Everybody loves a llama: Paragon Guides offering experiences with four-legged friends
Take a llama to lunch, trek from Vail to Aspen and more available this summer
Special to the Daily
Pulling up to the East Lake Trailhead in Edwards we saw them: big brown eyes, padded hooves with ridiculously long toenails and goofy expressions as they chewed on the grass.
These boys — Blue, Hombre, Franklin and Ranger — were our llama/sherpas carrying lunch to the lake in their panniers which hung from their saddles.
Our guide Jim “Jimbo” Gabriel was standing by the Paragon Guides’ trailer listening to us “ooh” and “ahh” before introducing himself.
Jimbo had called a few days prior to our “Lunch with Llamas” hike to inquire of any dietary needs — two of us are gluten free — and to assess our hiking ability. He made sure, due to COVID-19 restrictions, we were all living in the same household and advised us to bring masks as well as hand sanitizer.
We also received an email two days prior with a list of items to bring including a water bottle, hat, sunscreen — the usual hiking gear.
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Jimbo was wearing his mask as we made our introductions 6 feet apart. Then we went over Llama Handling 101, which included how to approach, pet and lead our gentle creatures. We each had our own llama and were soon to discover their different personalities.
“As long as we keep one llama-length apart, we are social distancing,” explained Jimbo as we struck out on the trail: Jimbo and Ranger in the lead, my daughter Reece and Blue next, my llama Franklin and me third and my husband Martin and Hombre, who carried the actual picnic, pulling up the rear. Masks off we started hiking and discussing the attributes of these members of the camelid family.
Often confused for alpacas, llamas can weigh up to 200 pounds more than an alpaca. Alpacas’ hair is better for sweaters. Due to their benevolent and unassuming nature, llamas can be trained as therapy animals. (Take that, alpacas.)
“There was one boy who was all over the place attention wise,” Jimbo said. “He had a difficult time standing still while I was explaining how to handle the llamas, but soon after we started hiking he calmed down. I would point out plants and tell him their medicinal uses and a few minutes later he would repeat my explanations to the llama. They have a very tranquil effect.”
Indeed, my llama Franklin hummed for most of the trip to the lake, which was both relaxing and entertaining. If Franklin and I strayed too far behind, Blue would stop, hum anxiously and turn his head to see what the problem was. Whenever other hikers passed us, they would break into smiles. It’s almost impossible not to smile when you see them.
“Is that a llama or alpaca?” one person queried.
“It’s a llama. If you call him an alpaca, he’ll spit on you,” joked Jimbo.
Yes, they do spit, but only when they are upset or confuse you for part of their herd.
So this begs the question, has Jimbo been spat upon?
“I was brushing a llama that hadn’t been brushed before and he was not happy and spat on me,” Jimbo recalled. “I kept a spray bottle filled with water and whenever he would spit or get ready to, I would give him a little spray and within a week he was not spitting anymore.”
Llamas have an antibody that is currently being researched as a cure for coronavirus. (llamas 2-alpacas 0.)
Maid of honor
After about two hours of hiking and crossing streams, which the sure-footed creatures hopped across with grace, we stopped for lunch. Jimbo put his mask back on and wore gloves as he set out the pre-made sandwiches and crudites, dips, chips and fruits. The sandwiches came from The Smiling Moose in Edwards and the other packaged items from City Market.
Paragon Guides also works with Hovey & Harrison in Edwards and will have complete boxed lunches from the deli in the future.
Our hike in had a steady climb in elevation which was not difficult though might pose a challenge for the younger generation.
If you are not an adept hiker or have little ones, there are various shorter and less challenging hikes that depart from several places throughout the county.
And if you just want to enjoy the llamas, you can have wine and cheese with them at Arrowhead.
“Some people just want the experience of hanging out with the llamas. What’s not to love about them?” Jimbo asked rhetorically.
Llamas have been in attendance at birthday parties and even weddings.
Apparently Blue looks great in a wedding veil standing next to the bride.
And for those wanting multi-day excursions there is the popular Vail to Aspen trek which links three 10th Mountain Division huts and the historic Diamond J Guest Ranch between trailheads near Vail and Aspen.
These hut trips are still planned for the summer and will operate in accordance with counties’ guidelines. All guides have minimum certifications and training for medical emergencies in Wilderness First Responder or EMT and CPR.
Jimbo not only takes out llama tours, but he also guides mountain biking, fly-fishing and hiking tours in the summer through Paragon Guides. In the winter he guides their backcountry ski trips and teaches avalanche courses. Indeed safety — and now COVID-19 — precautions are paramount for the company, which has been a valley staple since 1978.
The llamas joined the Paragon crew in 1990 after Paragon owner-founder Buck Elliot found out that the llamas could lighten the burden of camping gear and he didn’t have to feel like a “loaded Christmas tree” when he took his young family out for excursions.
The four llamas on our hike are owned by Paragon Guides. They lease an additional four each summer and when the weather gets warmer they will move from their home on Elliot’s property to stables at Arrowhead.
The “Take a llama to lunch,” tour runs daily and can be modified as needed.
The wine and cheese tours are also a daily event, again each excursion is under the ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions which Paragon Guides monitors daily.
For more information on any of the tours offered by Paragon Guides and information on pricing, call 970-926-5299 or visit http://www.paragonguides.com.
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