Llama packing to Cached Lake

In 2008 Greg and I went on a guided llama trip with Wallowa Llamas and had a lot of fun. Last year when backpacking through the Lakes Basin we saw a couple who were llama packing on their own and we thought, “We should do that!” So we returned to Wallowa Llamas and rented two of their finest for a trek on the south side of the mountains.

Our plan was to follow the loop outlined in 100 Classic Hikes in Oregon, by Doug Lorain. Day 1: Hike from the Boulder Park Trailhead to Cached Lake. Day 2: Hike from Cached Lake to Traverse Lake (a LONG day with a lot of up and down). Day 3: Hike from Traverse Lake to the West Eagle Trailhead where we would be picked up, skipping the steep Fake Creek portion of the loop that most people would have to do to get back to their car.

Unfortunately our plan didn’t quite pan out, as you’ll see. BUT, as you can see from this photo it was still an amazingly beautiful trip!

Bright and early Sunday morning the llamas were loaded into the truck and we set off for the trailhead.

We had been trained the day before on saddling the llamas and Raz supervised us one last time as we did this at the trailhead.

And we’re off! Didn’t take any pictures on the very beginning of the hike as we made sure everything was going okay with the llamas. We paused for a break at the wilderness boundary so the llamas could snack. They’ll eat ANYTHING. The wilderness is their buffet.

Greg and Marpa at the wilderness boundary.

Since it was late morning on a Sunday we started passing lots of backpackers headed out to the trailhead. Raz had told us that he was worried there might be bad blowdown on our second day that the llamas wouldn’t able to get over or around, so we asked every outbound hiker where they had been and what conditions were like. No one we talked to had been over in the suspected blowdown area, but one woman said that the day before she had talked to a group that was traveling with horses and mules. They had tried to head up to Wonker Pass and were turned back by all the downed trees. Yikes. If THEY couldn’t get past the blowdown we sure weren’t going to.

So we hiked and mulled it over for a little bit. Since we had suspicion about blowdown from Raz and a second-hand report from a hiker it looked like we should not attempt to head over Wonker Pass the next day. We would have to exit at the same trailhead we started at, which was not part of the original plan. So we wrote up a message for Raz and the next outbound hikers we saw we asked them if they’d be willing to make a phone call for us when they reached civilization. They agreed and we crossed our fingers that Raz would get the message so he would know about the change in plans.

And onward we hiked. At the two-mile mark is a big meadow.

At the other end of the meadow is Eagle Creek, which must be crossed. When we did the guided llama trip here in 2008 there was a nice big bridge across this creek.

But the bridge was destroyed in an avalanche the winter before last.

So we had to wade. But other than the nuisance of changing in and out of my boots, I didn’t really mind because the day was getting quite hot and that water felt GREAT!

While the llamas and I waited for Greg, Perseus took the opportunity to snack.

Just a short ways up the trail the creek has spread out into numerous little channels and we had many water crossings in a short amount of time.

Climbing up.

We passed a splashy side creek where we cooled off. Here is Greg sticking his head in the cascade. Refreshing!

Then at the four-mile mark we reached Eagle Meadow and it was time for a break.

We staked the llamas in the meadow and took off their packs, then we did the same and kicked back by the gorgeous clear waters of Eagle Creek.

We cooled off by filling our hats with water and dumping the water on our heads. FELT GREAT!! 😀

After an hour of relaxing, snacking, and enjoying the scenery we moved on.

The trail continues to follow the creek for a little while longer.

Then the trail starts moving away from the creek and climbing. There’s Needle Point straight ahead.

Then we hit a snag. Just 40 minutes after our hour-long meadow break Perseus sat down in the trail. We could not get him up. We took off his packs and gave him water, but he wouldn’t move.

Remembering what we’d been told about llamas being social animals that like to be with their fellow llamas, Greg went ahead with Marpa and I stayed with Perseus. We hoped that the site of the disappearing buddy would prompt Perseus to get moving, which is indeed what happened. I led Perseus up to a shady spot where Greg and Marpa had stopped, then Greg went back for the saddle bags. We took a 10-minute break there and continued on, hoping for no more incidents, which we didn’t have, thank goodness!

The last mile before Cached Lake was a little bit brutal. There was virtually no shade, it was a hot afternoon, and that section of trail was really rocky, which made for slow going. Greg was a champ, leading the llamas on that hot upwards trek without his poles while I stumbled in their wake.

The views were stunning, though.

Due to the late hour, our tiredness, and the fact that we’d been there before, we skipped the one-mile side trip to Eagle Lake and just pushed on to Cached Lake. (By the way, the junction with the side trail to Eagle Lake has no sign and it’s very easy to miss the turn-off. In fact, we only saw one trail sign the entire three days, and that was at the junction with the Bench Canyon Trail to Arrow Lake. All other junctions and landmarks were unsigned!) We were so glad when we finally reached Cached Lake. We unloaded the llamas, staked them in the meadow, gave them water, then set up camp.

We were so tired that we were in bed about 8:00! We got a good night’s rest and woke up to a glorious morning scene. (We didn’t know it yet, but our day hike would take us up on that towering wall behind the lake.)

Ah, very nice!

We had discussed the day before how we wanted to revise our plans. We knew that the Bench Canyon Trail past Arrow Lake was out since it’s not suitable for stock. One option was to move camp the second day and go over to Bear Lake or Lookingglass Lake. A second option was to stay at Cached Lake both nights. Since the first option required backtracking over the hard-won trail we’d JUST hiked over the previous afternoon and also required losing 1,000 feet of elevation only to regain it again on the climb up to one of the other lakes, we chose option two. Also, packing up camp again so soon didn’t appeal to us.

So on the second day we just did a day hike up to the unnamed pass that was two miles beyond Cached Lake. We had plenty of views along the way.

We lost the trail in this little meadow and wandered around for awhile before getting back on track.

The trail traveled along the high cliff directly above Cached Lake and we could see down on the grazing llamas and our camp (both of which are impossible to see in this shot since I was using a wide angle lens).

Still wide angle, but a little better view. The llamas are staked above that outlet creek and our campsite is in the tree island to the left of the llamas.

As the trail climbed up we came across some basalt which was weird to see in this mountain range of granite.

Granite on the left, basalt on the right. Weird!

Up here in the alpine there is little vegetation and only the hardiest trees survive.

This tough little wildflower has blooms that grow straight out, instead of up.

What a huge bunch of wildflowers!

Then we reached the unnamed pass, which was only marked by a small rock cairn.

The views, of course, were phenomenal. (For the three panoramas, click the photo to see a larger version.) This is the view looking west. Our original plan would have had us hiking down, down, down (way down) to Trail Creek, which can’t be seen here because it’s so far down. Then we would have had to go up, up, up those mountains to get up and over Wonker Pass. Yeah, it’s probably best we weren’t doing that. It looked daunting. I’m not sure where Wonker Pass is in this photo; I think it’s more to the left side of those mountains. On the far right is the deep forested gorge of the Minam River.

Another view to the west:

Looking east to Needle Point.

There was a sandy hill just north of the pass.

I hiked up it to explore. Here’s looking down at the pass. We came from the east (on the left). The trail continues on the right towards Wonker Pass.

At the top of the sandy hill I noticed a well-defined boot path heading north. I followed it, thinking it would lead to some viewpoint. But it just kept going. I followed it for a ways but never reached the end of it. Wonder where it goes?

We sat and enjoyed the views for awhile, peering at things through the binoculars and trying to identify landmarks from the map (always fun!). We saw two women who had backpacked over from Traverse Lake, although the previous night they had camped near Trail Creek, I think. I asked them about the bad blowdown we’d heard about and they confirmed it. Still not sure exactly where it is, but it sounds like it’s between Trail Creek and Wonker Pass. Anyway, their report confirmed that we made the right decision by not trying to hike that section. Those two backpackers were the only people we saw all day!

Finally we headed back down to our lake.

The day was young and we considered heading north to explore an intriguing trail to Pop Lake. This trail doesn’t show up on any of the USGS maps past or present, but it does show up on the new Forest Service quads. It even has a trail number, #1935.

I’m pretty sure we saw the junction for this trail, not too far beyond Cached Lake just before crossing a creek. There was a faint trail heading into the woods and a small rock cairn. I was intensely curious about this mysterious trail, but it was a hot afternoon and we could see that we’d have close to 1,000 feet of elevation to gain to get up and over the ridge between us and Pop Lake. So we skipped it. Back at home, poking around online, I could find absolutely nothing about this trail or the lake, so now I’m even more curious!

Things were calm and beautiful at Cached Lake.

It was another hot afternoon and since Cached Lake is basically just a depression in the meadow that is drowned in snowmelt water (i.e. it’s very shallow), swimming wasn’t possible. So we found a rock just off the shore and sat in the water. Good enough for me! (This photo cracks me up because it looks like a load of dirt washed off Greg’s body and clouded up the surrounding water. 😀 In reality the lake bottom was just VERY silty and got stirred up when he waded out there.)

We lounged around camp reading our books (such a luxury!), eating snacks, and enjoying the views.

Evening at the lake was lovely and we were better able to enjoy it after a fairly easy-going day.

In the morning we ate breakfast and started packing up, a process that took a lot longer than we thought it would. The llamas rested in the meadow while we worked. Their job would come soon enough.

Us at the lake before heading out. I love that Perseus ended up in this shot, and looking at the camera too! 😆

And we’re off.

We took a break at Eagle Meadow and I took some pictures of Greg and the llamas. Love this one because Marpa was chewing his cud and it looks like he’s chuckling!

Back across the creek.

And the final creek crossing just 0.1mi from the trailhead.

We made it!

We had arranged to be picked up at 2:30 and we got to the trailhead at 1:50. Good timing! Raz showed up around 2:40, having gotten our message about the trailhead change. Then we drove back to the llama farm. We were tired and dirty but very satisfied. It was a very fun and beautiful trip! I highly recommend this for anyone who wants to head into the backcountry with a lighter load on their backs. This is also a great option for people with back trouble or other injuries that prevent them from carrying a heavy backpack.

Also here are two videos I took of Greg leading the llamas, to show how easy it is.

Video 1

Video 2

Some notes about hiking with llamas

The llamas can carry up to 65 pounds each, which we did not even fully utilize. I think that on this trip each llama was carrying about 30 pounds. We did splurge and bring some heavy things we wouldn’t have brought on a backpacking trip. We brought four bottles of beer (packed carefully in our soft clothes) and we brought books (hardback books, no less!). We also brought a fresh change of clothes for each day. If I had to do it over again I would also bring two of those new lightweight backpacking chairs for lounging around camp. Here is a picture of a llama with full-to-bursting saddle bags.

I thought it would be nice to have something more elaborate for dinner than our normal deyhdrated meals. But then I realized that although the llamas would be able to carry the stove, pots, ingredients, etc. they wouldn’t be making the meal for us! I would still have to do the cooking and the cleaning and that didn’t appeal to me at all. So we stuck with our Mary Jane dehydrated dinners, which tasted just great after a long hot day of hiking. We did splurge a little for breakfast and had bagels with smoked salmon thanks to a small cooler filled with ice that we brought. Why no cream cheese? Because someone (ahem, me) didn’t package it up well enough and the melted ice water got inside the container. We had a gloppy white unappealing mess, so no cream cheese for us. And, as I mentioned, we did bring the beer, which we put in a nearby creek during the day to get it cooled off.

The person leading the llamas can’t use both hiking poles. Greg did most of the leading and on the first day he didn’t use either of his poles. On the third day he used one hand to hold the lead and the other hand to use a pole and this worked well. But if you’re in some steep or rocky terrain and want to use both poles, you can’t.

The second person really needs to bring up the rear so that any problems with the llamas can be spotted quickly. This means that the rear person is following in the llama dust cloud. I kept a good distance, keeping them in sight but not getting too close, and I still ended up with a dust-coated face at the end of the day.

There are three plants that are poisonous to llamas (lupine, false hellebore, and trapper’s tea) so we had to be on the lookout for those. The only one we saw was the hellebore and there were stretches of trail where it grew profusely. I watched from behind to make sure they didn’t grab some as they hiked, and we just hustled through those sections.

The llamas are well-trained and easy to handle. You take the lead and start walking and they follow along. It’s pretty awesome. Except for Perseus sitting down on the trail that first day, we had no incidents at all.

A common question Greg and I have been getting is “Did the llamas spit?” No, they didn’t spit. Llamas can and do spit but these ones did not.