We wanted to grab selfies with alpacas, so naturally, we headed to the Smith Mountain Lake Alpaca farm in southwest Virginia to meet up with their adorable alpacas. With fur as soft as a teddy bear, who wouldn’t want to take part in this one-of-a-kind experience?
Scott and I love animals. Whenever we meet an animal, we want to hug, squeeze, feed, and love it to pieces, however, we’ve learned in our travels that human contact is not always good for the well-being of the animals. This was the case during our visit to the Toucan Rescue Ranch in Costa Rica, where touching sloths was strictly prohibited for a number of reasons. The alpacas at Smith Mountain Lake, on the other hand, are social animals that enjoy human interaction!
If you love animals as much as we do then make sure to add this Virginia alpaca farm to your next family-friendly road trip!
Smith Mountain Lake Alpaca Farm
The Smith Mountain Lake Alpaca Farm is more than a typical petting zoo. You could say they focus more on educational agri-tourism – they breed and raise their alpacas, create sustainable products, host shows, and make your visit an educational experience. The farm is home to over 70 premium alpacas ranging in all colors, shapes, and sizes. In fact there were 5 or 6 new born crias (baby alpacas) during our visit.
Alpaca tours are available daily by reservation only. Each 90-minute tour is guided, so you learn about the alpacas before you meet them. You start with a seated orientation; get a quick lecture; and then you’re off to feed the alpacas, feel their incredibly soft fiber, and even take photos with them. Although they do not have an opportunity to walk with the alpacas, many other alpaca farms across the country do offer this experience. Following the tour, visitors are welcome to peruse the on-sight shop of sustainable products made from alpaca fiber.
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Unlike most petting zoos where you are in and out fairly quickly, these tours are truly educational and interactive and therefore a little longer in duration. As a former professor, the owner’s passion and respect for these gentle creatures is communicated throughout the tour beginning with a thorough orientation.
While educational, you won’t feel like you are sitting in a classroom. The owner’s husband, Jay, does an excellent job of engaging kids in the conversation through storytelling, hands-on demonstrations, trivia and prizes. (Encouraging “classroom participation” with lollipops is always a good teaching strategy.)
Here are a few alpaca facts I was surprised to learn:
- Alpacas do not spit like llamas or camels. Whereas llamas spit because they are territorial, alpacas generally only spit at each other when they are competing for food or trying to establish dominance. Female alpacas will also spit at a male a few days after mating if she has been successfully impregnated. As a human, you generally do not have to worry about being on the receiving end of an alpaca’s spit.
- Alpacas do not like to be pet on the head. We are so used to petting dogs on the head so it only seems natural to reach out and do the same with an alpaca. Unfortunately, they do not like this one bit. As tempting as it might be, avoid petting their fuzzy soft heads and instead give them a nice scratch down their neck.
- Alpacas typically give birth at the same time of day. 90% of alpacas give birth on sunny days between 10am and 4pm.
Feeding the alpacas
After our orientation, we proceeded to a large fenced-in area where the female alpacas were kept separate from the males. We were each equipped with a red solo cup filled with animal feed. Entering through the gate, I walked right into the middle of the herd hoping to be like Snow White surrounded by her fluffy new friends. It worked and it was magical!
Alpacas are naturally curious – and hungry – so they quickly surrounded me waiting for their turn to nibble out of my hand. I am 4’11”, so I was standing directly eye to eye with most of these alpacas. It was an incredibly fun and immersive experience.
Jay let us know it was time to hold an alpaca and asked for a volunteer. As a kid I would always shy away from raising my hand. Now that I’m an adult and that this volunteer opportunity involves adorable animals my hand shot straight up.
He let me know how to hold the alpaca. Place one leg in front, gently wrap my left arm around her neck, and then push my hips into her body.
“And no matter what, don’t let go of the alpaca.”
I stood there in amazement thinking about what a therapeutic experience it is to bond with this gentle creature. Her fiber was so soft and thick under my fingertips. What an incredible moment!
“Alright, who’s next?”
Still in La-la land, I dropped my arm allowing the alpaca to seize her opportunity and escape back into the herd. I felt horrible. I swear all of the kids in our group were looking at me with evil eyes thinking “Ugh this lady.” Thankfully, this was not the only opportunity for our group to pet an alpaca.
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Petting an alpaca: attempt #2
Our group relocated to a separate enclosure holding a sire (male alpaca). This particular alpaca had been isolated from the herd for showing constant aggressive behavior toward other males. With a large pen all to himself, we would need to corral him in place. Jay instructed a few members of our group (I didn’t volunteer this time) to form a line. With arms outstretched they slowly walked forward guiding the sire into a comfortable space where Jay could calmly put his arm around him.
Again he gave us the instructions of how to properly handle an alpaca. One by one, each person had the opportunity to hold the alpaca. Scott even hopped in there to give him a quick neck scratch.
Shopping for sustainable Alpaca products
Alpaca fiber is one of the most luxurious and expensive fibers in the world. Not only is it incredibly soft, it is also flame-resistant, water-resistant, and hypoallergenic. Alpaca fiber is almost 3 times warmer than sheep wool making it an ideal material for keeping warm in colder temperatures. The on-site gift shop sells various alpaca products including scarves, blankets, and the original alpaca sleep pillow for which Smith Mountain Lake Alpaca Farm owner Robbin Martinelli was awarded the 2013 NAPW Professional Woman of the Year Award.
Address: 169-463 Morewood Road
Hardy, VA 24101
Phone: (540) 719-0281