Despite environmental concerns surrounding increasing popularity and about a dozen dead cow carcasses, I had one hell of a time at Conundrum Hot Springs in Aspen this weekend, the highest elevated natural hot springs in North America at 11,200 ft.
The trailhead is located about 10 minutes from downtown Aspen, where backpackers begin the 8.7-mile journey through alternating forests of pine and aspen trees, through open fields of green grass and wild flowers, the mountains rising up on either side of the rich valley. Waterfalls and rivers are a common sight, and if you’re lucky, elk and moose can be spotted, too. While many parts are uphill and exacerbated by the heavy pack on your back, it’s a relatively mild hike considering the region – the trailhead is at about 8,000 ft and you only gain around 3,000 ft over the course of the nine miles. Most people are able to reach the springs in four or five hours.
There are 18 campsites that are first-come, first-serve, and they are not all created equal due to the hot springs’ location in a sloping valley. A handful of sites surround the springs within a short stroll, but many are a ten or fifteen minute walk downhill (for example, campsite #1 is probably a quarter mile down the hillside from the springs).
I would suggest getting there on Friday night or by midday on Saturday (if you go on a weekend) to secure a site close to the springs. We arrived just after noon on Saturday and claimed campsite #6, which is only 30-seconds from the springs. I can’t stress enough how great it was to be able to go back and forth between the springs and the site, that members of our group could be split between the two places and still see one another. After almost a 9-mile trek to get to the springs, the last thing I wanted was to have to walk a half mile back and forth just to grab a bite or refill my cup.
And refill the cup I did – don’t be fooled into thinking the remote location translates into a quiet evening. Happy hour is a pretty serious thing at Conundrum, with campers charging the springs as the sun tucked behind the mountain and twilight set in. Long before I could see all the stars in the sky, there were over 40 people in the tub. Bagged wine and dark liquor seemed to be the most popular beverages due to their ease of transportation (plastic liquor bottles are easy to find in mountain towns for this exact reason).
It’s not hard to figure out the appeal of the place, why so many people are willing to walk so far to get there. The booze sipping and joint passing further fuel the already overwhelming feelings of freedom that the secluded location incites, the beauty and brightness of the large valley provoking the free spirit in all of us. Don’t be shy up there – nudity is, in a way, unspokenly encouraged. It’s almost as if nature is calling you to go on, cut loose. You look around at the pine trees and the large rocks and the white clouds over the mountains, the green of the valley below. You can hear it clearly over the sound of the nearby river.
You’re not subject to the rules here, it screams.
Dogs are prohibited at Conundrum, although several were there anyway. Fires are not allowed at any of the 18 campsites near the springs. To get to the trailhead from Aspen, follow Castle Creek Road for five miles and turn right on Conundrum Road. The road turns to dirt before dead ending into a parking lot.