North Lake to North Lake with Llamas: July-August 2015

A Report of a Hike with Six People and Six Llamas



At North Lake Trailhead

Yes, I know that the proper route is North Lake to South Lake, but I always feel 30 years younger when I plan trips in December, and this year I soon decided that the full standard route was a bit beyond me once we got started.

After last year’s happy experience witth llamas, we turned once again to Potato Ranch Llama Packers of Sonora for six excellent llamas.

Sunday, July 26: Onward to Upper Golden Trout

After some confusion as to the proper trailhead to unload llamas, we mer the llamas. We had four familiar llamas from last year’s hike (Joe, Sonny D, Smore, and Ebony) and two new ones (Theo and Sarek). My favorite admirable llama of last year, Tux, had some medical problems and now watches over goats. Last year we had the previous afternoon to load and balance the paniers. This year, we loaded at the trailhead. We ended up with more than we needed, and forgot some things. The extra weight wasn’t a problem, since with a llama per person we easily could carry all we needed — but loading the panniers at the trailheads wasn’t the best idea.

We thus got off a little later than planned, I always lead from the rear, and my instructions this time were insufficiently clear. As a result, the llamas, lead by “llama whisperer” Dan and apprenticce Katie missed the proper turn-off to Upper Golden Trout Lake and chugged further down the trail than advisable. Since llama prints were visible on the trail, I knew what had happened. Fortunately, they realized their error and turned back to meet us at a spot that allowed for easy cross-country to a less than ideal campsite. All six of us, fresh from Michigan, were exhausted and I began to wonder about the wisdom of the full trip, particularly since I learned that grazing was banned in Dusy Basin.

Monday, July 27: Do we really want to follow the original plan?

We arrived in good time at a fine campsite along the river at Hutchinson Meadow. We generally agreed that my original plan was too ambitious, particularly since no grazing is allowed in Dusy Basin (where I had planned to spend a rest day).

Tuesday, July 28: Down to the Bridge

Handling morning llama chores came back quickly, and Dan and Katie quickly learned what had to be done, so we were off at a reasonable hour.



The hike from Hutchinson Meadow to the John Muir Trail junction is a fairly rough trail in places. Again, we arrived in good time and after some exploration set up camp on the other side of the bridge. People still weren’t filled with energy, and since we were not going over Muir Pass we decided to spend a rest day before heading back toward Norh Lake.

Wednesday, July 29: Rest Day

Several of us relaxed in camp, while two people headed up to look over Muir Trail Ranch and two others headed up the canyon for a while. Muir Trail Ranch is a fine place to stay, but it isn’t a particularly interesting place to visit..

Thursday, July 30: Back to Hutchinson Meadow

Our previous campsite was open, so we moved in for three nights.








Friday, July 31: Day Hikes

Part of the group hiked up to Honeymoon Lakes.




Saturday, August 1: Hike to Merriam Lake

I used to claim that “it rarely rains in the Sierra.” That was certainly true for my early hiking years, but the last several years have had more varied weather. This time, we got a steady rain in the aftternoon that lasted several hours. I discovered that my 25-year-old Stephenson tent wasn’t quite as waterproof as it once was. Things did clear up in the evening, making the fact that we were in an area permitting campfires particularly welcome.



Sunday, August 2: Back to Upper Golden Trout

Fortunately, our favorite camp site was open. It's up a ways from the Lake and often used by the packers. Besides being near to water, it has a great view of Mt. Humphries and the surroundings.







Monday, August 3: The Hike Out

The hike out went smoothly. We were at the trailhead by 1:00 p.m. and drove to Parchers Resort near South Lake for showers. It’s 15 minutes out-of-the-way, but getting a shower in Bishop can be iffy. In 2013 we persuaded a motel to let us shower in an as yet uncleaned room, but it took a while to find one.



We drove to our hotel near theLas Vegas airport and enjoyed a good night’s sleep on good mattresses and were ready to fly back to Grand Rapids on Tuesday morning.



Last year, “Lllama Whisperer” Dan received a curious note from the llamas thanking him for their efforts on their behalf. This year, the llamas upgraded their communication, somehow sending me a message and photograph by e-mail. The message is appended:

Dear Mr. Bytwerk,

Please thank Dan for his excellent work again this year. We llamas appreciated his concern and interest in us. However, there is one problem. As you know, ears are important to llamas, and while Dan did figure out how to read our ears, we had trouble with his. You humans have sad excuses for ears. We are sending you the best we could find. Unfortunately they are supposed to be rabbit ears, and Dan will have to use his hands to move them, but with practice he should be able to communicate much better with us next time.


Joe, Sunny D, Sarek, Smore, Theo, & Ebony

PS: Tux sends his regards and was sorry he couldn't join us this year.

I modeled the ears, but hope Dan will send me a picture of them on him to add.




Notes of possible use to those planning a hike in the area (with comments on llamas).

1. Some comments on hiking with llamas.

a. We recommend them. Given the age range of the group (from the 30s to early 70s), we wouldn’t have done this hike with backpacks. Once one has the routines down llamas are a pleasure to work with. Unlike horses or mules they don’t kick. They have two-towed hooves, need no steel shoes, and are far easier on the trail than mules or horses. Their droppings are also less prolific and annoying. They eat almost anything green. Llamas are very good at adjusting to the speed of the person leading them.

b. The cost is comparable to mule and horse packers, with the advantage that one needs no packer along. Greg Harford rents llamas for $60 a day. Since we had rental cars and could not pull the trailer he also rents, he delivered and picked his animals up for a reasonable charge. However, that is something he can do only if it fits into his schedule, so it can't be counted on. Everything together cost us about $600 per person for the nine days.

c. The first task after arriving at a good campsite is to get the llamas settled and the panniers unloaded. Usually we attached three or four to a picket line, and secured the others with “bags of rocks,” nylon sacks that one fills with enough convenient rocks to keep the llamas from wandering off. We’d usually give them a handful of llama pellets and make sure they had enough to drink (they don’t drink that much, being members of the camel family). After that, we’d give an occasional glance to make sure they were content, which they always were. In the morning we’d load the panniers, saddle the llamas, load them up, and check to be sure we weren’t leaving any llama gear behind.

d. The one thing most people ask about llamas is “Do they spit?” The answer is yes, but seldom at people. It’s a form of llama-to-llama communication. Our collective of llamas occasionally spit at each other, but it was hardly a problem.

e. They are a cause of great interest on the trail. Everyone wants to know about them. For some children encountering a llama train was a highlight of their trip. Llamas are gentle, and children can stroke their necks with perfect safety. If I were taking kids on a hiking trip I’d definitely consider llamas — but I would want another adult along to make sure all the llama chores are accomplished properly.

2. There is a good campsite (4-5 tents) along the use trail above Upper Golden Trout Lake. The packers use it regularly, so don’t count on it being available.

3. There is one excellent campsite a few hundred yards past the last stream crossing at Hutchinson Meadow, and several other decent sites as well.

4. There are many campsites available past the bridge at the John Muir Trail junction. Aspen Meadow shortly after is also good.

5. I switched from SPOT to DeLorme this year. I stronger recommend their InReach Explorer. It allows not only emergency messages, but also standard text messages. This feature proved valuable when we needed to change our plans, and also got us updated weather forecasts. I know there are those who scoff at such devices — but as I’ve aged I increasingly appreciate the ability to communicate with the outside world in the unusual cases when it becomes valuable.

Photographs by Nick Hendriksma

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Contact: Randy Bytwerk (