Oh, what an angel!

'Trail angel' on the Continental Divide Trail provides hikers with a lift, a place to camp, or even the warmth of a surrogate mom for a few days

Continental Divide Trail trail angel Karen Hester, right, with two international thru-hikers she gave a place to rest.
Karen Hester/Courtesy Photo

In her near and distant past, Karen Hester was a traveler. She still is, in fact — of different states, countries, continents. Through the years, she’s done a lot of her trekking alone. More than once, when she’s been in need — of directions or advice, or just someone to talk to — strangers have offered help.

Hester is also an avid hiker. One reason she decided to live in Grand Lake is because the Continental Divide Trail goes right through here. She’d heard about trail angels on different American long trails (the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail), “so when I got here, I inquired about trail angels,” she says. “And I found out no one was doing it. Grand Lake is a (Continental Divide Trail) gateway community but no individual was stepping up to give a helping hand to hikers.”

There’s a hostel in Grand Lake, Shadowcliff Mountain Lodge, with five men’s and five women’s rooms for $35 a night, but sometimes they’re full, Hester says. So for the last four years, she has been opening her heart, her schedule, and her house to lend a hand, a patch of grass or an ear (and sometimes a bed) to the hardy thru-hikers who are passing through.

At 3,700 miles long and stretching from Mexico to Canada on the spine of the Rockies, the Continental Divide Trail is considered the hardest of all American thru-hikes, it runs through Grand County from Berthoud Pass to Rocky Mountain National Park. Those who tackle it are skilled and hardier than most by nature, but on a trip that long, with so many high and remote sections, sometimes the unexpected happens. A group of people living in towns along the trail can sympathize, so they’ve put their names and phone numbers on an app and a website and have made themselves available at most times during the hiking season.

Hester will do everything from picking people up at a trailhead or in town to bringing them to her house, offering her shower and laundry, and cooking them a meal (“If I’m in the mood,” she says). When hikers get to Grand Lake, they’re typically coming from either Steamboat Springs to the north, or Wolf Creek to the south, and they’re pretty exhausted, Hester says. At her front door, she’ll make them take off not only their incredibly stinky shoes and sometimes-rancid socks, but also their clothes (in the bathroom). While their shirts, shorts, raincoats and hats are in the laundry, they can relax in a big, fluffy bathrobe Hester hands them.

“Some people really love the robes,” she says. One woman in particular was a cartoonist, who’d had some of her work published in The New Yorker. Only 10% to 20% of thru-hikers are women, so Hester has a soft spot for them. She let the cartoonist sleep in a bed, and the cartoonist emerged with a treasure. It was a cartoon of herself in the bathrobe Hester supplied. Hester snapped a picture. It’s one of her favorites.

She also loved the Boy Scout troop from the Midwest that hiked from Estes Park to Grand Lake, got caught in a bad storm system, heeded a warning from rangers not to hike back and got a lift from her.

“They were very cute,” she says. “I don’t charge for what I do. One of the Scout leaders owned a lavender farm, and he later sent me all of this lavender.”

And she adored a woman from Japan who found her way to Hester last Fourth of July. She called herself Tokyo and was “a very small, really strong hiker,” Hester says. She was doing the so-called Triple Crown — when a hiker attempts to complete all three of the U.S. long-trails.

“At one point, I asked her where else she had been, and she told me about hiking somewhere and getting lost in the wilderness for nine days. I can’t remember which country it is now, but I think it was Nepal. A newspaper had written an article about her, after which she claimed she would never hike alone again. She lied to herself and everyone. Ha ha!”

A consummate altruist, Hester says she’s a trail angel because it gives her a sense of giving back.

“I’ve had help in my life and this is my way of passing it on. I’m really serious when I tell others to do the same. I think if we all stepped forward someone’s life easier the world would be a better place,” she said.

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