Traveling light through Salida's golden-hued leaf-peeping country.
Reagan's breath, which I can feel hot on my shoulder, leaves something to be desired in the freshness department. But then again, Reagan is a llama, which means I probably shouldn't expect anything different. The fact that Reagan's attitude doesn't match his sour aroma is, however, a pleasant surprise. In fact, he makes the perfect partner for scouting Colorado's fall foliage. Patient and methodical, he lets me lead him along the trail at the pace of my choosing, and together we meander through dense autumn woods. Dry pine needles crunch underfoot while mountain bluebirds play tag in the rays of sunlight shooting through the branches overhead. None of this appears to impress Reagan. I, on the other hand, am mesmerized.
A group of friends and I had decided to forgo our annual fall road trip to Summit County and instead signed up for a guided llama trek through the Sawatch Range. It was a conscious choice: Rather than join thousands of other eager leaf peepers on crowded highways and frontage roads, we would get to hike deserted trails and view autumn's display atop serene mountain peaks. The best part? The llamas would lug all our gear.
Dan Jones, owner of Spruce Ridge Llamas, is leading our group. A former camping guide and outdoor educator, Jones also worked as an executive at Monarch Mountain ski area for several years. But when the resort changed ownership and Jones' job ended, he began looking at other careers that would allow him to continue living in the mountains. After a friend suggested llama treks, Jones studied the animals for nearly a year, visiting ranches and learning about llama behavior, before deciding to invest in one of his own in 1992. Now he's the proud owner of eight animals, which he guides on two to three treks per week throughout summer and fall. Based just outside of Salida, his outings range from half-day out-and-back hikes to 18- to 20-mile overnight trips, but the scenic fall foliage treks offer the most striking scenery by far.
At the trailhead, Jones introduces us to the animals as he straps a pack, harness, and lead rope to each one. Within 15 minutes our group is plodding along a slight incline while leading our llamas single file. At 8,500 feet, the forest canopy is thick with evergreens yet sparse with aspen. Jones reminds us that aspens flourish at higher altitudes, where their groves spread and grow unimpeded by the shadows cast by evergreens. As we pass in and out of pine trees and cross trickling streams, we spot the occasional deer tucking itself into the background. In this first mile Reagan seems content walking next to me with his snout bobbing up and down over my shoulder, staring at me with his wide brown eyes. Initially it's a bit intimidating to have a 450-pound animal hovering so close, but I warm to Reagan quickly. He's got an easygoing temperament, and his tall, alert ears remind me of a rabbit's. His six bottom teeth protrude awkwardly from his mouth, giving him a constant smile. Jones informs me that llamas can carry between 40 and 100 pounds of gear, and that they tend to keep wild animals at bay, two characteristics that come in handy when exploring unfamiliar backcountry.
After about an hour we stop in an open area and tie our llamas to nearby tree trunks. While we snack on fruit and handfuls of trail mix, Jones gives us a brief history lesson on the area, including stories of the Ute Indians who once inhabited the surrounding landscape. When we start again, we continue along the upward slant of the trail. The incline isn't too intense—intermediate at best—but it's a nice perk to be hiking pack-free. I give my hairy companion a good scratch on the neck as thanks, and he leans hard into my palm as if to say, "No problem." The path grows less worn as we climb, and it's not obvious exactly which way it goes. But Jones seems confident in his internal compass. Soon I notice the pine trees have thinned out and aspen leaves are scattered like confetti on the ground. When we turn the next corner we see it—our first landscape of autumnal glory. There are aspens. Thousands of them. Their half-dollar-size leaves wave in the wind like a stadium of gold pennants. The vivid bands of yellow, gold, and amber provide a striking contrast to the azure sky. Cameras shutter unabashedly. But it's a sight done justice only by the naked eye.
More confident than ever in Jones' ability to lead us to postcard-perfect panoramas, we eagerly follow him higher up the mountain. He directs us through towering aspen groves, and every blown-open vista we come to thereafter seems to offer better views than the last. We take a short pit stop for lunch, which Jones unloads from the llamas' packs and prepares for us. To return the favor, I find some clover for Reagan, which he happily gulps out of my hand. While we enjoy gourmet sandwiches, fruit, and dessert atop boulders alongside a stream, my friends and I rave about the scenery. Those with our mouths full nod emphatically in agreement. We still have a couple of hours ahead of us, but the sights we've seen so far have me awestruck. This is no car trip with periodic roadside scenery and stop-and-go traffic. It's 360 degrees of autumn: leaves fluttering overhead, crunching underfoot, and floating down all around.
[This article originally appeared in 5280 magazine.]