Outfitter Profile: Laura Higgins, MD of San Juan Mountains Llama Treks in Cortez, Colorado

Online at www. SanJuanMountainsLlamaTreks.com


An avid backpacker since the early 1980s, I discovered llamas in 1997 and have not carried a backpack since!


Initially, I purchased two llamas for personal use. Most of my hiking adventures then took place in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the Tennessee/North Carolina border. We met lots of folks along the trail inquiring if they could rent the llamas. Early on I read what few publications were out there on llamas. One of the best was Stanlynn Daugherty’s Packing with Llamas. After reading the packing history of llamas with the Inca civilization in South America, I felt even more motivated to promote this aspect of their usefulness today.


The idea was planted to develop a llama trekking outfitter service and so I partnered with Lucy Lowe, a local horse outfitter, to purchase English Mountain Llama Treks. It did not take Lucy long to conclude that packing with llamas was really the way to travel in the backcountry. We ran trips in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina and Tennessee from 2001 until my husband, David Bray, and I relocated to Colorado in 2009. Many of the llamas in our pack string were born and trained on my farm in Tennessee.


After getting settled into southwest Colorado, we realized the magnificent San Juan Mountains were the perfect location to continue llama trekking, so David and I developed San Juan Mountains Llama Treks. I’ve never considered running a llama trekking service as “work.” Since my full-time job is that of a general surgeon, I actually find working and hiking with llamas a tremendous stress outlet! It has been an interesting ride, juggling my often heavy work schedule and being “owned” by a herd of llamas. My real passion has always been exploring the great outdoors and sharing knowledge of wildflowers and nature photography with others. I love introducing folks new to camping to challenging wilderness experiences. What better way to do this than with llamas! The llamas create a lasting impression of the trip for them.


In addition to low impact on the environment, the appeal of the llama for me is their gentle disposition and, in most cases, ease of training. We currently have a small herd of sixteen llamas, eight full-time packers consisting of gelded and intact males, three retired packers, and five females. Our last three breedings have produced some very nice female crias who will hopefully be trained to pack. We pack primarily with Ccara llamas. Our breeding program was developed to replenish our pack string. I have reluctantly sold only two llamas in my career; the others have lived out their lives on our ranch.


We offer day trips with lunch, multiple overnight trips, and drop camps. A new feature we added last year for folks who desire more “luxurious” camping accommodations is a llama shuttle service into a remote mountain cabin accessible only by foot traffic. The cabin sits on the edge of a high alpine meadow at over 11,000 feet elevation with commanding views of the surrounding peaks.


It is difficult to summarize fifteen years of llama packing into a few paragraphs. It’s been a great adventure for me and the llamas!