Llama Trek in the Smokies
Photo: Steve Garrett
DISTANCE: 200 miles, 3½ hours
ADVENTURE LEVEL: 4 (Not the most adventurous thing in the world, but these are some pretty big animals.)
The Smoky Mountains rise a mile high on North Carolina’s western border, offering hikers a rugged paradise ripe with waterfalls, mountain vistas, and … llamas. The llama, a South American pack animal similar to the camel, has long been used to haul heavy loads over rough terrain. At Smoky Mountain Llama Treks, on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a herd of the exotic pack animals is more than willing to carry gear for hikers. Take your pick of treks, from two-hour roadside walks to multiday adventures, and the llamas (with names like JJ Bird) serve as perfect companions as you make your way up rocky trails toward waterfalls or ridgeline views. The daylong Buckeye Ridge hike, a five-mile meander to a high-elevation meadow, has one of the best views in North Carolina. There, Steve Garrett, owner of the trekking company, and his son will pick a lunch spot while you feed crushed alfalfa to the llamas. And contrary to popular belief, most domesticated llamas don’t spit. In fact, they could be the most polite animals you’ll ever meet. They are carrying your stuff for you, after all. —G. A.
REST UP: Avoid the bustle of nearby Gatlinburg with a room at Newport’s Christopher Place Resort, which overlooks the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Be sure to take time to have a drink in the inn’s library, complete with studious leather chairs and a roaring fire.
GEAR UP: The Nantahala Outdoor Center in Gatlinburg has every piece of gear you could possibly need—and then some. It should also be your first stop for local info if you’re looking to venture into the park solo.
REFUEL: The family-owned Carver’s Orchard & Apple House Restaurant is known for its apple butter and fritters, which happen to be the perfect accompaniment to the house-fried chicken and pinto beans. The view of the working apple orchard behind the restaurant isn’t bad either.
CHICKEN? If leading large animals into the woods isn’t your cup of tea, try a solo hike inside nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Big Creek Trail near Cosby will take you past two primo waterfalls in four miles (roundtrip) of moderate hiking on an old railroad grade that follows Big Creek. Bring a swimsuit and take a dip at the bottom of Midnight Hole Falls.
Adventure Level: 2 (Hiking to waterfalls. You can handle this.)