Unicoi Shuttle

The Unicoi Shuttle is a locally owned business that provides more to outdoor recreationists than just transportation services, according to owner and shuttle driver Steve Domagala.

Originally growing up in the Northeast Appalachian Mountains, Domagala said he enjoyed spending time hiking and living as a modern-day mountain man with his brother. Domagala said he became interested in the Appalachian Trail through the mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia in 2007.

He said that his shuttle service company began in April of 2022 after a brief experience as an Uber driver. He soon realized there are enough hikers in the area to start a transportation service that is more affordable than Uber and makes use of his intimate knowledge of the mountains.

Unicoi Shuttle uses phone calls, texts, emails, and Facebook Messaging and can be contacted through hiking apps such as “Far Out,” according to Domagala.

His passion for hiking, he said, made him familiar with the local trails used by AT hikers.

“I know the area,” he said, “I’ve hiked this area from Garenflo gap, which is down near Hot Springs, all the way to Beauty Spot Gap, and as time permits, I’m continuously working my way further North so that I can tell them things about the trails.”

Domagala also said that he hikes trails on rainy days, when the demand for shuttle services is low, and takes photos of important landmarks and the location of shelters to give better guidance for his clients.

In addition to driving hikers to their drop-off locations and picking them up where they plan to exit the trail, Domagala said he provides refreshments to the hikers like soda, water, and snacks. He also spends time cleaning up litter around the trails.

The shuttle service provider, according to Domagala, also plays an important role in trail safety by monitoring the activities of his passengers as they make their way through through the mountains.

“The biggest thing,” he said, “is I always worry about someone slipping and falling. And you always have a sense of where hikers are.”

In addition to obtaining livery insurance, which is a policy often used by limo drivers and others passenger transport businesses according to Domagala, he said he is friendly towards the hikers that come to enjoy the mountains.

“You get to really establish a rapport with them,” he said. “A lot of times people come in, and they don’t know the best way to hike it.” Domagala said he gives guidance for people and helps them devise a strategy to get the most from the experience.

Other services include bear safety recommendations for those on the trail without experience with local wildlife. “There’s a lot of bears here,” he said, “but we don’t have a lot of bear problems.”

“You don’t keep food in your tent,” he said, “you don’t keep food with you in your pockets or your sleeping bag.”

According to Domagala, any food must be kept sealed in airtight plastic, because the scent of food can escape a breathable bag and jump from a hiker’s hand to their backpacks or sleeping bags. “(Bears) can smell an M&M at 100 yards,” he added.

The shuttle driver also said bears “are more afraid of you than you are of them.” He said hikers need not worry so long as they do not get between bear cubs and an adult and back away from them during an encounter.

He described several bear encounters with his clients, and said they were not violent attacks. Instead, he compared them to big raccoons getting into people’s supplies. “They are opportunists,” he added, and they won’t bother a human if there’s an easier way to get food.

Domagala said his business is already booked through April, and he said he often works 11 hours a day shuttling the hikers during the busiest time of year.

“Everybody should do a section of the AT,” he said, “even if it's just 4 miles.”

He also expressed some concerns about overuse and the trail being made almost too easy. He described the balance between encouraging people to experience the trails while also preserving the natural habitats.

“It’s a double-edged sword because I almost say let’s close it down for a few years,” he said, “(and) let it become what people did back in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s and really toughed it out.”

Overall, he said that he wants to provide an affordable service to AT explorers and also help local small businesses by informing visitors about the opportunities Erwin has for the hiker community.


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