Llama go hiking? Take a guided trek through Vail Valley’s backcountry with the pack animals

Paragon Guides has long been the go-to Vail Valley company for guided iconic Colorado adventures in the backcountry, including hut trips, backpacking, rock climbing — and llama packing. (Joshua Berman, Special to The Denver Post)

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MINTURN — My 7- and 10-year-old daughters’ collective stinkface when I announced we were going hiking was, to put it lightly, dismaying. I believe kids should be outside as much as possible, and that “let’s go hiking” should be part of every Colorado child’s basic vocabulary and cultural heritage.

But even though they always end up enjoying our adventures in the woods, my girls had started acting like I had offered them fried liver and onions with a lemon juice chaser, when all I said was, “We’re going hiking today.”

This time, however, I had a kicker: “… with llamas!”

My up-sell worked, as sour faces turned curious. “Our guide,” I explained “will meet us at the Forest Service Station with the animals in a trailer, then we’ll follow him to the trail.”

The next thing we knew, we were driving behind two fluffy llama butts, heading down a twisty road. My girls were excitedly sunscreening up in the back seat.

At the trailhead, Don Shefchik, field director at Paragon Guides, unloaded the animals and assigned them.

“This one’s Bailey,” he said, handing a rope to my 7-year-old, who was beaming, “and this is Sneffels — named after the mountain,” Shefchik said, giving the other lead to my 10-year-old.

Paragon Guides has long been the go-to Vail Valley company for guided iconic Colorado adventures in the backcountry, including hut trips, backpacking, rock climbing — and llama packing. They started using the animals — which they lease each season from a ranch on the Front Range — to haul gear one year, and the concept stuck. They now offer several llama-centric day trips which can accommodate families with different hiking levels. I’d chosen the mellowest they had, a more-or-less flat, out-and-back walk up the Cross Creek Trail.

“When you want to introduce yourself to a llama,” Shefchik was saying, “number one is you have to be gentle, soft and quiet. When you come up to a llama, the best place to start is right in here.” He rubbed the thick fur at the bottom of Bailey’s neck. “Good boy. Good boy.”

I helped Shefchik load the panniers full of breads, meats, cheeses and other goodies on the saddles, and we started walking. Shefchik pointed out Mount of the Holy Cross when it appeared between pine trees. The trail gently ascended a rise covered in brilliant, early-summer wildflowers.

For me, this was it: We were outside, hiking in the mountains! For my girls, it was something else, something their own. Their legs moved, but they barely noticed. The painted scenery enveloped them, but they kept turning their heads, seeming to notice nothing but the huffing, humming llamas walking with them, along the trail.

If you go

Contact Paragon Guides (970-926-5299) about its “Take a Llama to Lunch” or “Backcountry Llama Lunch” trips, which last between 3 and 5 hours. Both begin with a base fee for the first two people ($415-$545), with an extra fee per additional hikers of $89 per person. The cost drops to $79 per additional hiker for groups of eight or more. (Children 12 and under are half price after base fee; age 5 and under free.)

Where to Stay: The llama hikes can be done as day trips from Denver, or you can stay nearby at Inn & Suites at Riverwalk (888-926-0606) or Antlers at Vail (970-476-2471), with various sized suites that are great for families and small groups, including dog-friendly condos and creekside pool and Jacuzzis (from $200 to $850/night).

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