Llama-packing Wyoming's Wind River Range (WY)
In Wyoming's Wind River Range, there are so many classic climbing routes, and the rivers are so full of trout, that smart backpackers rent pack animals to bring in enough gear to enjoy both for days on end. Thanks to outfits like Scott Woodruff's Lander Llama Co., llamas, bred for millennia to handle the high peaks of the Andes, are becoming the go-to beasts of burden in the range. And Woodruff says the Winds' famous Cirque of the Towers area is one of the best places in the world for that climbing-fishing combo. "It's vast and rugged country," he warns. "You'll be glad you have the llamas along."
You'll be especially grateful for your llamas during the stiff 14-mile, two-day ascent from the North Fork trailhead – each animal can saddle up to 75 pounds' worth of gear. As you climb higher toward your first night's camp at Sanford Park, your llama will dutifully follow behind, humming if a pack needs to be adjusted or he can't keep up (though you're just as likely to be slowing him down). Horses have been doing the same job in these parts for years, but llamas aren't nearly as high-impact or high-maintenance. (It can take days to learn how to handle a horse; trips need to connect with scarce grazing areas; and horses have trouble on steep, rugged mountain passes.) Renting llamas is almost as easy as renting a car – you'll be sent on your way once you know the difference between their 'There's-a-bear-in-camp!' noise and the more typical 'I'm-bored' bleat.
One more day of hard hiking will deliver you into the Cirque itself, at 10,000 feet. The high-alpine meadow is surrounded by granite spires that hold dozens of the Rockies' most iconic climbs and easy scrambles, and it's just a short hike away from killer fishing. Because you've been hiking pack-free all day, you'll still have enough energy to scramble up the northeast face of Pingora Peak, or pull a few cutthroat trout out of the Popo Agie River, before the sun goes down.
But it's during mealtime that the wisdom of bringing pack animals along is fully realized – no more dehydrated mystery-in-a-bag dinners; no more wishing you had a bottle of wine. As you settle in after a long day, your llamas will nibble on just about any vegetation that happens to grow near camp. You pop open a bottle of Malbec. In the morning, you might bake a cobbler for breakfast in the Dutch oven you brought. It may sound lazy to let a llama do all the heavy lifting for you on the trail, but because of it, you'll do twice as much climbing and fishing as someone who carried those 75 pounds himself.
More information: Fly to Riverton, Wyoming, which is 30 minutes from Lander. In terms of maps and guidebooks, the USGS map Dickinson Park & Lizard Head Peak covers the Cirque of the Towers. The North Fork trailhead is 90 minutes south. Lander Llama Co. charges $60 per llama per day, with a two-llama, three-day minimum, plus $30 for a three-hour orientation. Drop-off and pick-up is $275 for Dickinson Park (North Fork trailhead). [landerllama.com]