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

A Report of a Hike with Six People and Six Llamas.


Setting Off from North Lake

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 with 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 trail head to load llamas (we went to the trail head in the campground when we should have gone to the trail head parking lot), we got to work with our llamas. We had four familiar llamas from last year’s hike (Joe, Sonny D, S’more, 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 panniers. This year, we loaded at the trail head. Under those less than idial conditions, 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 trail heads 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 apprentice 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.

Still, the Humphreys Basin is a gorgeous place and despite general weariness we enjoyed the view.

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

Rather than taking the main trail down to Hutchinson Meadow, we followed the use trail along the stream, which is well-used enough to be easy to follow. In one or two places it was a tad awkward for the llamas, but intrepid beasts that they are, they chugged through.

We arrived in good time at a fine campsite along the river at Hutchinson Meadow with excellent grazing for our llamas. Around a campfire, we 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).


Grazing Llamas

We had a relaxing afternoon, with one member of the party cooling his feet in the stream while contentedly reading.


Comfortable Reading

The rest of the group acceded to my suggestion that heading over Muir Pass to South Lake probably wasn’t the best plan and we resolved to take things more sedately.

Tuesday, July 28: Down to the Bridge

Handling morning llama chores came back quickly to those of us on last year’s trip and David and Katie quickly learned what had to be done, so we were off at a reasonable hour. The trail down to the junction with the John Muir Trail was somewhat rougher than I was expecting. The bridge at the junction was a welcome site, and the llamas happily crossed the bridge.


Llama Crossing

After some exploration we 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 North Lake.

Wednesday, July 29: Rest Day

Tqp of us relaxed in camp, 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

By now we had morning llama chores down to an art, so we were off efficiently back up the canyon 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.


Lower Honeymoon Lake

The upper lake is more barren and requires some scrambling.


Upper Honeymoon Lake

Saturday, August 1: Hike to Merriam Lake

Some of us stayed in camp for the day, while four others hiked up to Merriam Lake. I was there years back on a trip that took us over Feather Pass to the Bear Lakes Basin, but this year was entirely happy to stay in camp this year and relax.


Merriam Lake

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


A Welcome Campfire after a Wet Afternoon

One of the benefits of the extra weight allowed by llamas was an evening glass of wine. Even boxed wine tastes pretty good at 9,000 feet.

Sunday, August 2: Back to Upper Golden Trout

The hike up toward Piute Pass went reasonably smoothly, despite the fact that the llama train took a wrong turn. I could hear the sound of llama bells in the distance and figured they’d soon get back on the right path, which they did. Fortunately our favorite camp site above Upper Golden Trout Lake 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. Humphreys and the surroundings.

Dan “the llama whisperer” was maintaining good contact with our herd.


The “Llama Whisperer” in Conversation

Like last year, Dan did a find job of leading the llamas. Other members of the party took an occasional turn, but it’s hard to outdo the master.


The Humphreys Basin at Dusk

Monday, August 3: The Hike Out

We wanted to get an early start, so we were out of the tents a little earlier than usual. The llamas were saddled and we were off.


Getting Ready to Hike Out

The hike out went smoothly. We were at the trail head 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 the Las Vegas airport and enjoyed a good night’s sleep on good mattresses and were ready to fly back home on Tuesday morning.


Last year, “Llama 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 package 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, S’more, Theo, & Ebony

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

Dan was kind enough to model the llamas’ gift.

llama ears

Possible Method of Human-Llama Communication?

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 good at adjusting to the speed of the person leading them.

b. Greg Harford rents llamas for $60 a day. The cost is comparable to mule and horse packers, with the advantage that one needs no packer along.

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. 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 strongly 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

The original plan

2015 Sierra Expedition:

North Lake to South Lake with Llama Assist

The 2015 hike will be from North Lake to South Lake, through the Evolution Valley. It’s one of the classic Sierra hikes. Given the success of last year’s expedition across Northern Yosemite, I’ve booked six llamas from Potato Ranch Llama Packers to help us along. With good fortune, we’ll get Tux again.


Tux, the Admirable Llama

More details will follow, but here’s the outline.

July 25 (Saturday): Fly to Las Vegas, Reno, or Los Angeles. I’ll keep an eye on fares. Night at the Bishop Travelodge. I’ve reserved three rooms. Since we have four experienced llama packers, we won’t need the training we got last year. That does mean we will need to be prepared to load the llamas at the trailhead. I’m asking the packer for two bear containers.

July 26 (Sunday): Enter at North Lake after spotting a car at South Lake. We’ll camp somewhere around Golden Trout Lake, familiar from our 2013 hike.

July 27 (Monday): Hutchinson Canyon

July 28 (Tuesday): Hiking

July 29 (Wednesday): Evolution Valley

July 30 (Thursday): Layover day

July 31 (Friday): hiking

August 1 (Saturday): hiking

August 2 (Sunday): Dusy Basin

August 3 (Monday): Exit the Sierra at South Lake, drive to airport.

August 4 (Tuesday): Fly back to Grand Rapids.

Links: Here are a few links from people who have done the hike.

If you use Google Earth, enter “Evolution Lake, CA,” and you will be in the middle of the area.

Confirmed Participants:

Randy Bytwerk
Jane & Nick Hendriksma
Dan Vandersteen

Probable hikers:

David Bytwerk