hostel sees AT hikers almost year-round, between northbound and southbound thru-hikers, section hikers and day hikers. They estimate at least 3,300 guests in 2015 hiked at least some portion of the AT, and the numbers for 2016 are expected to be similar. The Hiker Hostel has already seen a busier January and February than last year.

When is the Hiker Hostel most busy? 

Leigh:  During “Thru-Hiker Season,” which is late February thru late April. The hostel is often completely booked (on weekends and weekdays) with both thru-hikers and section hikers. We are often at capacity and running multiple shuttles daily. Many of the guests in AT season time don’t have transportation (besides their feet).

How many repeat hikers who didn’t finish earlier come back?

Leigh:  That’s a great question, and I don’t have a good answer. We do have a lot of repeat customers, but I don’t have a way to quantify that. If had to guess, I’d say maybe 5 percent.

Can you tell when a thru-hiker stays at the hostel and is or is not going to finish?

Josh:  Not really. There are definitely hikers who, when you see their gear or hear the questions they ask, you think, “there’s no way they’re going to make it.” But I think being a little naïve has its advantages. Those hikers haven’t had enough experience or thought about what they want their experience to be, so they don’t have certain expectations.

But sometimes you do know deep down that, despite the obvious overwhelming desire to hike the AT being there, a person is not physically capable to accomplish the entire trail or maybe even complete a whole day. It’s heartbreaking to see a person come to that realization. And, of course, that doesn’t mean that they have failed. They just had to know for sure and trying was the only way.

Have you made long-lasting friendships with any AT thru-hikers?

Leigh:  While we have met many wonderful friends through the hostel, developing personal relationships happens less often than one might think. In fact, some of the personal relationships were there before these individuals were guests at the hostel. The North Georgia Mountains have so much to offer and we often have folks come back to see and do more things, and so the more guests come back, the more we get to know them and find things we already have in common.

Hikers at the Hiker Hostel prepare to get shuttled to the AT.
Hikers at the Hiker Hostel prepare to get shuttled to the AT. Alexa Lampasona

When to Visit

While many hostels along the AT only host thru-hikers, The Hiker Hostel is open to all outdoor enthusiasts from thru-hikers, to section backpackers, day hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers, road cyclists, and even family reunions and tourists visiting Dahlonega.

If you aren’t hiking the AT, the best times to visit The Hiker Hostel in late April through the end of May, the perfect time to see an amazing display of wildflowers along the trail and get more reliably warm weather. The leaves are also just started to bud at higher elevations, so you catch a few more glimpses of views than you do once the trees are fully leafed out. May mornings are cool and crisp and temperatures usually don’t creep higher than the 70s.

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