Camping with llamas in Colorado
From left: The author's daughter Ariel with Artemus after a hike in Colorado's San Juan National Forest; llama packing up the Highland Mary Lakes Trail, near Silverton, Colorado.
| Credit: Matt Nager

When my twin daughters were small, we lived in Egypt, where people often recited a Koranic expression at the sight of two toddlers. "Masha'allah!" they would say. "This is what God has willed!" It was a kind of blessing, a way of warding off the evil eye.

Americans have their own customary remark to acknowledge twins. Every summer, when my family would fly back to our home in southwest Colorado, I'd stagger down plane aisles with a car seat in each arm as people smiled and said, "You got your hands full!" In restaurants, diners looked up as I bumped past: "You got your hands full!" Crying twins, hungry twins, jet-lagged twins: "You got your hands full!" Sometimes, the remark came with an offer to help, but usually it was strictly an observation. It quickly became my least favorite sentence in the English language.

But it was true — the triage of twins begins with figuring out what to do about all the things you can no longer carry. There were activities, like backcountry camping, that my wife, Leslie, and I had once enjoyed but assumed we would now have to abandon for a decade or more. But then our Colorado friends Bryan and Christa Gieszl suggested a solution: llamas.

Bryan and Christa already had one toddler when their twin sons were born in 2010, the same year as ours. With three kids in the span of three years, their need to triage was so intense that it drove them to research pack animals. They discovered a company called Redwood Llamas, based in Silverton, Colorado, that offers a three-hour course in llama management. Anyone who takes it can rent the animals for an unguided expedition. Bill Redwood, the company's founder, will deliver the llamas and their halters, saddlebags, and gear to almost any trailhead in the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests, a gorgeous stretch of high mountains and evergreen forest that covers more than 4,000 square miles of southwest Colorado. Redwood's clients include hikers, hunters, and the U.S. Forest Service, all of whom share a need for efficient, nonintrusive ways to move weight across tough terrain.

Christa Gieszl sets up camp after a hike to Verde Lakes (part of the Highlands Mary Lakes) outside Silverton
Making cap at one of the Highland Mary Lakes.
| Credit: Matt Nager

And so one morning last June, our families set off from the Highland Mary Lakes trailhead above Silverton. There were 13 of us in all: four adults, five children, and four llamas, which were strung together in pairs: Bryan led Artemus and Alexander; I took Magellan and Drake. Each llama carried 50 pounds of gear in its saddlebags. We were transporting two large tents, nine sleeping bags, five chairs, two camp tables, one stove, six boxes of milk, two pounds of chicken, two pounds of cheese, tortillas, frozen spaghetti sauce, pancake batter, one six-pack of beer, one six-pack of diet soda, and one bottle of Laphroaig.

The uncrowded trail climbed through Cunningham Gulch, near the ruins of gold-mining operations: the Old Hundred Mine, the Highland Mary Mine. In a couple of places, discarded equipment still rusted beside the trail, but the boom ended more than a century ago, and the region has long since returned to wilderness. Lodgepole pines and spruce clustered in the valleys, and high above rose the steep peaks of the San Juans.

The llamas were quiet hikers. Sometimes I felt Magellan's breath on my neck, as if he wanted to move faster, but he rarely made a sound. Llamas have feet, not hooves, and their soft toes are nimbler than the shoes of a horse. They also have none of a horse's skittishness — whenever we stopped to negotiate a stream or adjust the saddlebags, the llamas waited patiently.

In the popular imagination, llamas are fearsome spitters, but this misconception probably started with zoo animals that had been mistreated. Male llamas might spit if females are around, which is why Bill Redwood doesn't mix genders when renting his llamas. During the off-season, he keeps them on his ranch near the Colorado-Utah border, and last winter I visited to learn more about the operation. Redwood was originally a dentist, and when I asked how he first got interested in the South American animals, he told a familiar tale of triage.

"I was an avid backpacker, and I had twin boys born in 1982," he said. "I needed something to carry the gear."

He started with two llamas — these sociable creatures are happiest in pairs. Over time, Redwood has expanded his herd to nearly a hundred animals. He claims that some are descendants of llamas owned by William Randolph Hearst, who is said to have been one of the first Americans to import them from South America. For decades, people like Hearst primarily kept llamas as pets and curiosities, but recently there has been a new appreciation for their strength and nimbleness. There are now dozens of llama-leasing companies, large and small, operating throughout the West.

"They're easier than a boot on a trail," Redwood said. "Environmentally, they're much sounder than a conventional pack animal." He described the typical llama personality as stoic and aloof, with a soft spot for children. "Maybe because they're smaller and not intimidating," he said. "And kids love llamas, and the llamas pick that up."

Camping quesadillas
Prepping quesadillas on a camp table.
| Credit: Matt Nager

For us, the llamas' kid-friendly quality was even more valuable than their ability to get the Laphroaig up to 12,000 feet. We camped for two nights beside one of the remote Highland Mary Lakes, where columbine bloomed white along the banks. The children never complained about boredom, because they spent so much time in llama management. In truth, the animals require little oversight; they don't need much water, and can be staked to a tether in any grassy area and then moved once a day. But the kids loved petting them, and leading them around, and filling their water pails. Sometimes, four eight-year-olds clustered around a single llama, grabbing his fur and fiddling with his halter. The expression on the animal's face — tolerant, patient, calm—was a lesson for any parent.

On the last day, we descended the nearly four miles back to the trailhead. It was like a parade: two sets of twins, two pairs of llamas. Every hiker we passed had something to say, but now the comments had nothing to do with my hands being full. "They're beautiful!" one man said. When another hiker's dog tentatively checked out the animals, his owner explained, "He's never seen a llama before!" Near the bottom, our parade surprised a woman with a heavy pack, and for a moment she was speechless. Then she exclaimed: "How much fun is that?"