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An Autumn Backpacking Adventure to Conundrum Hot Springs

By: Alyssa Wendt

Very few things can top an autumn weekend in Colorado’s high country with great friends, natural hot springs, freeze-dried ice cream, and cozy sleeping bags. The Conundrum Creek Trail near Aspen, Colorado was an adventurous 18.5-mile round trip hike with 3,025' total elevation gain, plenty of colorful foliage, creek crossings, incredible views, and unpredictable weather. NOTE: Permits are now required to camp at Conundrum Hot Springs. Find out more here.

Our group emerged from our tents to find a gray, damp morning. The first snow of the season dusted the tops of nearby peaks and golden veins of aspens streaked down the slopes surrounding Twin Lakes.
Photo Credit: Alyssa Wendt
After a routine breakfast of black coffee and oatmeal, we caravanned over Independence Pass to the Conundrum Creek Trailhead.
Photo Credit: Alyssa Wendt
The road climbed to the top of the Continental Divide, reaching an elevation of 12,095 feet. Glowing groves of aspens put on a show while we drove up then down the narrow, winding pass.
Photo Credit: Alyssa Wendt
Rain gear on, straps tightened, and packs buckled, we began the 8.5-mile trek, heading straight into a billowing cloud of fog.

Good to Know: Get to the Conundrum Creek trailhead before 8 a.m. The small trailhead parking lot fills up fast and there is no parking allowed along Conundrum Road. If you forgot a Wag Bag to pack out your human waste, there are some Restop Waste Bags available at the trailhead. Packing out your waste, versus digging a cathole, is a must; the hot springs draw thousands of hikers during the peak season and the fragile ecosystem around the springs cannot sustain a high volume of human waste.
Photo Credit: R. Scrivner
The crisp bite of autumn was in the air. As forecasted, we heard the rumbling sound of thunder before graupel and rain began to fall. Pretty soon, the rain turned to snow and we were walking through a picturesque collision of autumn and fall. We couldn’t help but laugh at the changing seasons in front of us. A few days prior it was summer, a few minutes ago it was autumn, and now winter? Wait, what?
Photo Credit: Alyssa Wendt

[PHOTOS] Backpacking the Gore Lake Trail

With the right gear, the right attitude, and beautiful fall foliage around us, it was impossible to complain about the weather.
Photo Credit: R. Scrivner
Follow the yellow leaf road!
Photo Credit: R. Scrivner
For the duration of the hike, the trail ran parallel to Conundrum Creek. It dipped and rose through small forests, meadows, and valleys.
Photo Credit: Alyssa Wendt
Several times, the trail opened up to gorgeous meadows. Not to be outdone by the colorful aspens, the changing of the seasons transformed the grasses and bushes into a sea of greens and golds. We had to stop to take in the view.
Photo Credit: R. Scrivner
A few river crossings and a couple hundred feet of elevation gain later, we reached our base camp for the night. After setting up camp, we quickly hiked the remaining distance to the natural hot springs, eager to shed our wet gear and soak our bodies in the main pool’s 102-degree water.

Good to Know: Clothing is optional in the pools. Expect a rowdy bunch and tightly packed pools during peak season. Fires are not permitted in the 18 designated campsites near the hot springs. If you want a fire, you can camp anywhere below a sign posted by the creek about one mile before you reach the springs.
Photo Credit: Alyssa Wendt

How to Get Into Backpacking in Colorado

The hot springs sat at along the edge of treeline. On a clear day, we would have caught stunning views of the Elk Range. Looming behind the fog were Cathedral Peak (13,943′), Conundrum Peak (14,022′), and Castle Peak (14,265′).
Photo Credit: R. Scrivner
The following morning we awoke to a breathtaking frozen landscape including a snow-covered Conundrum Peak.
Photo Credit: R. Scrivner
We anxiously hiked towards the sun knowing its warmth would bring life back into our numb fingers and toes.
Photo Credit: Alyssa Wendt
Finally, sun! The group moved carefully over the melting snow-covered rocks and slick logs.
Photo Credit: R. Scrivner
Conundrum Hot Springs - Alyssa Wendt
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.” John Muir’s quote couldn’t have rang more true on our hike out. The morning was perfectly serene.
Photo Credit: R. Scrivner

The Rugged Journey to a Colorado Abandoned Power Plant

Trail Trivia: Conundrum Creek was given its name after several early-day miners travelled to the area in search of gold. Despite the creek showing signs of having rich gold deposits, only trace amounts of gold were found- not enough to be profitable. It was quite the conundrum.
Photo Credit: Alyssa Wendt
Overnight, the leaves turned impossibly more yellow.
Photo Credit: Alyssa Wendt
After storms the previous day, a warm bluebird day was a pleasant sight.
Photo Credit: Alyssa Wendt
Just as quickly as the snow had come, it melted away. We sailed the last few miles down to the base of the trailhead.
Photo Credit: R. Scrivner
“The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong, that’s when adventure starts.” -Yvon Chouinard

A full trailhead parking lot, rain then snow, icy trails, a chilly night, a few slips over river-crossings, and a lost car key made for one adventurous and memorable backpacking weekend. Definitely a weekend for the books.
Photo Credit: Alyssa Wendt

Note: With well over 3,000 visitors coming to Conundrum Hot Springs each summer the U.S. Forest Service worries that the area is getting loved to death. The small quarter-mile radius that encapsulates the springs and designated campsites cannot sustain the high volume of human waste it receives. Talk of establishing a permit system have been discussed for several years but have been pushed back due to the extensive public process and lack of resources. Partnered with Leave Not Trace, the Forest Service regularly sends staff to clean up the area and to educate backcountry hikers about wag bags. If you plan on hiking up and enjoying the natural springs, read up on the Leave No Trace principles, pack out all of your waste, and do your part to keep the beautiful area pristine and waste free for years to come.

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