Utah Stories

Trail Angels Among Us

Community is at the heart of these tales of trail angel rescues.


Illustration by Lea Molina.

When the developed world becomes tumultuous, the politics are too much, and culture looks bleak, many of us take to the wilderness for solace. At the end of the day, though, we are humans susceptible to the risk associated with the reward of the great outdoors. Blisters form, bootlaces snap, ankles roll, water is scarce, the woods are dark, the mountains are deep, and things don’t always go as planned.

Enter the trail angel. Elusive or obvious, spiritual or practical, they’re benefactors that bring aid to trail-goers in need. They’re carrying injured hikers down the trail, leave extra water bottles out on hot days, provide first aid, offer encouragement, and everything in between.

Byron Pollitz, a Salt Lake City local and an avid outdoorsman says, “…Trail angels exist to balance the struggles and joys experienced in nature. We nature lovers will enjoy some of the most majestic and surreal experiences of our lives. Along the way, we will also face challenges that everyday life doesn’t prepare us for. That’s where trail angels step in, whether by experience or intuition, trail angels help those need, see the struggle, and want joy to outshine everything else.”

Since it’s prime time for backpacking, peak-bagging, and trail running, Utah Stories reached out to local outdoor enthusiasts for their personal accounts of trail angel encounters.

Some are tales of practical good will:

“I ran 22 miles on the rail trail … it was crazy hot and my 2 liters of water was dwindling quickly,” says trail runner, Joshua Korpi. “I come around a corner and what do I see but a plastic table set up with gallon jug after gallon jug of fresh, clean water!”

Others are a little more mysterious:

“I was biking down Butterfield Canyon … and fell down an embankment, injuring my ankle. I was having a hard time trying to stand when out of nowhere a fellow on a horse appeared. He carried me up the embankment back to my bike,” says one Utah local. “Once I got situated on my bike … I looked up and he had disappeared. To this day I don’t think he was real. I firmly believe it was an angel who came to help me when I could have been stranded and in pain for a much longer time.”

This experience seemed pretty heavy:

“I was backpacking in Coyote Gulch when we came up on two guys who had been rafting,” Mike McClellan said. “They had almost run out of water, and were in pretty bad shape. We gave them water and offered to pack out their gear. My pack jumped from a reasonable 40 pounds to about 80.”

And this one got personal:

“My trail angel didn’t save me, but merely reminded me why I love being in the mountains,” said Sandy Margulies. “It was a balloon—no joke—floating down the trail straight toward me at eye-level. I think it was the spirit of my dad. My father died of skin cancer, and I learned to love the mountains from him. Tied the balloon to my pack and kept running.”

This one involved creature comforts:

“I’ve left beers in ice cold streams…I know those were appreciated,” said Joshua Korpi, who played the role of trail angel. “I pictured a couple of exhausted, overheated backpackers drinking a cold one to the mysterious ‘leaver of cold beers’.”

This trail angel lent encouragement:

Sachi Thornley was hiking down from Silver Lake with her family. “My kids weren’t cooperating. I was dirty, tired, and just plain over it, when a woman said, ‘Wow, you’re beautiful.’ … felt like I got sucker punched in the best way. I stuttered, ‘What?’ She responded, ‘Yes! Badass and beautiful!’ I may or may not have cried.”

This one involved a dog in distress:

“Helped carry a 10-month-old Bernese Mountain Dog off Timpanogos,” said Byron Pollitz. “I was able to get the dog moving and help raise the owner’s spirits to find joy in the day.”

Sometimes, dogs are the trail angels:

James Sloan was making the trek to Havasupai at night, and the trail was hard to follow. “A stray dog led us all the way to the village,” Sloan said. “The dog would run ahead and wait until we caught up during the entire 10-mile hike.”

The variety of stories have something in common—community. Many agree this is at the very heart of the trail angel spirit. “Slowing down on the trail to talk with others is a great way to recognize needs,” Mike McClellan said. “If you don’t slow down and enjoy the trip and others along the way, there are great people and amazing things you’ll miss out on.”

For Byron Pollitz, it’s “a feeling of solidity, whether you’re giving or receiving. Coming to the realization that even if ‘I’ don’t have the situation under control, ‘We’ve’ got it handled.”
When we lose cell signal in the pines, feel small in the expanses of desert, and hear only echoes in the canyons, we are all the same. Mother Nature doesn’t recognize political views, race, gender, age, religion, or sexual orientation. At the end of the day, she creates a level playing field where we are all climbing our own mountains and simply trying to enjoy the trek.


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