How a Smoky Mountain Llama Train Gave Me Some Much Needed Perspective

Smoky Mountain Llama Train

This past month a Smoky Mountain llama train helped me step back and reassess my plans. You might wonder how. Let me explain.

If you’ve ever felt like you’ve piled on too much for the week or like you’ve had your eye so attached to the prize, that you’ve forgotten to stop and smell the roses, then this article is for you! You are not alone. And I’ve included a few tips below that I use for pulling myself out of those moments.

Introducing: The Smoky Mountain Llama Train

There is a llama train that occurs three times a week in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The llamas bring supplies and food up to the top of a mountain because there is no way for cars to access the lodge. They walk up on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. While on their walk, they pass under a beautiful waterfall known as Grotto Falls. We did some research online and asked about them at the Visitor Center. Everything and everyone told us to get to the entrance of the trail between 6:30 am and 7:30 am and that at some point in that time frame they would arrive, be packed up and then begin to ascend the mountain.

I had this straightforward plan. We were staying about 45 minutes away. I figured we’d get there early and wait. It was only a 1.7-mile hike from the trailhead parking lot. As long as we got to that lot at the beginning of that time frame, before the llamas, we’d be all set.

Well, everything is not always as simple as it may seem. 

Our First Attempt

We started our llama seeking venture on a Wednesday. On our drive to the parking lot, we came across a road closed sign and cones about two miles before reaching the trailhead parking lot. We were stuck in a tight driving loop and weren’t sure what to do, but ultimately decided to circle, park and walk the extra two miles. Actually, it was more like run the extra two miles because once we finally parked, it was already past 6:30 am, and I was pretty convinced we were screwed.

Well, no big surprise here, we were. We got to the parking lot, and the trailer and the truck were already there, but no llamas. I touched the hood of the truck, and it was ice cold. They had been gone for a while. There was no chance of catching up to them. This was a failed attempt. But it was okay. We didn’t foresee the road being closed and we still had two more chances to see them. We decided to continue with our day and try again another time.

Our Second Attempt

trillium gap trail
hiking trail great smoky mountains

On the following Friday, we made our next attempt. We hiked the whole four miles up to the waterfall, and it was beautiful! But it also rained, A LOT. After getting soaked for a few hours and a fair amount of waiting, we concluded that the llamas do not come out in the rain. I promised Barrett a breakfast out in exchange for waking up extremely early, a second time, for what was a somewhat nutty request.


crockett's breakfast camp

(I’m going to digress for one brief moment here because it feels like a disservice if I don’t tell you about Crockett’s Breakfast Camp. When you make your trip to the Great Smoky Mountain region, whether or not you decide to try to see llamas on your trip, there’s no question about where you should go for breakfast! You absolutely should not miss out on Crockett’s. And I swear it wasn’t just tasty because we had hiked eight miles and were dripping wet! It was DELICIOUS all on its own accord!)


Our Third Attempt

Okay. It’s now 5:00 am on Monday. Our last chance before we needed to pack up the RV and move along. We asked ourselves, “Do we need to be doing this?” We were pretty worn out from all of the hiking and biking we’d done around the park all week.

But a few days earlier we decided we were going to go for it. We extend our stay one more day so that after we saw the llamas, we could take a breather, enjoy one more breakfast out at Crockett’s to celebrate our victory and complete some final errands in the afternoon. It was on the agenda, and Barrett thought we would beat ourselves up over it if we didn’t try. So we went.

We got there well before 6:30 am. As we hiked up to the parking lot, we were anxiously listening for truck noises, knowing he would have to pass us to arrive up there. Upon our final approach to the lot, we had still not seen or heard anything. We were incredibly nervous but also excited. No sight of him yet. We had to of beaten him! But then we also started wondering, could he have arrived even earlier than us? Would the truck already be there again, even though we were an hour earlier this time?

Well, the truck and trailer were indeed there. We couldn’t believe it. If this guy arrives between 6:30 am and 7:30 am, he would have had to drive right past us while we were walking up the road. We summed-up that he clearly gets there well before 6:30 am. On this attempt, when I touched the hood of the truck, it was still warm! We considered for a moment that they might not be too far away. However, we had spent the two previous days biking and hiking over 20 miles. Our legs were shot. We would have had to start running, and there was just no way we were catching up to an uphill llama train.

Now, I’m someone who LOVES to make a good plan and hates to see it not work out, but at this point, we just had to laugh about the whole thing. We stepped back, acknowledged that we still had three beautiful early morning hikes before everyone else came out to the park for the day, and saw tons of wildlife. So it was nevertheless a pretty great experience!

trillium trail great smoky mountains

Breakfast of Champions… err, of Failures

We still went out and had the breakfast we promised ourselves and decided to mull over our wins and losses for the week, including the llamas.

You might be thinking, “Why didn’t you just go again, later that day?” Well, as mentioned, we were worn out. We did discuss possibly venturing back out there later in the afternoon, hoping to catch them on their hike down, but our legs were toast. The idea of putting our legs through those four to seven additional miles sounded awful.

We also discussed perhaps extending one more day again and trying to see them on Wednesday morning, before we had to check out. The road up to the parking lot would be open on Wednesday, and it would be a whole new game! We could stake out the area at 3:00 am if we wanted!

You also might be thinking, “Why did you not just sleep in and go see them in the afternoon?” Well, that’s a big window of time. I have no idea at what speed a group of llamas walks down a mountain. I had been packing our days so tight. We had so much left to do for the day. I didn’t understand where we would fit in a significant amount of time sitting on some rocks waiting hours for some llamas to come by. 

And therein lies the problem. That thought sat in the air. I had been packing our days so tight. We had so much left to do for the day. I didn’t understand where we would fit in a significant amount of time sitting on some rocks waiting hours for some llamas to come by.

The Realization

In the middle of our talk, I came to an important realization. There was extreme irony in what had happened with the llamas. All week I had been saying to Barrett and myself, that we really needed to slow down. Sure the whole adventuring all the time is part of what makes RV life so sexy, but the optimal way to be adventuring in my opinion, is with both of us in our best health and we were wearing ourselves thin by trying to pack everything we could into our weeks. In case it’s not clear, we were either working or exploring all of the time we were not searching for llamas. There was no decompress time being built into our schedule.

So while I was saying, “We really need to switch back to our original routine and have more downtime. We are spreading ourselves way too thin.”, I was also saying, “We really need to wake up at 5:00 am, every other day, and hike four to seven miles in an attempt to see some llamas walk under a waterfall before we do everything else we’ve planned for our day.”

How did I not see this clash sooner?!

When we started our RV lifestyle, we aimed to give ourselves structure by splitting our time in each location evenly, a few days for work, a few days for rest and a few days for adventure. But something happened in April, and we just kept thinking of more and more things we could do with our time. It seemed we were trying to pack every hour to the extreme. Still working, still playing, but completely neglecting the need for a recharge.

It was time to throw in the towel on this one. There will always be a human element. Even a perfectionistic planner can’t win them all, and that’s okay. Those elusive llamas will hopefully be there for years to come. Seeing them will have to be a bucket list addition for both of us. Well, for me, anyway. I think Barrett’s okay with avoiding llamas for a little while.

So I have no awesome video or picture of llamas walking under a waterfall for you — just a picture of a waterfall. But I’m ok with it. I now realize that not seeing those pesky llamas needed to happen to get me thinking about a few life lessons I needed to remember.

I’m listing the following out because it’s healthy for me to learn from my mistakes, but also because who knows, perhaps you need a reminder in one of these areas as well at this particular moment.

#1 – Ask Yourself, “Are There Other More Reasonable and Rational Options?”

Waking up at 5:00 am still wasn’t early enough. I was trying to find the easy way out. I was packing our days full and looking for the simplest solution that would take the least amount of time, and still give us some sleep, instead of thinking about which opportunity would give us the greatest chance of seeing the llamas.

When making plans it’s essential to look at all of the possible options and not just take appears like it will get the job accomplished in the shortest amount of time.

We really wanted to see those buggers. So that should have been enough for me to step back, and plan a day to focus on them.

#2 – Pick Your Priorities

Picking your priorities is common when you’re on vacation. You think about it ahead of time and generally, decide with a vague idea where you want to be going and what you want to be doing ahead of time.

But RV life caught up to us. We got behind in our plans and arrived in a major tourist destination with no plan. That made it tricky to decide what was most important to see, and instead, we tried to do as much of the park as possible, picking the shortest amount of time for everything. And the llamas weren’t the only event that bit us during that week. We also got caught biking in Cades Cove for about an hour in the dark with only our headlamps as well as hiking a trail on another day for about an hour in the dark with only our headlamps.

#3 – Failure Is Important

Failure is critical. Without failure, I wouldn’t feel the need to step back, reassess, and ask how we can best take care of ourselves. I also wouldn’t feel the need to try to improve upon myself and my health.

We have to stumble and miss a few steps, or in this case, miss a few llamas to be given a moment to pause, look at ourselves, and ask if we are doing things right. Are we becoming the best versions of ourselves? Are we living the way we want to be living?

#4 – Missed Opportunities Are Important

Missed opportunities keep us striving toward wanting to improve upon ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I hate messing up a plan. I love putting together plans for myself and companies that I work with and honestly – 95% of the time they work – but that other 5% keeps me human and looking to improve.

If I had seen those llamas, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to reflect on all of these lessons. I also wouldn’t have had three beautiful morning hikes with Barrett where we wholeheartedly laughed at ourselves and the ridiculousness our life have become.

#5 – We Can’t Do It All

This one is constantly hard for me to accept, but we cannot do it all.

“We can’t be good at everything, but we can be good at anything.” – I cannot remember where I originally heard this quote, but it’s one I love.

I admire this quote because it reminds me to streamline my focus when my brain wants to go in every direction possible. The best we can do is stand back, and assess the purpose of our pursuits and ask ourselves what is most important. This quote has often reigned me in and reminded to focus on those 1-2 things I want.

#6 – What Works For Me Is Not Necessarily Going To Work For You

Everyone is going to need differing levels of adventure as well as differing levels of recharge.

Some of us can operate going all the time, but not forever. I used to think I was one of those people, capable of always going. I operated like a person who was capable of anything and everything for over ten years until I had a wake-up call.

A few years ago, I sought out help with my nutrition and energy because I was feeling awful. My eyes were opened to the fact that we are human beings, not human doings, and that concept changed everything for me. My wish for you is that if you also can relate to being a human doing, that it doesn’t take complete breakdown of your health to realize it.

Recharge is necessary. And not just in the way of those tropical trips we see in the Corona commercials. We need weekly moments of recharge. It took me having to work with a nutritionist to realize being tired doesn’t make me weak. It just makes me tired. Rest is ok.

After a solid week of missteps, I realized what I had done to our schedule and our health, but it doesn’t have to take as long for you. Here’s a trick I’ve learned to use to keep these moments in check:

Step back and regularly ask yourself, “How am I feeling?” If the answer is tired, you are probably in need of reassessing how you are balancing your work, fun, and recharge time.

#7 – Health is Everything

When I pack our days so densely for weeks in a row, I’m not keeping our health in check.

The bottom line here is health is everything. Missing some opportunities is okay. What’s important is to enjoy the ride, live in the moment, get what we can out of every location, explore and have a good time at the pace that is best for us, but also be okay with an entire day of Netflixing right outside of a National Park. The whole reason we picked this lifestyle was to have the freedom of choice, not the pressure of doing it all.

Bucket lists are meant to be full. Mine is probably always going to be overflowing. I don’t imagine we’ll ever get to do everything at any destination. But that’s okay!

Life is too short to put so much pressure on seeing and documenting one silly group of llamas.


BONUS: How to learn from our mistakes and actually see the Smoky Mountain Llama Train

In case you came to this post looking for tips on how to see the llamas, (that was the original point of all of those trips after all) here’s what I recommend you do. And yes, this is coming from someone who never successfully saw them, but I do feel I’ve at least earned the right to divulge a few tips!

This map is from the NPS and can be seen in full here: https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/upload/GSMNP-Map_JUNE14-complete4-2.pdf
  1. The llamas hike the Trillium Gap Trail. The trailer parks in the Grotto Falls parking lot, which is only accessible via the one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This road is only accessible to visitors during the peak summer season.
  2. Get there early. Before sunrise starts. On our last day, we arrived on the brink of sunrise a little before 6:30 am.
  3. Or, if you have more time, wait for them to come back down instead of seeing them at the beginning of their trek. They are supposed to start back down the hill after 12:00 pm.
  4. Or, if you’re up for a full day of hiking, hike up to the top of Mt. LeConte on a day they also hike. We did the entire hike up to the lodge on a Saturday, which I do not regret because going on a Saturday meant we got to do the trek with two of our wonderful friends and create tons of hilarious memories!
  5. Or, if you can go during the busy season, go while the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is open. This year they opened the road on May 1st, the day after we left. This will cut an extra four miles off your hike.
  6. Update: As of 5/20/19 their website now says: The llamas generally pack on Monday, Wednesday and Friday using Trillium Gap Trail. They get to the trailhead between 6:00 and 6:30 am and should be on the trail between 7:30 and 8:00 am. It takes them about 4 hours to make the hike. They will have lunch and return to the parking lot around 6:00 pm. Hours vary depending on weather and season.

Best of luck! If you go for it and succeed, or have seen the llamas in the past, please share all of your llama knowledge with me, because I can promise you, someday I’ll be trying it again!


Have you ever gone through a similar situation? I’d love to hear any tips or tricks on how you’ve found weekly balance and a pace that works for your lifestyle!

2 Replies to “How a Smoky Mountain Llama Train Gave Me Some Much Needed Perspective”

  1. This is my favorite post of yours so far. It was so raw and real. I loved the insight and the lessons you learned. I am so glad you were able to reaccess and slow the f down! 😉 Nice job!

    1. Cindy Scott says: Reply

      Thanks so much, Glenda! <3

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