I was walking along a trail in Yellowstone National Park, meditating on mountains, breathing in the scent of pine and sagebrush, when a llama sneezed in my ear. With bear spray strapped to my waist, I had been expecting to be startled by another kind of animal. But Sarek, the llama I was leading on our hike, had evidently inhaled an unwanted element as he snacked on grass and brush. I yelped as loud as a coyote.

Thus began an adventure that took us off the traffic-clogged circuits of Yellowstone into the majesty and solitude of Montana wilderness. Over the course of three glorious summer days in the backcountry, I didn’t think about the pandemic or politics or the uncertainty of the autumn ahead. I thought mostly about llamas, the camelids first domesticated by the Inca in the high-altitude Andean mountains some 5,000 years ago, a calm and gentle beast of burden whose presence delighted our children and eased the weight on our backs.

I can’t take credit for this llama trekking epiphany. That flash of brilliance is owed to our friends who organized the expedition. It all started, many moons back, with an email — poetic in its brevity. Subject line: “guys i’ve figured out our plans for Montana.” Body: “we are going backpacking, WITH LLAMAS.”

Wait . . . what? My French husband’s response from his Paris office was to send a Tintin cartoon depicting an irate llama spitting in Captain Haddock’s face.

Why llamas

But our friend Dan was onto something. Unbeknown to us, he had embarked on a llama initiation with Dennis Dueñas of Montana Llama Guides, an outfitter with a farm outside Bozeman. When you haven’t seen good friends in nearly two years, separated from your adventurous travel buddies by a pandemic and an ocean, you go all out. And in our case, “all out” meant that our group of four adults and five kids was going to do it ourselves, renting llamas and wrangling them without a guide.

There was a lot of prep: taking a llama packing class with Dueñas, gathering all the camping equipment and navigating Yellowstone’s byzantine reservation system for backcountry campsites (fax machine required!). The national park maintains 293 such campsites, mostly limited to one group at a time with a permit, and reserving them is a competitive sport. Yellowstone rangers helped us determine an itinerary that would take us on trails easy enough for a 4-year-old to hike but also permissible for stock animals, alongside a creek to use as a water source.

The beauty of hiking with llamas is the ability to pack large amounts of camping gear and gourmet provisions. In our case, our children couldn’t be expected to carry big backpacks, and we had grand ambitions for open-air feasts far from the usual freeze-dried camping meals. Plus, llamas have less environmental effects than other stock, weighing around 400 pounds compared with a horse’s 1,000 pounds, with padded feet rather than hard hoofs. An efficient digestive system means their dung is small and compact, even touted as the cleanest on earth. (A three-compartment stomach allows for regurgitating and chewing cud. It’s this substance that a llama will spit if angry with another llama.) But it’s more than these qualities, Dueñas explained to me later: “I call it llama therapy.” A calming immersion in nature is complemented by time bonding with the llamas. “People start to care for them.”

There’s an increasing interest in llama trekking, amplified by social media and television personality Randy Newberg, the Bozeman, Mont.-based hunter who has featured pack llamas on his show (as a means to haul elk meat). In recent years, llamas have even become trendy. “They’re the new unicorn,” Dueñas said. “Alpacas and llamas have only been in the country since the late 1970s, and if you saw them beforehand, it would’ve been in the zoo or circus, seen as an exotic animal.” Now that llamas have become mainstream, he added, visitors “show up for ranch tours wearing llama socks and T-shirts.”

But Dueñas emphasized the importance of trekking with llamas that have been properly trained. “Not every llama is created equal. Not every llama in a pasture is going to be able to pack.”

The art of packing

It turns out there’s a high level of precision required for llama trekking. When we arrived in Montana, we spent a night packing up the panniers that Dueñas had provided before our trek, evenly distributing the weight. A handheld scale does the trick (and works the biceps as you lift the pannier into the air). Each of the four llamas would carry two panniers of equal weight, between 20 and 30 pounds, hitched to each side of their saddles.

The husbands left before dawn with two of the most eager kids to pick up the trailer with the llamas from Dueñas outside of Bozeman. Tobie, Dan’s wife, the other kids and I met them at the Daly Creek trailhead, situated in the far northwestern corner of Yellowstone, outside of the official park entrances. From here, we unloaded the llamas and moved one car down the road, following the famous Gallatin River, to where we would finish the 10-mile hike.

Then we commenced the llama care, which would become a soothing ritual. First, you must brush the llamas to remove any burs or straw that could create saddle sores. The kids loved this task, affectionately petting them while removing huge amounts of hair that we would pack out with our trash. Watering and feeding were followed by saddling and attaching the panniers, a process we soon realized created more than a physical attachment. In this symbiotic relationship, we cared for the creatures facilitating our journey.

Norman Maclean, the author I most associate with Montana, exalts the virtues of packing in the final story in his “A River Runs Through It” collection. One of the stars of “USFS 1919” is Bill Bell, the Forest Service ranger and head packer who is idolized by the youthful protagonist. “Every profession has a pinnacle to its art,” Maclean wrote. “In the hospital it is the brain or heart surgeon, and in the sawmill it is the sawyer who with squinting eyes makes the first major cut that turns a log into boards. In the early Forest Service, our major artist was the packer, as it usually has been in worlds where there are no roads. Packing is an art as old as the first time man moved and had an animal to help him carry his belongings.”

Within our group, we took turns playing the role of Bill Bell, and it was on Day 2 that Tobie and I took the reins of this laborious process. We felt a great sense of accomplishment in the minutiae: We remembered to set aside lunch in a designated pannier atop Granite, Tobie’s favorite llama, with his dreadlocked coat, which simplified the day ahead. (No need to unload all the panniers to feed hungry kids.) As we later lunched contentedly and admired the scenery, we triumphed in our packing prowess.

Beyond the geysers

Created in 1872 as the country’s first national park, Yellowstone has served as inspiration for national parks around the globe. Its geothermal activity is legendary; sitting atop a massive dormant volcano, Yellowstone has the world’s highest concentration of hot springs and geysers. Needless to say, the park is always popular, but interest has skyrocketed following the 2020 pandemic year. A record-breaking number of visitors inundated the park this summer. In fact, July was the busiest month in the park’s history and the first time the number of monthly visits has surpassed 1 million.

But Yellowstone isn’t just Old Faithful. Sprawling across more than 2.2 million acres, the park offers more than 900 miles of trails worth exploring, yet we encountered only two other hikers. Under the never-ending Montana sky, fortunately unmarred by wildfire smoke, we contemplated the metaphysical vastness of the wilderness. We adapted to our youngest hiker’s rhythm and embraced the mantra of slow travel — less than 2 mph — which allowed the opportunity to notice the wildflowers, the chittering chipmunks, the trickle of a creek’s currents on glacial rocks and, to the hilarity of the kids, the (glacially slow) time it takes for a llama to urinate.

And through it all, we had the best kind of company in llamas. We got to know their personalities, quirks and herd dynamics: Sunfire didn’t like to get his feet wet crossing a creek; Sarek needed to see another llama in front of him on the trail; Dewey made a humming noise with the kids’ hugs; and Granite, the easygoing champion who could carry the most weight, had a thing for eating spiky thistle.

A word about bears: When hiking in the backcountry, it’s important to be prepared. We carried bear spray and learned the rules (if you encounter a bear, make a lot of noise and stand your ground). But with a group of our size, bears could hear us from miles away, and there was no chance of surprising a grizzly in the midst of a chokecherry feast.

We worried, however, whether the llamas would be safe at night in the meadows where we tethered them near our tents, more than 100 yards away from the food area. Dueñas assured me that it’s not an issue. “Llamas smell different and look different than any kind of food source. A bear’s not going to mess with them.” The biggest bear-related challenge was hoisting our containers of food by rope over the bear poles at the campsites every night: a test of strength, endurance and physics.

On that last night, pitching our tents at the campsite on the Black Butte Trail known as WF1, I crawled into my sleeping bag giddy on stars. No campfires were allowed because of the wildfire risk, so we focused our attention on the sky. Above the meadow strewn with Indian paintbrush flowers, the constellations seemed to swirl together in a swallowing immensity. I fell asleep listening to a wolflike bark echoing in the trees, the sound of the rushing water in the creek. The next morning, I delayed emerging into the freezing Montana dawn, feeling daunted by the temperatures and the idea of lowering the panniers from their bear-pole perch.

But when I finally peeked my head out of the tent, breath coming out in spirals of steam, reassured by the view of the grazing llamas, I could make out a sight across the meadow that was better than any mirage. Dan was already seated on a log in front of his father’s Coleman stove, brewing gourmet coffee, the half-and-half on ice, while he prepared a lavish breakfast that only llama trekking could allow: dozens of eggs and 35 pieces of bacon.

Nicklin is a writer based in Paris. Her website is marywinstonnicklin.com. Find her on Twitter: @MaryWNicklin.

Please Note

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.

If you go

What to do

Yellowstone National Park

2 Officers Row, Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.

307-344-2860

Covering about 3,500 square miles mostly in Wyoming and famed for its geothermal activity, Yellowstone is one of the most popular national parks. Beyond the well-traveled road circuits, it offers more than 900 miles of trails to explore. The park has five entrances, named for points on the compass: North, Northeast, East, South and West. Annual pass $70, seven-day pass for noncommercial vehicle $35. Permits required for all overnight stays in the backcountry and must be obtained in person; guests must pay the park entrance fee and backcountry permit fee. Nightly permits for stock parties $5 per person.

Montana Llama Guides

406-600-3835

Just outside Bozeman, this llama ranch offers a number of activities. Take part in ranch tours and learn about the breeding program, sign up for a guided hike with llamas or rent llamas for your own self-guided expedition. First-time renters must participate in a “packing with llamas” training course ($125). One- to four-day hike $80 per llama and per day, with a two-llama minimum. Trailer rental $35 per day for up to two llamas; $50 per day for up to four llamas.

Information

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