by Heather Mundt
Llamas Pacheco and Durango stood stoic, hitched in the bed of the Paragon Guides truck parked at the West Grouse Creek Trail trailhead southwest of Vail, Colo. Our guide Donny Shefchik would soon unhitch them, the beasts of burden who would also serve as the day?s hiking companions. But first he had some serious business to discuss with the boys.
?OK, Brody and Colin,? he said, clipping a piece of paper to a clipboard and handing Colin a pen. ?I need both of you to sign your names.?
?When you sign this,? Shefchik continues, pointing to the paper, ?what I?m asking is that, as llama wranglers, you take some responsibility for your own safety.?
A waiver? For my kids? How cool, I thought to myself.
?In all the years I?ve been involved with Paragon Guides, we?ve always tried to emphasize in our trips some kind of participatory part,? says Donny, Paragon Field Director and Senior Guide who has worked there for 30 years. ?And what little I know about kids, I know they want to be a part of it too. We want people to be engaged, especially kids.?
During our half-day ?Lunch with Llamas? trek, the boys would be so engaged, in fact, they didn?t complain once during the 3-mile-roundtrip hike. Instead they led their charges in earnest, remaining calm when each llama refused the cross-bridge and opted to walk through the water alongside each boy. (How does a llama cross the creek? However he pleases!)
And they took pride each time we encountered fellow hikers (and dogs), both surprised and delighted to spot such uncommon animals on a Colorado trail.
?Llamas! Look at that!? they?d remark often. ?Do you ride them??
No, silly. They?re pack animals, able to carry up to 80 pounds of gear, allowing backcountry recreation without the struggle of lugging extra weight. Not only that, but the intelligent, peaceful creatures are also eco-friendly, with padded hooves that leave less trace than a hiking shoe and scat that is easily processed in the mountain wilderness. Aside from all that, it?s just fun to say, ?I?ve hiked with a llama.?
?It?s nice to have them as companions on a trip,? Shefchik says.
Of course, he says, it can also be challenging to bring them along, having to meet their needs in addition to your own. But in general, Shefchik says, llamas enhance the backcountry experience.
?Once you?ve become familiar with them, I think it?s fun to maneuver with them up the trail,? he says. ?And I am so much more refreshed getting to camp because I haven?t been carrying a pack.?
Backcountry trips with llamas are just one of the many experiences that make Vail, Colo., a unique summer destination. Located about 100 miles west of Denver along Interstate 70, the gateway to Rocky Mountain recreation in the Front Range, the valley once plied by Ute Indians and pioneers became Vail Ski Resort in 1962.
A brainchild of three former WWII soldiers from Colorado?s famed 10th Mountain Division?the infantry division that trained around nearby Leadville, Colo., for fighting in mountainous regions?the ski area is distinctive for its old-world European design. So when you walk along the cobbled stones of Vail Village and Lionshead, it?s no stretch to feel like you?ve landed in Zermatt, the legendary Swiss Alps resort after which the area is modeled.
Yet another of Vail?s distinctive characteristics? A lofty summertime playground at the top of Vail Mountain, elev. 10,350 feet. With the advent of Adventure Ridge, a project launched in 2012 to develop summer-recreation activities on the mountain, its plans include extensive education centers and recreational opportunities.
First up? A ride up Eagle Bahn Gondola in Lionshead toward a climbing wall, rebound trampoline and summer tubing hill, as well as several aerial challenge courses designed to suit a variety of physical abilities.
And if that?s not enough to tempt you, there?s also plenty of food, hiking and biking trails, and a putt-putt golf course. Even an 11-mile, Top-of-the-Mountain jeep tour around the mountain?s back bowls. Oh, and let?s not forget the 1,200-foot zip-line, Zip Flyer.
A thrilling ride to the base of the mountain offering sweeping views to the east of the dazzling Gore Range, the trip is, well, fast. And fun.
?That?s the longest zip-line I?ve ever been on!? my older son, Brody, marveled after our rapid descent. It?s also the most easily accessible one we?ve experienced, starting with an easy ride up the Adventure Skyway?a high-tech magic carpet?toward the start, followed by a ride back to the top on a chairlift (or on foot).
?I love Vail because I get to do things I?ve never done before!? he continued.
And that was only Day One.
For Day Two, we experienced a more typical Colorado summer activity: whitewater rafting. Our first trip along the Colorado River, we opted for an afternoon, half-day paddle along the Upper Colorado.
And by ?paddle? I mean ?float,? since the Class I and II rapids were so mellow that only our Sage Outdoor Adventures guide Kevin?and those like my husband who were brave (or dumb) enough to get drenched in the inflatable ?duckie? kayak?needed to use any.
The calm waters are one of the many reasons this stretch of river is perfect for all ages, Kevin says, particularly families. In addition to the picturesque canyons and historic highlights, which included a stop at some dilapidated homestead ruins, Kevin says, ?You don?t really see anything man-made.?
Just some other rafters and fishermen, and a persistent swarm of flesh-eating mosquitoes toward trip?s end, thankfully a rare occurrence around here. A final excursion wrapping up our Vail weekend that offered it all: history, nature, adventure, mountains and beauty. In other words? Quintessential Colorado.
If you go:
With 37 lodging and condominium properties scattered along a 7-mile stretch, there?s plenty of places to stay in Vail. Our family lodged for the weekend at the Antlers at Vail, an unassuming yet comfortable condominium hotel located in Lionshead, just a 4-minute walk to the Eagle Bahn Gondola at the base of Vail Mountain. Not only did we feel like we were at the center of all the action, but we were steps away from two of the town?s best restaurants: The Little Diner and Moe?s Original BBQ.
The town of Vail is located 110 miles west of Denver International Airport. Or if you prefer a more direct flight, the Eagle County Regional Airport is a 30-minute drive from Vail. Once you arrive, you?ll have access to the largest free public-transportation system in the U.S.
Vail is part of Eagle County, home to 58 miles of paved recreational paths, 343 miles of mountain-biking trails and 166 miles of hiking trails.
Disclosure statement: Lodging and activities (excluding meals) were provided for this story.
Freelance writer and Outdoor Families Magazine contributing editor Heather Mundt lives in Longmont, Colo., with her husband and two boys. She writes about traveling with kids on her site, Momfari.com, inspiring parents to get out and discover the world with their children.