After a long day of hiking, nothing is better than resting your aching feet in a hot tub while sipping a cold beer. Now imagine a place where you could have that same experience without leaving the mountain. That fantasy becomes reality at Conundrum Hot Springs, a natural wonderland easily accessible from Aspen, Colorado. The stunning scenery, well maintained trail, and fun loving people at the Springs made this my favorite hike of last summer.
John, my adventure addicted boyfriend, and I drove from Denver to Aspen on a crisp Friday evening last September. The parking lot at the trailhead on Castle Creek Road was already quite full, which made us concerned about the availability of camp spots at the hot springs. There are only 16 sanctioned camp sites at the springs and the Forest Service has been known to enforce the limit by kicking people out. We pushed those thoughts aside and slept in the car to get an early start the next morning. On the trail in the blackness of dawn, our headlamps bobbed along the easy trail through a dense forest. Regardless of the convenience of being the first people on the trail, hiking in the dark is always a bit scary. Every rustle of a bush is a mountain lion, every pair of eyes a coyote ready to pounce. With great relief, the sun slowly illuminated the trail and I could finally see the magnificent landscape we were traversing. To reach the hot springs, you hike 8.5 miles across meadows of wildflowers and through lush forests. The term Middle Earth repeatedly came to mind while we stopped to appreciate our surroundings and snack on thick cuts of hard cheese. I’m quite a slow hiker, (blame it on my little elgs!) but we made it to the hot springs in under five hours. Groups of hikers descending from the campsites told us which sites were open, which eliminated our fear of not getting a spot. We had our choice of locations and chose a cozy tree ensconced site on a buff overlooking the springs. Realizing we’d forgotten the tent poles, we macgyvered a tent frame out of sticks and branches which worked surprisingly well! Camp set, we changed into our swimsuits and meandered down the trail to join the other backpackers relaxing in the springs. The main “pool” is naturally warmed to near 100 degrees and can easily fit a dozen people. Clothing is very optional, even in the middle of the day which gives credence to its reputation as a “hippie hangout”. September turned out to be the perfect time to go as there were only a few other groups up there. Everyone was excited to be there and happy to chat and drink in the warm water while gazing out at the valley below.
After another dip in the springs the following morning, we packed up camp and headed back down the trail. There are trails that utilize the springs as a jumping off point for extended backcountry trips, but our work schedules only allowed for a weekend getaway. Resigned to leaving, we took as many photos on the way down on the way up since the scenery was spectacular from every new angle. The trail is of moderate difficulty and free of obstacles so we were back at the parking lot before we knew it. Sixteen miles down in less than two days, our legs were ready for a break. And a hot tub, and a beer. Luckily we knew just where to go.