Trekking With Llamas

by Susi Sinay

In the summertime, we like to venture into the backcountry. Camping under the stars, lounging by a campfire, listening to wolves howl in the night, and waking to calls of cranes at sunrise just can’t be beat. Yellowstone National Park beckons with over 1,300 miles of trails waiting to be explored, and exclusive campsites along creeks and rivers, in shaded canyons, and on the shores of high country lakes to be called home for a few nights. Let’s go! But wait, there is the unpleasant prospect of a heavy pack on a tired back for miles on end. And who really wants to sleep on a paper-thin mattress? And that freeze-dried food? Isn’t there somebody who can carry our load for us? Some way we can bring that extra blanket, the bigger stove, the yummy chili, the bottle of wine?

This Is Yellowstone Llama Trek Wiseman 500Enter the llama, backcountry sherpa on four legs with an endearing personality to boot. Aloof yet cooperative, the llama is the hiker’s choice of pack animal. Easy to handle and gentle on the environment, this two-toed, leather-soled camelid with browsing habits similar to native elk and deer is the answer to our prayer. Over 6,000 years of selective breeding by the indigenous Andean societies in South America have made llamas the safest and easiest-to-train pack animals. They carry the load entrusted to them with nonchalant dignity, follow their handler with little training, and generally are a delight on the trail. Their banana-shaped ears swivel as they scan the sounds of the wild and alert their human companions to nearby wildlife.  Llamas’ lateral gait known as pacing as well as their blood’s ability to bind with oxygen in a unique way make these athletic Andean packers extremely agile and enduring on rocky slopes and in high altitudes.

Today, on a warm July day, we trek down the trail to Cache Creek in the Northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park.
Gorgeous Lamar Valley stretches to the west of us. Open meadows, green slopes, and rocky ridges grace our views ahead. Herds of bison graze and grunt not far from our group. We walk the trail in a line, each of us leading a woolly companion. The llamas carry panniers fixed to saddles filled with our creature comforts: kitchen equipment, food coolers, tents, sleeping bags, chairs, tables, and yes — two bottles of wine. Llamas with packs walk about as fast as an unburdened person and are able carry loads of about a quarter of their body weight, meaning 50 to 80 pounds. As we hike and enjoy the landscape around us, our faithful pack animals bend their long necks looking over our shoulders (a charming sight). Before long, llamas and people have bonded and are getting along just fine. Then suddenly, all llamas stop and stare in the same direction.

This Is Yellowstone CIMG4274 500We reach for our binoculars, and sure enough: a grizzly bear is foraging along the far tree line. Domingo lets loose a shrill alarm call and instantly the other llamas join him. A predator or any animal that raises a llama’s suspicion, no matter how far away, will cause it to express its utmost concern with a sound that nobody is able to ignore or describe afterwards. In any case, the alarm call conveys the urgency of the situation and is supported by the llama circling and posing dramatically. Despite Domingo’s obvious worry, we smile and enjoy watching the bear at a safe distance. After calming down the llamas, we continue our hike and before long arrive on the banks of Cache Creek. The llamas are quickly unloaded and unsaddled and turned out to graze, while we set up tables, chairs and tents. We are ready for our deserved relaxation with cheese, crackers, and wine, followed by that yummy bison chili, simmering on the Coleman stove.

After dinner, as the stars twinkle in the huge sky, we enjoy our time by the campfire. The llamas have bedded down after their meal of good, tasty backcountry grass and forbs. Their long lead lines are attached to durable net bags filled with rocks. This allows them to graze at their leisure but not wander too far.  This is a system we have developed over time and that has proven to be the best for animals and vegetation. Soon, we hang our food bags on the high horizontal pole fastened by the Park Service between two tall trees, out of reach of hungry bears. As we snuggle into our sleeping bags, we know that we can rely on our banana-eared companions to warn of any danger in the night. Whoever passes through the night will have to get by the llamas and their alarm system.

The night passes without incident. Then, just as we begin to enjoy breakfast, the urgent, high-pitched noise from the llama meadow makes us jump and leave our steaming coffee mugs as we scramble through the sagebrush in a race to get to the llamas. We arrive in time to behold a stately moose passing through the excited and circling llama group and heading into the willows. We exhale with relief. Upon our return the coffee is cold but who needs caffeine with all the action. We are ready to pack up camp and head on out. As our signature call  — “Let’s go llamas! — resounds across Cache Creek, our long-necked companions fall into step behind us, and we march into another day of great backcountry adventure.

Two days and many miles later, we arrive safely back at the trailhead, where our llamas jump into their trailer and we say good-bye to our hiking companions. As we drive off, and Yellowstone gets smaller and smaller in our rear view mirror, we are already making plans for our next trek, this time down the trail of Fan Creek in the Northwest Corner.


Editor’s Note: Susi Hülsmeyer-Sinay is the owner of Yellowstone Llamas. Originally from Germany, she exchanged her corporate past for a life lived close to the wild outdoors. Susi moved to Montana in 1993, is a published author (Lewis the Yellowstone Llama) and defender of animals. When not in the office planning llama treks, she can be found writing, scouting new trails with her llama buddies, or snowshoeing through Montana’s winter wonderland.