February 2013

Hikers’ Haven

Trail tales and good vibes at the Keene Valley Hostel

Photograph by Mike Lynch

ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL hikers call unexpected acts of generosity from people they meet “trail magic.” There’s no such term here, but Robin Shaver came across a close equivalent. More than a decade ago, while hiking Mount Marcy with her now-husband, Jake Riggins, she’d broken her foot, dislocated her knee and had to be helicoptered to the Lake Placid hospital. After her release she and Jake searched for an inexpensive place to spend the night before going home to Pennsylvania. Someone suggested the new hostel in Keene Valley.

They were greeted by owners Dave and Cynthia Johnston. In 1994 Dave had been in­spired to open the place after staying in hostels along the Appalachian Trail. He dreamed of bringing the trail magic he’d experienced to Keene Valley. He was known for allowing rescued hikers to stay for free. The Johnstons ex­tended that offer to Robin and Jake.

Through the years every time the pair returned to the High Peaks, they used The Hostel as base camp. Then, during a visit in 2006, the Johnstons offered to sell it to them. Today, Robin and Jake run the hostel just as the Johnstons did.

LAST FEBRUARY I VISITED what’s now called The Keene Valley Hostel. I was greeted by 32-year-old Robin, who gave me a tour of the place, as she will do for new guests.

The entryway is a gear room, where you take off muddy hiking boots, hang climbing ropes and stash backpacks. The common room has a couch, plush chairs and shelves crammed with guidebooks. Walls are covered with maps and photos of the Adirondacks. A full kitchen allows guests to prepare their meals, and they have access to a washer and dryer. Upstairs is a co-ed bunkroom with 10 beds (there’s one double for a couple), each named after area mountains and claimed on a first-come, first-served policy. The hostel has two bathrooms with showers.

There’s a laid-back atmosphere here. No check-out time, no curfew. Guests are expected to be respectful and practice the “leave no trace” ethic.

According to Robin, people usually hear about the hostel on the trails, but she suggests calling ahead for reservations since every bed is booked most winter weekends. Spring and fall are slower, though summer draws steady crowds throughout the week.

The Keene Valley Hostel’s $25 a night charge means a level of self-sufficiency. Robin and Jake don’t hang around the hostel, but live in a separate building on the property, en­couraging guests to find them if they need help.

Hostel travelers often rely on the com­munal experience to learn about a region and beyond—where to go, what to do, firsthand details you wouldn’t find in a guidebook. They swap stories about their trips. I met Matt Beck, a 46-year-old boat captain from Brooklyn who was in the Adirondacks to hike—he’d finished all 35 mountains over 3,500 feet in the Catskills and was working on the 46 High Peaks. He’d stayed at hostels across Europe, but this was his first visit to the one in Keene Valley. Before bunking here he stopped at a B-and-B up the road. “They had a fireplace,” he said. “It would be great to sit in front of that, and they had platters of snickerdoodles. But at 100-something bucks a night, it just doesn’t make sense. If I was up here with my girlfriend—that’s a different story.”

I also met Nicolas Castonguay and Filipp Goussev, 20-something-year-olds from Montreal who had just hiked Marcy. Nicolas was working toward be­coming a 46er. He said that after a day of hiking he’d usually drive home—particularly in cold weather. “I’m not equipped for winter camping,” he ex­plained. But the hostel’s reasonable cost allowed an alternative.

Everyone headed to bed by nine, though Robin said the scene can be lively and depends on the crowd. Visitors come from all over and have included world-class skeleton athletes, a group of Israeli hikers, and members of the Colorado climbing organization Chicks with Picks. Robin said around the hostel’s kitchen table they’ve had “different languages, different types of food, different ways of thinking, all together in this little place.”

That night in the bunkroom I awoke several times to a cacophony of snoring. By seven a.m. all the beds were empty, the hikers already back at it. These travelers, said Robin, are here for the mountains and the streams. The hostel’s a place to sleep, eat and relax be­tween trips, but the experience here also helps define an Adirondack adventure.

“When you walk on the Appalachian trail, the thing that you remember most is not looking out from tall mountains or anything like that, it’s these unnecessarily kind things that people do for you along the way,” Dave said. That’s what he hoped for the Keene Valley Hostel and what Robin and Jake continue to provide.

Visit the Keene Valley Hostel (518-576-2030, at 1755 Route 73, in Keene Valley.

More High Peaks Hostels:

Adirondack Loj, Lake Placid
(518) 523-3441,

High Peaks Hostel, Lake Placid
(518) 523-4951,

TMax-n-Topo’s Hostel, Lake Placid
(518) 523-0123,


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