High in the Elk Mountains above Aspen is one of the most stunning hot springs in the West, one large and several smaller pools bubbling to the surface just at timberline. It takes a grueling 8-mile hike uphill hike to reach, but plop into the main pool, absorb the view and breathe the chill mountain air, and it’s worth every step. The pools are unofficially clothing optional, so be prepared. You can camp at several designated sites near the pools or, if you want to have a campfire, a quarter-mile below the hot springs. Plan to spend more than one night and take a day hike up Triangle Pass, where the jagged Elk Mountains reveal themselves in all their splendor. You also may need a permit. As of 2016 the U.S. Forest Service was considering implanting a permit system because of heavy use.
Free natural hot springs always attract interesting characters, and Conundrum is no exception. On one trip in 2013: we met two girls from Pennsylvania planning to hike it barefoot (they didn’t make it); a homeless man from Colorado Springs begging for food, who said a fox stole his shoes; and a man claiming to be the founder of Friends of Conundrum Hot Springs who was living there (it turned out he really was the founder). We also met plenty of first-time backpackers, who were no longer novices after rains swelled Conundrum Creek so high everyone had to link arms to safely cross. The point is Conundrum is a social experience, so bring patience and a smile.
- Avoid summer weekends, when crowds can make finding a campsite difficult and make Conundrum seem more like a party than a serene wilderness soaking experience.
- Pick up a free human waste bag at the trailhead. The pools are at timberline surrounded by fragile tundra and get so much use that if everyone left it in a hole or under a rock … well use your imagination.
- Weather can change quickly and violently at 11,000 feet, so be prepared for the worst and bring water shoes or sandals for the final creek crossing.
Recommended season(s): Summer and early fall. People visit in winter but the route is even more grueling and passes through dangerous avalanche terrain.
—R. Scott Rappold