No need to do a double-take, those are, indeed, llamas in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A much more unusual sight than their wildlife counterparts such as the black bear, elk, or even salamander, the llamas, while not native to our mountainous region, are here to do an important job on the park’s 3rd highest peak.

Many make the trek up Mount LeConte every season enjoying the challenges and the rewards that come with summiting a 6,594 ft. tall mountain. In for the long haul, there are many essential hacks to planning a successful hike including knowing your trails. While there are 5 different trail ways that will get you to the summit and Mount LeConte Lodge, if you find yourself on the Trillium Gap Trail, you may have a llama as an unlikely hiking companion.

Since 1986, llamas have been taking the Trillium Gap Trail to Mount LeConte Lodge, a 14-mile-long journey. As there are no roads that climb the peaks and ridges, the llamas (literally) put in the leg work to bring essential supplies, such as food and fresh linens, to the hikers spending the night at the popular mountaintop haven. 

While some say that the Trillium Gap Trail is the most moderate of the 5 ways to reach the summit, it still requires some endurance, even by experienced hikers. Llamas, however, is perfectly suited for the job as they can carry up to 30 percent of their own body weight and have feet that, thanks to their unique type of padding, are perfect for climbing the mountainous terrain.

Replacing horses in 1986, the llamas have been fulfilling the needs of the people on the mountain for nearly 35 years. Don’t worry though, the llamas may not appreciate the reward of a scenic view like humans, but they’re rewarded with something arguably just as grand after making the expedition, delicious pancakes.

The llamas' usual route typically takes place on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday beginning at 6-6:30 a.m., if you’re a llama enthusiast or just want to get a glimpse of the unusual tradition.

Whether you’re enjoying the goods brought to the lodge, or you find an unlikely, fluffy friend along the way, the LeConte Llamas is definitely an unsung hero of making the Mount LeConte experience, complete.

Photo by Kristi Parsons.