Trip Report: September 2008
Llama Trekking in the Weminuche Wilderness
Telluride Blues and Brews Festival
This page contains a brief report from our llama trek in the Weminuche Wilderness
and subsequent visit to the Telluride Blues and Brew Festival. Connie and I made
this trip in the fall of 2008.
Change of Plans
My plans for the trekking part of this trip changed at the last minute. My original
plan was to hike up the Elk and Vestal Creek drainages in the Weminuche Wilderness.
Thanks to Ken Hibbard at High Mountain Anglers, I found out that the Elk Creek trail
had become impassable to livestock about 1.5 miles above Elk Park. A section of
the trail along a rocky face developed a huge crack. After some further checking,
I found that foot passage was still possible but the Forest Service warned that
livestock could not be taken past this point. I gave many thanks to Ken, who was
helping Buckhorn llamas that season, for alerting me to the trail problem, otherwise
our trip would have abruptly ended shortly after it began.
The other major last minute change was that a couple that had been planning to accompany
us no longer could go because of work related issues. It would be just Connie, me,
and the llamas on this trip.
I had to devise a new route. I decided to hike up Vallecito Creek from Vallecito
Reservoir. I had never been south of Johnson Creek on Vallecito Creek before although
I had been farther north in the Vallecito Creek drainage on several prior trips.
This route posed one additional problem. The third bridge (counting from the south)
crossing Vallecito Creek was destroyed by an avalanche in the winter of 2004-2005.
Hikers must ford the creek. After some research, I decided we probably could cross
the creek with our llamas at this time of the year when the creeks have relatively
low flow most of the time. I was worried that we could be stymied by heavy rain
that might temporarily make fording the creek impossible, perhaps even for few a
days. This would not be so bad if we were south of the crossing but if we crossed
the river at this point and the creek then rose, we could be stuck for a few days.
Alternative exit routes would take days. Here is the Forest Service's official statement,
"Vallecito Creek is challenging to ford, and is especially dangerous during the
spring runoff (mid May through Mid June). Please use good judgment and extreme caution
if you choose to ford Vallecito Creek."
Connie and I began our trip by leaving Amarillo on Friday morning, September 5.
I had been curious about Navajo Reservoir so we detoured slightly on our way to
Durango to take a look. I discovered that it is a much larger lake than I realized.
We saw many large house boats moored at a marina similar to what we had seen at
We continued on and met Ken at the ranch where the llamas were pastured on Florida
Mesa, southeast of Durango. The three of us worked together to herd the llamas into
a pen. We stretched a long rope across the pasture and walked with it to coax them
through the gate and into the pen. We were then introduced to Karem (named after
Lou Alcindor because he is so tall) and Beethoven. I have heard that the more famous
Karem has a house in Mancos near Durango. We picked up two sets of panniers (saddle
bags) so that we could pack them in preparation for the trail Saturday morning.
We said goodbye to the Ken, Karem, and Beethoven and agreed to meet up again at
the Vallecito Creek Trailhead the next morning. We drove on to Durango and up to
Purgatory. We spent the night at our townhouse at
This was my fourth trip to use llamas. They are magnificent pack animals. Typically
gelded males and sometimes a few females are used for packing. They can carry 60
to 80 pounds depending on the individual. This allows taking a few extra luxuries
along on a trek. Usually each person gets one llama. They are very easy to handle.
If you are an experienced backpacker, after an orientation lasting about an hour,
you know enough to take the llamas into the backcountry without a guide.
They are very cooperative and easy to care for. They rarely balk when you lead them.
When I talk about llamas, people often ask about them spitting. The llamas that
I have rented from Buckhorn in the Durango
area and from the Lander Llama Company
in Wyoming do not spit at you. On occasion they might spit at each other but they
do not spit at humans. Perhaps this has something to do with how Buckhorn and Lander
Llama Company handle and train them.
Caring for them is easy. In camp, you tie them out with a rope attached to spiral
stake that you might see used to tie up a dog. To my amazement, they do not try
to chew the rope or pull out the stake. I think they are powerful enough to easily
pull the stake out of the ground (please do not tell them) but they always seem
quite content to stay put, graze, and sleep. They browse on whatever is available
on the trail or in camp so you do not need to feed them. They are related to camels
so they only drink water every few days. In camp, it usually is not necessary to
provide them water unless you are there for more than one night. Every day or so,
while walking, they will stop at water and drink for a long time.
Saturday morning, we met Ken and his wife at the Vallecito Creek Trailhead. We saddled
up Karem and Beethoven and headed up the trail. Dennis Gebhardt has an excellent
description of the trail in his superb book, Backpacking Guide to the Weminuche
Wilderness so I will not bother providing
my own. Unfortunately this book is currently out of print.
The pertinent excerpt can be viewed here. From the
Maps, the trail gently gains elevation. As we ascended through the
gorge, there was a lot of short, steep up-and-down walking making it more strenuous
than the elevation profile would suggest. This section of Vallecito Creek draws
extreme white water enthusiasts each spring when the river is raging. We stopped
at the first bridge, about 3.0 miles up the trail, and had lunch.
At about 4.1 miles, we found an excellent campsite in a flat meadow beside the river.
We decided to stick to our low key attitude for this trip and stop early. We set
up camp and I went fishing. The creek contained lots of small brook trout. That
evening we enjoyed lounging around the campfire savoring our wine from a box.
We slept an incredibly long time, perhaps 10 or 12 hours. Because we had slept until
about 10:00 AM and because we liked our current camp site so well, we decided to
stay put an extra night rather than hiking farther up the creek as I originally
had planned. I spent the better part of the day fishing. Connie read. I caught lots
of 6 to 8 inch brookies and one 16 inch rainbow. Most of the time I do not kill
the fish but this time I kept enough for dinner. We had a delectable dinner of super-fresh
pan fried trout. The rainbow trout was so big I had to cut it in half lengthwise
to fit it into the pan. We again wiled away the evening "dreaming the fire".
The next morning we headed up the creek. At 6.5 miles from the trailhead we reached
the former site of the Soda Springs Bridge. The avalanche debris pile was amazing.
It left a huge tangled mass of full grown trees ripped from the ground and snapped
into bits like matchsticks. The trail was mostly cleared but at one point the trail
was blocked by a couple of logs about two feet high. I easily stepped over them
but Karem simply refused to go over them. I found this rather odd. Most llamas want
to follow you where ever you go. Beethoven had easily stepped over the logs without
a hitch. I was unable to convince Karem that he should do the same. We had to detour
way up and around the obstruction.
Crossing Vallecito Creek was easy on that day. The water was about mid-thigh deep
and there was a stout rope stretched very tightly across the creek to use as a handrail.
I learned something about llama behavior while crossing the creek. Connie and I
put on shorts and the water shoes we had packed for this purpose. Holding the rope
handrail, I led Beethoven across without a problem. I hitched him to a downed tree
about 30 feet downstream from the rope. I went back across and then started across
with Karem. He wanted to angle across the creek diagonally, walking directly to
where Beethoven was tied slightly downstream. He pulled me sideways as I desperately
clung to the rope. Despite Karem wanting to lead rather than follow, we made it
across without me taking an impromptu swim. Connie them came across flawlessly.
The initial crossing of the creek that had been making me apprehensive was over.
We continued up the creek and found a nice campsite by following a side trail to
an old outfitter's camp just south of the Johnson Creek Bridge, 8.5 miles from
the trailhead. This proved to be a quite commodious spot. We spent the
nights here with me fishing and both of us lounging. I hiked up to the
Bridge and crossed over. There were a number of good camping spots on
of creek. For a second time, we ate fresh trout for dinner.
As mentioned above, it is not necessary to carry feed for the llamas. We did bring
along a few pounds of cracked corn (provided by the outfitter) which they love.
Besides providing them a nice treat, it is useful if one of the llamas gets away
from you. If you accidentally let a llama loose, I am told that sometimes they will
come to you if you shake the bag of corn and you can grab them while they eat from
the bag. Fortunately, I have not needed to use this trick on any of my llama outings.
On evening of the fourth day it began to rain. It rained all night and we awoke
to a view of fresh white snow on all of the peaks. It continued to drizzle intermittently.
I spooked a mule deer doe on my morning constitutional. We decided that it might
not be that much fun to hang around camp in the rain and I was uneasy about the
effect of the rain on the river crossing. We packed up and headed back a day early.
As we descended, it warmed up, the rain stopped, and it became a beautiful day.
The creek crossing was no different than when we had come by two days earlier. I
made sure not to repeat the mistake of giving Karem a downstream target when crossing.
We reached the trailhead in early afternoon. We called Ken and he came and picked
up the llamas. We bid farewell to our faithful servants, Beethoven and Karem, and
drove back to Silver Pick.
Telluride Blues and Brews
The next day we drove to Telluride for the Blues and Brews Festival. We met our
son who drove over from Denver. The festival was wonderful as usual. I have
written more about it from one of our previous trips here:
Telluride Blues and Brews Festival 2006.
I was mesmerized by Susan Tedeschi's performance. It was so intense it made me break
sweat. Here is a sample from her song, "Talking About" from her latest album, "Back
to the River."
The beer was pretty good too.