(Woolly pack animals help an avid hiker indulge her wanderlust)

Ten to 20 years ago, I would happily strap on a 30-pound pack full of camping gear to trek into the coastal or mountain wilderness of Northern California for a multi-day trip.  Now in my 50s, I still have that old stamina and wanderlust, but the prospect of tackling steep mountains while carrying a heavy backpack for days at a time is simply no longer an option, so I had assumed my trekking days were over.  

That was before last summer, when I discovered llamas.  They’re “the backpack that walks,” as Bill Redwood refers to his specially trained animals.   The founder of Redwood Llamas, based in Silverton, Colorado, Redwood has been running multiday guided llama trekking tours since 1986.  He says many of his clients are over 50—“backpacking enthusiasts who, because of aging backs, sore knees and muscles, want to ease the weight.  Llamas solve that problem.”

Llamas are sometimes called the camels of South America.  Both animals belong to the Camelidae family, but llamas are smaller and don’t have humps, and you don’t ride them.  They’re renowned as low-maintenance pack animals.

I learned that on Redwood’s five-day full-service trek deep into Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness ($1,550 per person), all I needed to carry were my seven-pound day pack and water.  The llamas would tote all our gear, including the tents, sleeping bags, chairs, grill, cooking pots, food, water filters for mountain streams, and even the wine and beer. I was still nervous about my endurance, but Redwood assured me that I could do it—and, considering the llamas, I agreed.  

Our small group of nine hikers, three guides and 12 loaded llamas trekked through a high mountain paradise of pristine alpine lakes, vast wildflower meadows, sloping green valleys and snowcapped peaks.  It’s easy to see how the sure-footed wooly pack animals become indispensable, allowing you to hike mountain peaks at 12,000 to 13,000 feet along twisting trails. I huffed and puffed a bit, but because I wasn’t carrying a heavy load, I was able to focus on the route and take in the postcard-worthy panoramic views.  

Each guide led a roped string of four llamas.  At the campsite the guides would tie the llamas near the tents, where the gentle animals would munch on the grass buffet and rest upright or kneel for the night.  

On the last day, after four nights in sublime solitude under starry skies, our caravan descended 6.5 miles to the pickup point, in Cunningham Gulch.  Redwood was there to greet us all. Sweaty and mud splattered, I was smiling ear to ear. He grinned back and said, “See, I knew you could it it.”

Written by Gig Ragland for AARP Magazine, April/May 2019