Conundrum Hot Springs

I wanted to hit up Conundrum Hot Springs in late June, but heavy winter snows had led to voluminous spring run-off, and the creek was running fast and waist-deep at the crossing. Some people had managed their way across just the same—unbuckling their packs so they could quickly release them and not be pulled under by the weight if the strong current swept them away—but I try not to engage in life-threatening backcountry travel, and would not recommend it to anyone.

By mid-August Conundrum Creek was reported to be much tamer and so I made a plan, and enlisted the companionship of my long-time hiking partner, Doug. He was interested in climbing some of the high peaks at nearby Triangle Pass, and so we decided to make a weekend of it.

Doug had been my hiking partner for about five years, and we had settled into such a routine that we knew ahead of time which one of us would be responsible for bringing certain articles of shared gear such as a ground cover, tent, cooking kit, etc. We could quickly set up camp and have a meal ready without even speaking to each other, a skill that had come in handy more than once, winter camping in white-outs and roaring winds in the Colorado high country. I had finished my Colorado 14ers with Doug on Mount Wilson, and started the California 14ers with him on Mount Whitney, too. We had enjoyed the summit of 18,405-foot Pico de Orizaba together—the highest point in Mexico—and suffered through a fifty-mile mosquito-infested backpacking trip through Wyoming’s Wind River Range to tag Gannett Peak, the highpoint of that state. Despite all our combined experience, I was apprehensive about our trip to Conundrum Hot Springs. Doug had just spent the past few months training for and ultimately summiting Alaska’s Denali, or Mount McKinley—at 20,320 feet, the highest point in North America. In other words, he was in the best shape of his life. I, on the other hand, had abandoned the trail to devote every spare moment to my computer—writing a book about hot springs—and was at my worst! Regardless, Conundrum Hot Springs was to be the final stop on my Colorado hot springs tour, and it needed to be done.

We drove to Aspen on Friday evening, parked at the very crowded trailhead, and hiked in two miles to camp on an open meadow. It was the night before the full moon, so we had plenty of light—in addition to our headlamps—and the tent was up and we were asleep in it in no time. Saturday morning we were off, marveling at the fine trail and awesome views. Doug and I hadn’t hiked in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in two years. Our last visit to this area of the state was a mountaineering trip to reach the summits of 14,265-foot Castle Peak and adjoining 14,060-foot Conundrum Peak. There had been a lot of mountain climbing between the two of us since then, and that day and those peaks sure seemed like a long time ago. 

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On this day, we met a few day-hikers with small, light packs and many backpackers with big, heavy packs along the trail, all making their way to or from the hot springs. The trail was deceivingly easy, even while carrying a heavy pack, for the first few miles. But beyond the third stream crossing it rose steeply and by the time we reached the hot springs at about nine miles in, I was beat! There was a young couple soaking in the big pool at Conundrum Hot Springs, and Doug and I dropped our packs and stopped to chat with them for a bit. Meghan and Cliff were hot springs aficionados, I learned, and happy to discuss the hot springs of Colorado with me. I imagined that–like many young couples that frequent the wilderness–their idea of a romantic weekend was a long, strenuous hike to a distant location, topped off with a simple meal cooked on a camp stove beneath the stars. Evening entertainment might involve reading stories by headlamp or candlelight, or tonight—in mid-August—lying out in a meadow in the moonlight, watching the Perseids meteor shower rain down from above. Meghan had a big beautiful smile that spoke to the joy of the place, and Cliff had an equally broad smile that showed just how lucky he knew he was, to have a partner in Meghan! I loved meeting people like this in the backcountry; in a world caught up in technology-driven isolation from nature and humanity, they never failed to renew my faith in the future of the human race.

Doug and I hiked past the hot springs, and wandered about till we found the last open campsite. We set up the tent, emptied our packs of all camping gear, and set off for Triangle Pass and the high peaks beyond. About a half-mile up to the pass I realized just how tired I was, and begged off the rest of the day. Doug continued on while I headed back down the trail, stopping to filter water for dinner that night, and breakfast the next day. There are several seasonal streams that fall from the mountains to the west and cross the trail to Triangle Pass; these are good locations for filtering clean water if you choose to camp in that area. 

From there, I made my way down to the hot springs for a dip. The place had filled up in my absence, with more than a dozen soakers lolling about. This was a friendly group, some clothed and others bare, all happy to have made the long journey and eager to relax in the warm waters of Conundrum Hot Springs. After a soak, I grew hungry and sleepy and made my way up to camp where I cooked up some noodles, laid my clothes out to dry, and crawled into my sleeping bag. Doug arrived soon after; he had made it to Triangle Pass and the summits of two 13ers! They were his 199th and 200th 13,000-foot peaks, so I congratulated him on his milestone, and he congratulated me on my final hot springs. We would have celebrated, but neither of us had packed in the champagne, and we were probably both too exhausted to manage a corkscrew anyway. Instead, we slept.

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I was up with the sun the next day, eager to get back on the trail before the impending storms moved in. The chance of rain was predicted at 50% that day, so there would be no mountain climbing, just the long hike out. The Elk Mountains of this area are some of the most dangerous peaks in the state, composed of rotten rock that melts to a slick grease in the rain, letting loose rocks and boulders that can tumble away beneath your feet. My own most terrifying moment on a mountain had come several years earlier on the nearby Maroon Bells traverse, a high ridge connecting 14ers Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak. Caught up in a storm mid-traverse, I and four friends had reached the summit of the second peak in a downpour, the crash-boom of lightning and thunder splitting the sky all around us. The metal rivets of our helmets crackled in our ears while our ice axes hummed with electricity on our backs, and I was pretty sure that—if I survived—this would be one of those teachable moments Mother Nature thrusts upon mountaineers, to be heeded and never, ever forgotten or repeated.

And so it was that on Sunday we enjoyed our oatmeal and hot coffee, and headed northward, away from the hot springs, away from Triangle Pass, away from the peaks and back to the trailhead. We passed the hot springs, and there were soakers enjoying the early morning peace and quiet, another young couple I had met earlier who—much like Meghan and Cliff—very much enjoyed the wilderness and the hot springs of Colorado. They wished us a good hike out, and we were off. Soon enough Doug and I were at the big creek crossing, and we donned our water shoes and scampered across. In the early morning, under overcast skies, the knee-deep waters here were icy cold and we both made quite a racket as we yelped and plunged our way across one chill creek crossing after another, weaving our way back and forth to the east banks of Conundrum Creek. Back on the trail, we hiked along a ways to allow our shoes and feet to dry.

“Are you awake yet?” I hollered up to Doug; he stopped and turned, and a wide grin spread over his face.

“That was better than coffee!” he replied.

It was better than coffee, but on a cool summer morning in the Colorado wilderness it was just another typical, delightful experience, like hiking for miles through pine forests and over meadows thick with wildflowers to a high mountain valley amid towering peaks, to join with other backcountry-lovers and bathe in the natural splendor of a hot mineral pool at Conundrum Hot Springs.

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Conundrum Hot Springs Aspen, Colorado. Photos by Susan Joy Paul.

Touring Colorado Hot Springs (April 2012, FalconGuides) introduces you to 32 Colorado hot springs, with directions, maps, and the details you need to plan your hot springs vacation.

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