Backpacking Near Silverton, CO, with Four-Footed Friends
It was a sublime moment. Deep in the woods, the fire had burned down to glowing coals. Our sticky-faced children munched contentedly on perfect s’mores, the marshmallows uniformly toasted and gooey. Pine cones popped in the fire. And nearby, the llamas grazed quietly in the bushes.
We were in Colorado’s backcountry, our tent pitched in a stand of Engelmann spruce next to a burbling creek. Our large heap of gear included the rotating and telescoping metal roasting sticks we’d just been using. Ordinarily, we would have scavenged and whittled sticks — if we’d packed marshmallows at all. But we were llama trekking, with furry 325-pound porters to carry our load. So why not?
My husband, Jeff, and I forged our early relationship in the backcountry, cooking black beans over an ultralight stove and falling asleep to the chirping of crickets. Since we’d had kids, our weekends were spent car camping, often amid noisy throngs. Now we wanted to venture deeper into the wild, but with three children under 9, the prospect was daunting. Then we heard about the llamas. They carry your gear. You just need to herd the kids.
We planned our trip with Redwood Llamas, an outfit in Silverton, in southwest Colorado. We would hike four miles into the San Juan Mountains, camp for two nights, then hike out. Afterward, we would spend a few days nosing around Silverton, a rough-hewn old mining town perched at 9,318 feet. Our itinerary there would include a gunfight and a gold mine — and most certainly a saloon.
While Redwood offers fully guided trips complete with a backcountry chef, we opted for the more affordable drop-camp option. A guide and four llamas would ferry us to and from our campsite, leaving us with two of the llamas to carry our packs on day hikes.
Mark Pommier, our llama guide, showed us the saddles, lead lines and panniers, and the picket line for securing the llamas in camp. We practiced snapping buckles and tightening cinches. Mr. Pommier also gave us some insight into the llama psychology. Although they are fuzzy and adorable, batting their Tammy Faye eyelashes, they tend to be aloof — “more like cats than dogs,” he said. But they’re hard-working and dependable, and would be easygoing companions on the trail.
The most important advice: Don’t lose the llamas. “You do not want to be chasing down a llama in the backcountry,” Mr. Pommier warned. Other worries we might have had turned out to be unfounded. Like camels, llamas do spit, but properly trained animals won’t spit at people. Males have razor-sharp fighting teeth, intended for biting one another, but they’re removed when the llamas are young. Llamas have been domesticated for perhaps 6,000 years; they carried loads for the Incas in Peru. Ours could each carry 60 pounds of gear, which meant we could bring certain luxuries: a two-room tent, coolers of beer and steak, a Harry Potter hardback.
On a Friday morning early last month, we followed the trail from Little Molas Lake just south of Silverton across a grassy hillside covered in columbines, Indian paintbrush, buttercups and fuzzy white bistort. Gnarled gray stumps littered the slope, remnants of a century-old fire. In the distance jagged peaks thrust in every direction — black needles striped with snow and maroon pyramids wrapped in green aprons.
Mr. Pommier let our boys, Quinn, 8, and Aidan, 5, lead the llamas, which inspired them to set a quick pace. If they slowed, the llamas would give them a little nudge. The boys loved it. They stopped occasionally to let the llamas graze, watching to make sure they didn’t nibble on larkspur, a pretty but poisonous spur-shaped purple flower. Our daughter, Anya, 3, also started out as a llama “michiy,” Quechua for herder, but her privileges were revoked early; she’d lose interest and drop the rope.
Most of our hike followed the well-traveled Colorado Trail, but after lunch we bushwhacked onto a narrow trail that cut across a steep mountainside. Loaded with gear, the llamas were surprisingly sure-footed, crossing downed trees and rocky streams. Llamas’ feet have two soft pads with toenails and are said to cause less environmental impact than most hikers. Their feet seemed small compared with their oversized fur coats topped by the wide load of the panniers.
By 2 p.m., we set up camp in Putnam Basin, at roughly 11,300 feet, in a spot surrounded by walls of gray rock and sky-scraping ridgelines. Mr. Pommier headed back to town, leaving C.C. and Comanche behind. We could easily have fit our day packs on a single animal, but we were told that llamas are social creatures and need company. An added benefit: Bears tend to avoid campsites with llamas. When threatening wildlife approaches, llamas sound a piercing alarm cry.
We gathered dead wood for the fire, and the children collected wild chives to add to our chicken and rice. When the kids inquired about bathroom arrangements, we showed them the backside of a tree and our little orange shovel.
The boys were in heaven with the woods to themselves and a roaring fire to poke at. They became obsessed with cutting through a huge log with our collapsible saw. Even Anya joined in. “Look at my pretty nails,” she said, followed by, “Hey, can I have a turn with the saw?”
That night, I woke up confused by a startlingly bright light against the tent wall. It was the moon, not even full but blinding nonetheless. In the morning we feasted on pancakes and sausages grilled on a Coleman stove.
Here’s where things went slightly south: It took us three hours to get a single mile down the trail. Blisters needed moleskin; bare knees needed bug spray; and each child, in short succession, needed to use the orange shovel. In an impatient moment, Aidan ventured ahead of the group with C.C. on the lead. Separated from the herd, the llama grew antsy and started prancing in circles on the steep hillside, tangling the rope in Aidan’s legs and knocking him over. Llama trauma.
We sat on a rock, surrounded by delicate drooping bluebells, and regrouped over cheese and crackers, cherries and summer sausage. Jeff and Aidan and the llamas retreated to camp. I hoisted Anya in the backpack carrier and headed for the ridge top with Quinn, who was determined to summit. After a steep climb through loose rock, past the remains of an old mine, we headed up a hillside covered in marsh marigolds.
When we crested the ridge, the wind howled, whipping at our faces. The San Juans crammed the view to the horizon: huge hulks of gray rock mixed with peaks banded red and gold. Quinn took a gander and shouted into the wind: “We’re going to die! Let’s get outta here!”
On the descent, I had time to make some calculations. Mr. Pommier told us that llamas can carry a third of their body weight. A pack with 35 pounds of wriggling flesh is roughly one-third of my total body weight, which makes me no less of a pack animal than a llama.
Other similarities: When llamas get agitated, they make a humming sound not unlike the whine of a discontented child. Llamas also cluck, burp, sneeze and snort — noises that delighted the kids. Our children adopted the llamas, feeding them wildflowers, petting them, walking them to the creek.
For dinner, we grilled New York strips on an old baking rack, flipping the meat with a salad fork, and cooked red potatoes in foil packets in the fire. That night we snuggled close, reading “Is Your Mama a Llama?” as a thunderstorm pounded the walls of our tent.
Fueled on a breakfast mash of rice, potatoes, chicken and steak, we saddled up the llamas and packed our gear into the panniers. Mr. Pommier met us at noon, bringing two fresh llamas, for the hike back. We were nearly at the trailhead when we got pummeled by another storm, this one complete with downpour and hailstones. Oblivious to the weather, the llamas plodded down the trail with a stoic lack of concern.
Having parted ways with our furry friends, we spent the next day in Silverton, exploring streets lined with landmark 1880s buildings and touring an old gold mine. At Handlebars, a watering hole filled with moose heads and snarky signs, Jeff and I toasted to our survival with draft beer served in Mason jars.
Winding among century-old headstones in Hillside Cemetery on a rocky incline covered in aspen and fireweed, we pondered the fate of Silverton’s early adventurers (scarlet fever, avalanche, gunshot, mine explosion, dropsy) and realized that backpacking with llamas is truly a plush endeavor — an idea we were very comfortable with.
IF YOU GO
ON THE TRAIL
Redwood Llamas (1708 Green Street; 970-560-2926; www.redwoodllamas.com) is in Silverton, Colo., a town that sits in the center of an ancient volcanic caldera an hour north of Durango, Colo., and six and a half hours south of Denver. Frontier, US Airways and United Express all have flights to Durango. Redwood offers full-service pack trips that include guide, tents, llamas and meals for $4,000 for four people, four days, or $1,000 a person per day. Less costly is the drop-camp option: The guide leads you in and out; you bring gear and food. A three-day trip in July cost $1,075.
The llama-trekking season runs June through September; mid-July to mid-August is the best time to see wildflowers. Redwood has a permit to operate in the San Juan National Forest, where it has more than a dozen designated routes and campsites for full-service and drop-camp trips. For those leasing the llamas without a guide, virtually any trail in the national forest is fair game. There is no fee or permit required for individuals to camp in the San Juan National Forest, and you can camp anywhere. Redwood also offers trips that use the Durango & Silverton train to access the backcountry. You ride the rails to the trailhead; Redwood meets you there with the gear and llamas.
Silverton, an old mining town, has a single paved road and a downtown that’s a National Historic Landmark. Many tourists arrive from Durango on the steam-powered Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (888-872-4607; www.durangotrain.com; $79 to $159 round trip). Wander through three floors of mining paraphernalia at the Mining Heritage Museum (1569 Greene Street; 970-387-5838; www.silvertonhistoricsociety.org; $5, ages 12 and under free). In summer, gunfights are staged at Blair and 12th at 5:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday.
The Old Hundred Gold Mine (800-872-3009; www.minetour.com), on County Road 4-A, runs hourly tours. Admission ($16.95; $7.95 ages 5 to 12) includes gold panning.
Handlebars Food & Saloon (117 13th Street; 970-387-5395) serves a tasty mushroom cheeseburger ($9.95) and chicken-fried steak ($12.95). Its huge collection of stuffed and mounted wildlife, including grizzly and elk, will keep both small fry and adults entertained.
This article first appeared in the NY Times in 2009