NEW YORK CITY (SBG) — Hiking alongside an animal companion is nothing new, but on the East Coast, the only pets you're likely to see making their way up the slope are adventurous pups. The idea of trekking with llamas and alpacas may conjure up the image of the South American mammals photobombing tourists against the iconic backdrop of Machu Picchu's towering mountains and ancient temples, and New York's Hudson Valley is far removed from Peru. Yet as we traversed rolling pastures and climbed a hill to a scenic viewpoint on a farm less than two hours north of Manhattan, our footsteps were matched by the two-toed feet of these gentle creatures, as they handled the uneven and sometimes rocky path with ease.
Indeed, traveling all the way to Cusco is no longer necessary to experience the magical combination of nature and camelids. As the popularity of llamas has skyrocketed in recent years, with multiple publications going as far as to brand them as "the new unicorn" in 2019, farms across the country have been quick to capitalize on the trend. Hikes are an especially common offering, and it makes sense. Given the innate ability of llamas and alpacas to walk gracefully on narrow trails and the capability of the former in particular to carry large quantities of supplies, they make excellent hiking partners, whether you're navigating the Colorado backcountry with a full pack or taking a more leisurely stroll around a New York farm. Their mild and agreeable disposition further ensures a pleasant experience to be had by all.
At Clover Brooke Farm in Hyde Park, New York, the llama and alpaca hikes allow the public to get up close and personal with the herd, and in turn, the animals act as a pseudo-public relations team for the farm. "More and more, you’re going to see llama and alpaca farms opening or expanding their services, because it’s a nice way to get people onto the farm," explained Andrea Parent-Tibbetts, owner of Clover Brooke Farm. "It’s a way for me to teach someone about what we’re doing and the purpose of the animals, and maybe they'll walk away with a new appreciation of farming."
For Parent-Tibbetts, taking on the responsibility of two dairy goats at her suburban house, combined with a desire to switch up her career path, led to quite a few more animals and the purchase of a vacated, overgrown 25-acre farm that the former school administrator lovingly described as a "diamond in the rough." The family-owned farm dates back to 1850 and served primarily as a dairy farm with a brief foray into the meat industry. When the third generation of the family decided that the incredibly involved process of dairy farming wasn't for them, the property fell into a state of disuse. But despite the shape of the farm after 30 years of complete neglect, Parent-Tibbetts was able to see a treasure beneath the fallen trees and the jungle of pastures.
As Parent-Tibbetts and her family began to bring the farm back to life, from clearing the fields to restoring a barn constructed long ago from a kit ordered out of the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog, the days of dairy were largely left in the past. Clover Brooke Farm now focuses primarily on fiber, which is sourced from the wide variety of species that call the bucolic farmlands home and then sent to a mill for processing. To run the farm in a financially sustainable way, Parent-Tibbetts believes that each animal she acquires, from the llamas and alpacas to a flock of Shetland sheep that rapidly multiplied from just four to 38, needs to have a job.
"It could be fiber, it could be education, or it could be agrotourism. Otherwise, you can get in over your head pretty quickly. There are a lot of animals out there looking for homes," she said, adding that her family has loved being able to provide better homes for all of the animals that they have rescued.
Once Parent-Tibbetts was able to establish more structure on the farm, she began to prepare to open the farm to the public in the form of hikes. By April 2019, she had launched the llama and alpaca hikes as an Airbnb Experience. Utilizing Airbnb as a platform was an obvious choice for Parent-Tibbetts, as it provided her with an enormous built-in customer base and relieved her from having to focus too heavily on advertising to spread the word.
When you arrive on the property for a hike, you'll likely be greeted by curious llamas and alpacas peeking over the fence, a couple of guard cows in the frontmost field, and a barn cat or two. The experience begins with a tour of the farm, during which you'll learn interesting factoids about its history and have the chance to meet some of the smaller residents, like the unbelievably fluffy Pygora goats that are just as friendly as they are soft. Then, before you set off on your adventure, you'll be paired up with your own personal llama or alpaca to lead along the picturesque one-mile route.
While llamas and alpacas are often confused for each other, there are some fairly significant differences that can allow you to differentiate between the two close relatives of the camel. When looking at them side-by-side, you'll immediately notice that llamas are much larger than alpacas. You can also identify llamas by their banana-shaped ears and long noses, features that stand in contrast to the smaller spear-shaped ears and blunt faces of alpacas. As you continue to observe the animals, you may pick up on differences in personality as well; llamas are more independent than the sometimes timid alpacas.
Neither one, however, stands out as a better partner for the hike, so your decision will simply come down to personal preference. The size of the llamas can be slightly intimidating if you're unfamiliar with large animals, but they're sure to be just as sweet of a companion.
Even if you're brand new to farm animals, there's no need to worry. Years of the family participating in the youth organization 4-H and entering the animals in competitions has led to a herd of amazingly well-trained llamas and alpacas.
"We take our llamas and alpacas to shows and compete against other people," said Parent-Tibbetts. "You don’t go to shows to say that you have the prettiest animal or the best fiber. It’s all based on how well they’ve been trained, and it’s a way to hopefully be rewarded for the time and effort that you’ve put into training."
As such, the animals will generally walk at your precise pace, either beside you or following your shoulder, and they'll stop whenever you stop. If your companion gets distracted, Parent-Tibbetts advises you to give a little tug as a gentle reminder to keep moving. The llamas and alpacas are also ridiculously photogenic and will happily pose next to you for as many pictures as you could possibly desire. It's no surprise that Clover Brooke Farm offers photoshoots with their llamas and alpacas; you can even enlist them as members of your wedding party, and they may prove to be better behaved than some of your groomsmen during the course of the event.
Beyond the hikes, there are many other services in which the llamas and alpacas take part. Some of them, including an alpaca on our hike named Twist, are certified as therapy animals through a non-profit called Pet Partners. Their empathetic nature and ability to read a person's emotions makes them perfect for the job, and their soft fur provides a sensory component to those who may benefit from that aspect, such as people with autism. They also visit schools and nursing homes to bring delight to all who encounter them in these unexpected places.
When COVID-19 prevented her from entering nursing homes, Parent-Tibbetts led the llamas and alpacas from window to window outside of the building to still allow the residents to experience the positive impact of visiting with the animals. "It was awesome to see the surprise on people’s faces as you’re walking by with a llama," she said.
The pandemic forced Parent-Tibbetts to get creative to keep Clover Brooke Farm afloat, as the temporary closure of the farm's public-facing operations for three months this past spring resulted in a loss of income. During the closure, Parent-Tibbetts, motivated by uncertainty as to when Airbnb Experiences would be able to resume, integrated a booking system for the hikes into Clover Brooke Farm's own website. "I realized that there didn’t seem to be any writing on the wall that Airbnb would open anytime soon, so I decided that I needed to ramp up our website and our social media. That was a learning curve for me," she said.
Parent-Tibbetts also experimented with virtual farm visits, which turned out to be quite a hit. Upon booking, you have the choice of Zooming with a llama or an alpaca, taking a tour to visit the rabbits, chickens, and goats, or designing your own experience with the combination of animals that interests you the most.
"We’ve done over 200 Zoom calls, and we’re still doing them. It’s really just meant to be a little bit of whimsy to lighten things up, and it was a nice way to generate income when we were closed, as our costs remained the same," she said.
The in-person hikes have since resumed with COVID-19 safety measures in mind, including social distancing requirements and unlimited hand sanitizer. If you're interested in taking one of these unique hikes, you can check availability and book the experience either directly on Clover Brooke Farm's website or via Airbnb Experiences.
The hikes take place year-round, weather permitting; rain isn't enough to discourage the animals, but icy conditions over the winter season may cause a cancellation. All hikers must be 8 years of age or older, but younger farm guests can instead participate in a "Warm and Fuzzy Small Animal Farm Experience," during which they'll get the chance to hang out with some of the farm's smaller animals, like bunnies, chickens, and sheep, and potentially a llama or an alpaca as well.
The unique encounter lasts for approximately 90 minutes, but Parent-Tibbetts hopes that participants will continue to feel the benefits of the experience even after the hike concludes. "People leave here with a sense of serenity and calmness not only because they spent an hour and a half walking through pastures but also because they saw the animals happy in their natural habitats," she said.