Aspen maybe a premiere ski town in the winter and hosts some pristine mountain wilderness throughout the year, but this iconic Coloradoan town is not without hidden treasures. The Conundrum Hot Springs is one treasure that is hidden almost in plain sight. At only a mere 15 minutes from the heart of downtown Aspen, the Conundrum Creek Trail provides jaw-dropping views, overnight camping opportunities and the added bonus to have a soak in natural hot springs. With such a tantalizing prize waiting at the end of the hike, most hikers won't need any coaxing to make this eight mile journey through the Maroon Bells Wilderness. However, the trail also showcases craggy views of Castle, Conundrum and Cathedral Peaks as it ambles through rocky foothills and mountain meadows.
|Trail Length:||8.5 miles||City/State:|| Aspen,
|Elevation:||2,547 feet gain
The trailhead for the Conundrum Creek Trail is so close to Aspen that particularly fit hikers could even hike there. Heading out of the city, hikers need to travel a half mile west on Highway 82 up to the Roundabout. Take the first right onto Castle Creek Road and follow it for approximately five miles to Conundrum Road, taking it for just over a mile to the hike's parking lot and the trailhead. There are a few private driveways along Conundrum Road, so be careful not to accidentally stray into one.
At the trailhead while packing everything up and getting ready to head out, the first thing that hikers will undoubtedly notice is the unique sign by the public restrooms. It urges visitors to pack out EVERYTHING they pack back with you, including your leavings. Apparently digging bunny holes around the hot springs became something of a public menace and they now offer poop bags next to the restroom. Although a giggle is a nice way to start a hike, the park is pretty serious about it. Considering there are thousands of hikers that travel to the hot springs during the peak season, things must add up.
The hike itself starts easily enough. There are some more warning signs just a few feet in about the dangerous mountain wildlife in the area such as bears, cougars and coyotes which also give helpful tips about what to do when encountered, but then all traces of civilization get left behind. The entire trail runs parallel right up against Conundrum Creek. During years of heavy rain or in the spring after the snow melt, hikers will likely hear it roaring even if they can't see it. That is the case in the beginning of the trail as the narrow dirt path winds through aspen and conifer forest.
After two miles in, the forest breaks briefly as it emerges into the first of many meadows along the way. The trek through the meadow, nestled right up against the mountains with the creek in the distance is beautiful, but brief. It isn't even a mile's walk before hikers are thrust back into the forest. However, this section marks the first creek crossing. This crossing, like most along the trail, hosts a thick log as a bridge elevated over the water. If the log is slick or if hikers are carrying a heavy pack, they may want to consider just crossing through the water. The log is only about four feet above the creek bed, but a fall onto those sharp rocks will still hurt.
For those who want to show off their knowledge while hiking over the creek with a partner, Conundrum Creek was given its name after several groups of miners travelled to the area looking for gold. The creek showed all the signs of having rich gold deposits, but no gold was ever found. It was quite the conundrum.
While the trail is always technically at an incline, the increase in grade actually becomes noticeable after crossing the creek bed. The uphill trek continues as the forest breaks in a sprawling meadow. This large meadow marks roughly the halfway point in the hike and is an absolutely excellent place for a rest. For those hiking through in late spring or early summer, there are a number of wildflowers that bloom here. However, those wandering off trail or stopping for a lunch should beware of the hungry marmots and their holes.
Past the meadow, the narrow dirt trail gets rough and rocky as it traces a deep gorge that runs through the valley. The trail yet again gets steeper, but that evens out as it enters yet another grassy meadow. The meadow hike is briefly interrupted by another creek crossing. Don't - or do - get sidetracked by the trail across the creek that leads down to Silver Ponds. It adds another twelve miles roundtrip. It's worth noting that while the park does say dogs are allowed on the trail, they are not allowed beyond this point.
As the trail starts to turn from rich meadow to ponds and marshland, hikers approach the last of the creek crossings. This time there is no lodge bridge, and hikers have to cross it on foot. This can range anywhere from a little hop over water to wading through a knee high torrent, but it is a safe flat stretch. Skirting through another bit of forest, the trail opens up into a sprawling rocky talus field where hikers get their first clear view of the upper valley and the stunning tall mountains beyond. The trail pretty much disappears into the rocks, but as long as hikers keep moving forward towards the forest beyond, it is near impossible to get lost. It's a steep climb and the rocks make things annoying, but this suffering is rewarded by a sign at the forest's edge that heralds their arrival at the hot springs.
Hikers travel past a number of designated camp sites and the hot springs themselves are only 100 feet ahead. The trees clear up and visitors are presented with the inviting site of two steaming pools with sweeping views of Castle, Conundrum and Cathedral Peaks in the distance as well as the surrounding meadow. Each pool holds around six people and with about 25 campsites nearby, in peak season, hikers will likely have to share with quite a few people. Clothing is optional in the pools, so it's likely there will be some interesting characters to meet.
Due to the length of the hike to the springs, the Conundrum Creek Trail is recommended as an overnight trek. However, those who get an early start and can drag themselves from the pools will be able to do it in a day. It's worth noting that these hot springs also mark the first stop on longer trails including Crested Butte, Copper Basin and East Maroon Pass, so there are likely to be a few through hikers as well.
Regardless, strip off those clothes and hop into the perfect 102 degree F water as a reward for all that hard work.
Have you taken a dip in Conundrum Hot Springs?
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