Bob “Sir-Packs-Alot” Gabrielsen is the owner of the Top of Georgia Hostel and Hiking Center, which serves thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail. We caught up with this esteemed Triple Crowner, a thru-hiker who has completed the three longest trails in America, to learn more about his hostel and his tips for taking on the trail.
Gabrielsen was born in New York State, but it was only until his family moved to northwestern Montana that his love for the wilderness blossomed. He started learning wilderness survival skills, which he called “play” at the time, with his Blackfoot Native American neighbors. He went on to become a National Park Ranger in Montana before becoming a professional guide at just 20 years old.
He first got involved with the Appalachian Trail and thru-hiking when he got married and moved to northern Georgia. He started volunteering on the trail and doing section hikes, which eventually led him into a 2003 thru-hike of the then 2,172-mile long trail. He caught the bug and went on to thru-hike the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail in 2005 and the 3,000-mile Continental Divide Trail in 2007, which made him a Triple Crowner. But despite his thru-hikes throughout the country, he kept being drawn to the Appalachian Trail. All told, he has hiked more than 30,000 miles and spent thousand of nights on this East Coast, 2,185.9-mile footpath.
After an incredible amount of time hiking and thru-hiking the trail, he told us his craziest Appalachian Trail experience by far was opening the Top of the Georgia Hostel. The hostel started as a dream. He hoped he could found a place where he could share his love for the trail and provide a center in a key Georgia location, within sight of the trail, where hikers could rest and resupply.
When the hostel opened in 2014, despite being in no guidebooks and hardly known, over 1,000 aspiring thru-hikers passed through their doors in March and April alone. Gabrielsen said, “I had always felt that my experience as a counselor with troubled adolescents was not productive. But without that experience, I would never have been ready for the hiker drama I saw.”
The hostel he owns is a part hostel, part school, and part gear shop. He hopes to dedicate the last few decades of his life to pay it forward to the next generation of thru-hikers by supporting their needs on the trail and teaching classes before they start. He relishes the moment when hikers find that they are stronger than they imagined, and they were capable of doing the entire hike, despite their initial doubts.
When asked why he started the hostel, his answer is simple, “the trail is like a ‘magical lady’ to me. Whenever I give to her or her hikers – she gives back five fold.” It’s easy to see that this is true. His most life-changing hiking moment came when the hiking community came together at the last minute to fundraise for the hostel. He told us, “it was like the way Jimmy Stewart was saved by the townsfolk at the end of the Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Bob’s Parting Thoughts…
Best Tip: A thru-hike is much more of a mental game than a physical game.
Best Gear: The Brooks-Range Mojave water repellent Down Jacket for northbound Appalachian Trail thru-hikers in March and April.
Best Section Hike: Max Patch Bald, North Carolina to Hot Springs, North Carolina. He thinks, “the bald is like the southern Appalachian version of the opening of the movie The Sound of Music and the little town’s main street is the trail.”