Trekking with llamas in Pisgah National Forest? You bet!
Sandy Sgrillo, proprietor of The Wandering Llamas, invited me to tag along on a trek around Max Patch, a grassy bald near Hot Springs, North Carolina. This 4,629-ft. bald was cleared and used as pasture for cattle and sheep in the 1800s. Today, it encompasses over 300-acres of open land on a high knob with superb 360-degree views. Max Patch is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular settings you’ll experience in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I had been looking forward to trekking around Max Patch for weeks and was ecstatic that the day dawned sunny and seasonably warm. Perfect weather for early April in the mountains near the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.
Sandy brought four of her llamas for today’s adventure: Chester, Flash, Ice Man, and Fidelio. I was the first to arrive out of our group of four trekkers and enjoyed watching Sandy preparing the llamas for the day as she fitted Chester and Flash with the specialized packs they would wear to carry our gear. Ice Man, still in training, would trek with an empty pack, and Fidelio, also in training, got to enjoy the day pack-free.
After the arrival of Jan, Sam, and Jenny, the other three trekkers signed up for the adventure, Sandy assigned each of us a llama and off we went. I had Chester, Jan was leading Fidelio, Sam led Ice Man, and Jenny had Flash.
While walking along the wide, old logging road trail with Chester’s lead in hand, I found llamas easier to walk than my dog Murray! Llamas instinctively know how to walk on trail but follow their human lead. They’re gentle and very agile, reminding me of flying reindeer when Ice Man nimbly hopped over large rocks and small creeks along the way.
Chester was quite vocal all day. It turns out that llamas hum to each other as a means of communication, and their pleasant, low humming brought a tranquil vibe to the trek. Due to their clawed-toes and soft pads, llamas don’t erode the forest floor like a horse; their feet do no more damage when walking through the woods than a human or dog.
Our llama train wound around the base of Max Patch for a couple of miles, trekking along wooded logging roads and narrower horse trails. We popped out of the woods about halfway through our trek and the back side of Max Patch came into view. All of the llamas were doing what llamas do best, despite being led by complete novices.
A nearby grassy area seemed like the perfect place to stop for lunch. Sandy unloaded the packs and we were delighted to find that Chester and Flash were carrying folding chairs and a small table in addition to what we had brought to eat. What a treat to sit and enjoy an on-trail lunch with the llamas peacefully grazing on grass while we enjoyed the majestic view of Max Patch.
The llamas all had a turn at leading the way, but we found that Chester preferred to be directly behind Flash. If Chester was further back in the llama train with Flash ahead, Chester would trot forward so he could be with his buddy. Both Flash and Chester are retired Mt. LeConte pack llamas, so they must have some sort of llama bond from that experience. It was actually quite endearing to witness the fondness they clearly feel when together.
Until they spit at each other! Sandy taught us that llamas spit on each other from time to time and it’s the typical way of expressing irritation with other llamas. To me, it was reminiscent of human siblings pestering each other to gain attention from mom. It was quite a hoot to watch and Jenny even encouraged the llama spitting; she tried really hard to get in the line of spit-fire a few times. Maybe llama spit has magical properties. You never know!
After lunch, we repacked the llama’s packs and headed up to where the trail we were trekking on intersects with the iconic Appalachian Trail as it ascends Max Patch from the south. Since llamas are not permitted on the bald itself, we secured them to trees so they could graze on the surrounding grass while the four of us trekkers climbed to the top of Max Patch.
It’s a tough climb up to the top, and I had to conjure up my inner Grandma Gatewood to get up the steep trail. In 1955 at the age of 67, Grandma Gatewood was the first woman to solo hike the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail from Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine in one season. One day, I too hope to hike the entire Appalachian Trail but for now, I’m content to be here on Max Patch in the company of the other trekkers and the wonderful llamas.
The view from the top of Max Patch is stunningly beautiful. Once at the top, it’s comprised of rolling hills and a sprawling expanse of mountain meadow that offers plentiful sunshine, incredible views, and an on-top-of-the-world feeling. The far-reaching skies frame the seemingly endless mountains in 360-degree views. In a single word, it’s magnificent. Max Patch is a must-do hike, especially with Sandy’s llamas carrying the heavier gear.
After descending from the summit via the Appalachian Trail and meeting back up with Sandy who had stayed with the llamas, we sadly realized the trek was coming to an end. We had just a short hike remaining, trekking around the front side of Max Patch and back to the llama trailer and our vehicles.
Back at the trailhead where this adventure began, we emptied the llama’s packs and helped Sandy load the gentle animals into the trailer. Jenny had one last chance to get blessed with llama spit…..and then it happened! Just as Jenny was getting Flash loaded into the trailer, one of the other llamas got a bit miffed at the whole idea and let the spit fly. While we may never know if llama spit has any magical properties, Jenny was ecstatic to have been in the line of spit-fire. You wear it well Jenny!
It was a perfect day at Max Patch and the four-hour hike finished way too fast. I was sorry to bid goodbye to my new friends and our gentle companions. We departed feeling destressed and refreshed and all of us want to trek again soon. Llama trekking is a great family friendly activity that can be enjoyed by all ages. I loved it so much that I’ve added llamas to my dream farm-life wish list!
Contact Sandy at The Wandering Llamas to schedule your own adventure!