What Could be Better Than Hiking With a Llama?
By Lauren Wong
Hiking with llamas has to be one of the most unique/different things I’ve done in Arizona. Our guides, Janice and Chris Dunn, were some of the sweetest people I’ve met. Their story was so inspiring, how they truly live their life in pursuit of adventure, love, and happiness.
Arizona Backcountry Llamas is a family owned and operated business that offers guided hikes in the Prescott area, Kaibab, and multi-day hikes. I 100% recommend checking them out!
I wanted Janice and Chris to be able to tell you their story with their words, so you get the chance to hear the passion in their voice. Here’s a Q & A with the llama experts themselves…
What’s your position within Arizona Backcountry Llamas and what did you do prior?
Janice Dunn: Head Llama Mama/Co-owner/Guide, Fourth Grade Teacher (30 years, retired May 2022)
Chris Dunn: Llama Wrangler/Co-owner/Guide, Biology Professor (22 years, still teaching)
Can you share some background on yourself?
Janice: We are both Arizona natives who started backpacking when we were nine years old and have lived the outdoor lifestyle all of our lives. We do a number of outdoor activities besides llama packing. We do river running, mountain biking, bike packing, caving, rock climbing, fishing, hunting, and even meteorite hunting just to name a few.
Chris: We met in 1981 when we were both students at Northern Arizona University. I first saw this tall blond skinny girl (Janice) in the dining hall wearing hiking boots and a Yosemite t-shirt, and I knew I had to meet her. One day I got her phone number from a mutual friend and just asked her out to dinner. She told me she had already had dinner, but I don’t give up easily, so I talked her into going out anyway. I’m sure she had a great time as she watched me eat and listened to me talk about rock climbing. When I asked her out on a second date she said she couldn’t go because she had to wash her socks! I guess I wasn’t smart enough to see she was blowing me off and I eventually talked her into going out again. The next date I took her out rock climbing.
Janice: We celebrated 40 years together last December by reliving that first date at Bun Huggers in Flagstaff, but this time we talked about our llama business.
Chris: We also sat around and talked about Janice getting knee replacement surgery.
Janice: That is what happens when you play hard! My new knee is one of the best things I’ve done in years!
When did you come up with the idea of starting Arizona Backcountry Llamas? What passion brought you to the idea? Why llamas?
Chris: We have been llama packing for almost 30 years. We actually first started taking people out in the 1990’s, but stopped for a couple decades while we raised our kids and pursued our teaching careers. We still did lots of our own llama trips though.
Llamas are the ultimate pack animals. Easy to handle, train, care for, transport, and much easier on the environment and trails than horses or mules since they have soft feet and are much lighter. They are great hiking companions too. They quietly follow along as you lead them down the trail. They can carry up to 100 pounds so you can travel with more “comforts.” They have made our backcountry experiences and lives so much better. In the last few years, a lot of people are trying to get back to nature, so it seems like a perfect time to share our experience. We had a ton of business when Covid hit because people just wanted to get outside and get away. A llama hike is good therapy.
Janice: We had done so much backpacking by the time we were 30 our knees were starting to complain. We met someone packing with llamas in Wyoming. We did some research and traveled around checking out llama ranches and decided this was definitely for us. We bought our first two packers in 1995 and Chris had them out on a solo trip two weeks later. We had our first daughter in 1998 and she was on her first multi day wilderness llama pack trip by two months old. By the time she was ten she had been on over 50 trips. We added a second daughter in 2001, so of course she came along too. The llamas made taking kids into the backcountry so much more possible and comfortable. For families wanting to get on the trail there’s nothing better. They are smaller than horses and are easier to handle and are less intimidating. They are very calm too. People often ask if you can ride a llama. They aren’t that big, so you lead them as you hike. The beauty is that they carry the gear so you don’t get so tired.
Chris: Our passion is to travel and explore places in the great outdoors and llamas allowed us to continue to do that in comfort, especially when our knees started to go out and when we started our family.
Janice: Llamas are the perfect pack animal for those who still like to hike! They are easy to care for, handle and train. Besides the fact they are beautiful animals, they love to get out on the trail as much as we do!
Chris: Besides doing llama hikes, we started breeding three years ago because in recent years pack llamas have been in high demand and hard to come by. Not all llamas are suitable for packing. We were looking for a couple younger llamas to replace two of our guys who were about ready for retirement, and we couldn’t find any to replace them. So, we decided to build our pack string by breeding our own llamas from some of the top pack llama stock in North America. In the future, we plan to start selling llamas to other people wanting to get into it. Llama breeding is a slow process though. It starts with a one year gestation period!
Janice: A few years ago I realized that retirement was right around the corner, and I would need a job to supplement my retirement income. It was just natural to create Arizona Backcountry Llamas. We offer 2-hour, 4-hour, all day, multi-day hikes, ranch visits, and weddings.
How many llamas do you currently have?
22 counting three boys born this spring. We have two more crias (babies) due in October.
In terms of Backcountry Llamas, are you planning to expand? What are your long and short-term goals for the business?
Short term goal: to promote our multi-day trips. It took a couple years for us to go through the process of obtaining permits from the Kaibab, Prescott, and Tonto National Forest so we can now offer these types of adventures.
Long term goals: Train our young llamas so that we can add them to our pack string or sell them as trained pack llamas. Offer custom backcountry trips for families, groups and especially people wanting to do parts of the Arizona Trail.
What is your favorite part about what you do?
Chris: My favorite part is the planning and the anticipation of breeding, and of course, exploring the backcountry in comfort with the llamas carrying the supplies. It is so awesome being on the trail watching them do what they were bred to do. They can negotiate all kinds of terrain with ease. It is really fun to take out experienced backpackers and see the light go on about what a game changer pack llamas are. You can go farther, faster, and be fresher when you get there so you really enjoy the outdoors.
Janice: I really enjoy training llamas and getting to know each llama’s personality! Of course, having llamas babies is so exciting! You never know what you will get. Male or female? What colors? My favorite part of guiding llama hikes is sharing our llamas and meeting people from all over the country with diverse backgrounds. Llamas attract really nice, interesting people.
What do you hope guests walk away feeling after a day, or multi-day trip with you? What do you hope you (and your llamas) can bring to your guests?
On our shorter day trips our guests get to relax and enjoy a leisurely hike leading a happy llama. We have a little picnic and enjoy the local scenery. We share information about llamas and local natural history. We know a llama hike creates a great memory and story to share with the folks back home too.
Multi-day treks involve a little more adventure and outdoor experience. Our trips are participatory so guests help with all aspects of the journey. There’s nothing like disconnecting from “reality” for a few days to re-energize and get some perspective on life. The rhythm of hiking and camping, sunrises and sunsets is just good for the soul. We love to share our years of knowledge and experience of backcountry travel and living, as well as the natural history of the area. We really enjoy educating people on backcountry skills so that they can feel more comfortable going out on their own. Of course guests really get to know the llamas too.
Are there any particular moments/memories that stand out to you? One that made you realize you're doing something you love?
Janice: There is a couple that have come back for several hikes and came on a ranch visit. I really enjoy talking with them and feel like we have become friends. I become acquainted with so many people, and I feel that we depart from our llama hikes as friends.
I also had a couple get married on a half-day hike and they brought some of their close friends along. Another couple secretly got married at home with only their family joining the ceremony. They invited their close friends to join them on a half-day llama hike where they surprised them by announcing they had just been married. On both of those hikes we had picnic receptions with wedding cakes. I felt so special that my llamas and I were part of this important event in their lives.
I know some of the llamas are rescued, where did they all come from? Any particular story about one that stands out to you?
Janice: Chris rescued one of our llamas, Cisco, from an animal rescue shelter that was a little shady. He was pretty wild and we had a hard time earning his trust. After a year or so, I told Chris that I didn’t think Cisco was going to work out. He said to give him a little more time. I am glad we did because this small llama has turned into one of the best packers we have had on our ranch! We have even nicknamed him “Tugboat” because when training a new llama sometimes they need a little tugging to keep them going down the trail. Cisco is so patient with them as he leads them down the trail for miles and miles, day after day, until the llama has been trained.
A funny memory!
Chris: This isn’t so much funny as it is amazing. It proves that llamas are very observant and smart. We were on a winter trip walking cross country in the desert and suddenly Cisco, one of our most solid pack llamas, just locked up and wouldn’t go. He never does that and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I looked around and realized I was about to walk across an area with a bunch of kangaroo rat burrows. They dig tunnels underground and when you step on them they collapse and you just about break a leg falling into the hole. We had already done that once and that was enough to educate Cisco to watch out for them. I couldn’t believe it took only one experience for Cisco to learn that and be on the lookout to recognize that I was about to walk into another rodent burrow minefield.
Any message you'd like to share to those out there reading this who are afraid to take that leap to follow their dreams/passions?
One of our mottos is: “It is better to regret doing something than to regret never having done it!”
Chris: We are the kind of people who don’t just dream and talk about doing something, we just do it. When I find something that intrigues me, I really research it and then jump in. I can’t help myself. I’ve learned that I need to give things a shot because otherwise I have it on my mind all the time. That’s how we started with our first llamas. We had camels for a while too. They were so awesome, but after a few years we realized that it wasn’t a perfect fit. Was that a failure? Heck no! It was so cool training them and learning about them. A great time in our lives.
Ask yourself what is the worst that could happen? Don’t live in fear or fear failure. Don’t worry about what people who aren’t trying will think. You have to take the first step and start learning. Even the greatest achievers in the world were beginners at everything when they started. Just have faith in yourself that you will figure it out as you go. Learning, and then achieving, becomes addictive.
Janice: Life is too short! Like many say, “Don’t blink because it is gone before you know it!”
Anything else about yourself or your business that you'd like to add
Janice: We really strive to provide a great experience and leave our guests with fond memories and a little bit happier than before they met our llamas.