Summer Fun 2018: Hiking buddies

Gigi Ragland
May/June 2018

Napoleon and Coronado led the pack. Zeus brought up the rear. How fitting that Bill Redwood, the founder of Redwood Llamas, would name his wooly pack animals after conquerors, explorers, and a Greek God of sky and thunder. These animals can climb any mountain.

Unlike horses and mules, Redwood’s llamas munch on mountain grass, so it’s not necessary to bring feed. Their padded feet create less wear than hoofed animals, and their gentle nature and agile abilities make them a fun hiking buddy. After two years of training, they’re ready for full-service pack trips. Good to know when trekking above treeline to 13,000 feet.

On the trip I took, 12 fully packed and loaded llamas, three guides, and eight fellow hikers trekked a narrow line of the Continental Divide Trail on our way to El Dorado Lake, deep in what is Colorado’s largest wilderness area, the Weminuche of the San Juan Mountains. For some of us, this was the first time traveling into the backcountry without a heavy pack of gear, and what a relief. Instead, we wore less burdensome daypacks full of the essentials—rain items such as jackets, sunscreen, and water.

The llamas bore nearly a thousand pounds of supplies on our four-night journey—food, cooking stove, beer and wine, purification equipment, tents, folding chairs, sleeping bags. You won’t go hungry on a Redwood Llamas full-service llama trekking trip, not even with all the calories you burn on the daily hikes. The tour guides prepare gourmet dinners—roast wild salmon, steaks, or perhaps Bill’s homemade lasagna. Evenings always start with appetizers and a toast to the sunset Alpenglow view.

The sure-footed llama is capable of carrying plenty of gear to make wilderness camping comfortable © Mark Lance

As we traversed the trail, I looked out at the panorama of peaks, their formations blurry from a veil of rain. My heartbeat seemed to keep time with the pelting drops. At a half mile from our destination, the guides led the llamas ahead of us to set up the camp site before our arrival. Finally, after 2,000 feet of elevation gain hiking in a summer mix of high mountain weather conditions from blue skies, to thunder, lightning and rain, then back to blue skies, we rounded a corner and before us was one of the prettiest cirque valleys I’ve seen. No other human beings were in sight, save for our guides scurrying around camp a couple hundred feet below.

“What a lovely pastoral site,” said a fellow hiker as we all stopped and stared in awe.

The small perfect valley hugging the lake was carpeted in lush green grass covered in flowery blooms of every color. Lavender elephant heads seemed to pop up and greet us along with yellow paintbrush, alpine buttercups, daisies, asters and fluffy white bistort. Staked out with long lead lines, the llamas snacked on grass among the wildflowers.

Kirk’s Fly Shop guide Darren Christiansen with a client fly fishing at a private spot near Waterdale Ranch on the Big Thompson River. Courtesy of Kirk’s Fly Shop

Maybe there’s no gold on the site, as the ancient legend of El Dorado claims, but El Dorado Lake shone in the late afternoon light like a sparkling gem. It was our precious place in the universe for a few lucky nights. I knew every day would be as golden as this one.

Gigi Ragland has trekked the coastal wilderness of Tasmania, the Alps of Switzerland, and the Andes of Argentina. The Weminuche Wilderness 2017 summer trek with Redwood Llamas was Gigi’s first backcountry experience with llamas carrying all the gear. Now, she’s not sure she would do it any other way.

Built for heavy lifting

Kirk’s Fly Shop owner Kirk Bien with his children Addy and Luke on the Colorado River near Kremmling. © Kirk Bien

Most adults can handle the heavy load of a backpack on a mountain hike, but those who can’t, as well as small children, could use some help. Llamas are perfectly suited to carry family gear. When little legs grow weary, the kids could hitch a ride on a llama.

Here are three llama trekking services in Colorado:

Paragon Guides Llama Pack Trips

970-926-5299

Donny Shefchik, field director/senior guide for Paragon Guides, says he’s been working with llamas for 25 years. Want to bag a 14er? Summit with a llama.

Kirk’s Fly Shop and Mountain Adventures

970-577-0790

“Most clients want to get far into the backcountry for fly-fishing and the scenery, but don’t want the physical demand of carrying gear,” said Gary Bien (Kirk’s dad). The company offers guided trips within Rocky Mountain National Park.

Redwood Llamas

970-560-2926

With 30-years of experience, Bill Redwood, owner/operator, and Mark Pommier, head guide, offer treks through the San Juans along the Colorado Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and National Recreational Trail Systems.

ASK AN EXPERT

© Jennifer Broome

Your travel gear guide

By Jennifer Broome, Denver TV host and meteorologist

When I hit a Colorado trail, it’s important that my clothes be breathable, and my gear durable. Whatever your next travel adventure—maybe an African Safari, Alaskan cruise, or Machu Picchu—first check out the new AAA Colorado online travel store at store.colorado.aaa.com and shop by destination for the best gear available.

From artic boots for Antarctica to a dry bag for a paddling adventure, or from boots to bug spray for a long weekend Colorado getaway, get what you need, and at a 15 percent discount (use code AAA15).

When I discovered this store, I was delighted to see familiar, trusted brands: Patagonia, Marmot, Outdoor Research, and Eagle Creek. Here’s what I picked out for early summer hiking:

Road-tested brands

Marmot Flashpoint Jacket
Polartec® micro fleece fabric is lightweight, breathable, and fast drying.

Patagonia Torrentshell Jacket
When it’s pouring, bright colors are best. Plus, let’s be honest, this rain jacket is cute, stylish and ultra-functional.

Newcomers

Rab® Vector Pants
Wasn’t familiar with this UK brand, but the pants are wind- and water-resistant, so I gave them a try. They passed the test.

Coolibar Water Shirt
Designed for water sports, this shirt with UPF 50+ is also ideal for hiking. Plus, I love the deep teal color, and gripper elastic on the back seam.

Sunday Afternoons Cruiser Hat
With UPF 50+, this hat shades my face, ears, and neck from the blazing summer sun.

LEKI Legacy Ultralite Trekking Poles
This German brand designed in the Alps weights less than a pound!

Jennifer Broome is a frequent contributor to EnCompass who freelances with KDVR and KWGN (along with other outlets) as a meteorologist, host, and reporter. She is also a freelance travel writer and avid outdoorswoman sharing her travels in her blog sweptawaytoday.com. Join her thousands of followers on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.

Gigi Ragland is a Colorado-based freelance travel writer who specializes in adventure travel writing.