From Llamas and Goats to Mules and Horses

By: Tim Vanderpool

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April 2, 2013

Explore Arizona with assistance from these pack animals.

About the author

Tim Vanderpool

Tim Vanderpool

Tim Vanderpool is a Tucson-based freelance writer whose hankering for adventure and trusty VW van have taken him to the far corners of our great state. His travel writing has appeared in publications ranging from Sunset and The Christian Science Monitor to National Geographic Traveler.

There was a time when four legs were pretty much state-of-the-art for getting around rugged Arizona. Then came trains, planes and every type of four-wheeled conveyance under the sun.

Yet even amidst this prevalence of modern contraptions, good ideas have a stubborn way of sticking around. Indeed, there remain few better ways to glimpse our great state than with an easy amble atop or alongside a clever four-legged critter.

You might join an alpine goat on a stroll into Southern Arizona’s soaring Santa Catalina Mountains, or strike out from a llama ranch through the pine-laced Tonto National Forest. Then again, you could simply hoof it the old-fashioned way, riding a trusty mule into the Grand Canyon or an exquisitely trained horse on a gently weaving trail through the Sonoran Desert.

Arizona Daytrips by Horseback

In the pantheon of Old West icons, horses gallop straight to the top. So it’s hardly coincidental that saddle leather is a mainstay at fine stables all across Arizona. Two of the best linger right in the shadows of Phoenix, their trail rides offering timeless perspectives of the endless desert.

Explore the Verde River Valley with a gentle steed from Fort McDowell Adventures near Scottsdale. A relaxing, 90-minute ramble takes you onto the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, crossing the perennial Verde River several times along the way. Among Arizona’s last free-flowing rivers, this precious waterway is lush with willows, and bird life ranging from black hawks to great blue herons.

Farther north, Spur Cross Stables offers easygoing rides into the Tonto National Forest, a three-million-acre preserve climbing from cactus-dotted desert to the Mogollon Rim’s pine-scented flanks.

Day tours take riders along a onetime stagecoach route next to Cave Creek, past ancient Native American rock carvings and what’s reputed to be the world’s biggest crested saguaro. Mosey up to an antique miner’s cabin, and lunch at an old stagecoach stop.

Mule with a View

Explore the Grand Canyon from atop a sure-footed mule, enjoying a two-mile journey down through the layers of time. North Rim Mule Trips, hosted by the National Park Service, offers half-day journeys into this natural wonder. The trail meanders beneath stunning canyon walls and through a remarkable, crimson sandstone formation called the Supai Tunnel.

Exotic Packers

Lower your sights – but certainly not your sense of adventure – on hikes through the outback with exotic pack animals. The Ranch at Fossil Creek, tucked among the mountain slopes of the tiny town of Strawberry, taps gentle, inquisitive llamas to tote your gear on relaxed day hikes.

Llamas are closely related to camels, and known for being very gregarious and sweet. In their South American homeland, they’re legendary for packing huge loads on long journeys.

But in Strawberry, they’re best known for carrying lunch on four-mile rambles through the Tonto National Forest. Picnics are served in pine-lined meadows, complete with fudge from the ranch’s own creamery.

Getting Your Goat

Tucson’s towering Santa Catalina Mountains are often home to some rather unusual visitors – and unusually fine cuisine – in the form of Purple Mountain Pack Goats, and owner/master chef Tommy DiMaggio.

Tommy’s alpine goats are an easygoing bunch: You’ll be accompanied by Sam, Pete and Repeat, who made their big-screen debut in the movie Goats. But Hollywood has nothing on the natural grandeur of Upper Sabino Canyon and the Sycamore Reservoir through which the goats carry your daypacks.

Nor is this trail grub mere pedestrian fare. Chef DiMaggio has been known to dish up everything from grilled salmon to chicken marsala, with hot dogs and hamburgers for the kids (no pun intended).

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