Hot springs of the American West range from the pristine to the skeezy. Happy to report my recent trip to the popular Conundrum Hot Springs near Aspen, Colo., leaned far to the former — despite the dead cow bones and ample exposed human flesh.
But let me back up. . . the hike into Conundrum ranks among the most popular in Colorado. And for good reason. Winding through a rugged valley, the demanding 9-mile hike concludes at a set of springs overlooking a swath of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area.
The springs are set in a striking but fragile location, and more than 2,000 hikers make their way up the mountain trail each year. That’s a lot of folks for a 25-foot spring and 16 campsites.
Further, the area faced a weird challenge last winter when a group of cows died after being stranded during the winter.
By the time of my visit in July, the cows had mostly decomposed. Bones were strewn all around but recent water tests showed no elevated levels of bacteria, the park service reported.
Dead cows aside, this place is truly spectacular. Surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks and shimmering aspens, it’s among the most incredible spots in the state.
The trail begins at 9,000 feet and climbs across meadows and through aspen stands. It gets steep as a pine forest takes over near the end. Campsites are spread over a quarter mile area near the springs at about 12,000 feet.
For our trip, after setting up camp, I went to soak in the hot springs right away. I’m not much of a hot tub guy, and 15 minutes is usually enough for me. But here I sat in the springs for three hours.
There are two pools at Conundrum. I spent my entire time in the main pool, which is big enough for about 15 people and the hottest of the pair. It’s about 102 degrees with a pebble and mud bottom. The water is fairly clear and an odorless gas bubbles up, heating the middle of the pool.
For obvious reasons no glass is allowed in the tub, so think ahead while packing adult or other beverages. And be forewarned: Like most wilderness springs these ones are clothing-optional and a lot of people choose to soak in the nude.
After a solid sleep, I awoke refreshed and energetic. After picking up camp we stopped for one last visit to the springs before the hike down and out of paradise, back to reality again.
Getting There: The trailhead to Conundrum Hot Springs is about six miles from Aspen, Colo., in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness Area of the White River National Forest. From Aspen, take 82 West to a roundabout just outside town. Take Castle Creek Road about five miles to Conundrum Road and turn right. Stay left on the main Conundrum Road avoiding driveways for about a mile to the parking lot. Try to arrive early in the day and travel mid-week to get a parking spot at the trailhead and a campsite near the springs.
—Sean McCoy is a contributing editor based in Denver. See this page for more info on the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and the trip to Conundrum Hot Springs.