The Mother Lode

Hikers and campers strike gold on Conundrum Creek Trail

I’m what you’d call a recreational backpacker. I’ve got the moisture-wicking socks, the convertible pants that zip off into shorts and the REI shirt with more SPF protection than I’ll need in a lifetime. I’ve never felt the need to own the titanium cook stove, the four-season tent or the sleeping bag that weighs less than a bag of cotton balls.

But when our friends Chris and Gabby called to plan a trip, I knew I had to step it up a notch. This is the Washington D.C., couple that spent summers trekking through Thailand, South America, and Mexico. They own the hardcore backpacking gear I don’t, plus some I’ve never even heard of.

I needed a trail to impress.

My husband, James, and I spent the spring researching potential backpacking adventures, and Conundrum Creek Trail outside of Aspen had come up the winner. Located in the Maroon Bell-Snowmass Wilderness, we knew stunning scenery was guaranteed. We had also heard it was a well-traveled route with moderate to challenging terrain, a trip our friends from Washington, D.C., could join us on no problem. But the real reason we had chosen Conundrum, a trail that starts at 8,700 feet and climbs for eight and a half miles to 11,200 feet, was its feature attraction: an on-top-of-the-world campground and two inviting hot springs pools—some of the highest in elevation in the United States. Chris and Gabby? Conundrum was gonna blow their SmartWool socks off.

We meet at the trailhead before sunrise, the snow-capped Mt. Hayden looming in the distance.

“Is it really this cold out?” Chris asks. Although prime season for hiking Conundrum is July through September, it’s still a bit nippy before the sun comes up.

“Yeah, what’s the temperature of those hot springs again?” James inquires.

“Ninety-eight,” I reply, slipping on my pack. About 60 degrees warmer than we are right now, I think to myself, but decline to say aloud.

My friends and I certainly are not the first to discover Conundrum. The trail’s history predates the backpacking craze by nearly 100 years. According to Tim Lamb, a recreation staff officer at the Aspen Ranger District, the Ute Indians are thought to have used the springs as well as prospectors who sifted through the valley as early as 1880. Legend has it the prospectors found placer gold in the stream gravels but were never able to discover the mother load; hence the name Conundrum Creek. Lack of gold didn’t keep people away, however. In 1912, the Forest Service built the two hot spring pools still in use today. “A bathhouse was erected over one of the pools in the 1920s,” Lamb said, showing me a faded photograph the day we visited. “People were going up to Conundrum in horse and carriage way before we were even born.” Today, about 2,000 people hike the trail from mid-summer through fall each year, and about half that many camp overnight

It’s not difficult to understand Conundrum’s appeal. By the time we reach the first water crossing at two and a half miles, we’ve already spotted deer, Albert's squirrels, beaver ponds, and two waterfalls. And as we pass in and out of aspen groves and pine trees, the amazing views of Cathedral Peak, Conundrum Peak, and Castle Peak all take their subsequent turns dropping our jaws. We stop briefly to snack on fruit and handfuls of GORP, and Paul points out malachite mineral deposits in the rock walls towering above us. The vivid bands of light and dark green are a striking contrast to the red sandstone.

A few miles farther the trail flattens out and opens up into a large clearing, which is a popular spot for day hikers to stop and rest before turning back. We all stare at the clouds overhead, which are getting darker and darker. But we’re determined to make it to the top, so we slide off our packs and chow down a quick lunch on the boulders and fallen tree trunks. Paul, our group’s official GPS monitor, gives us his report: “Captain’s log: Three miles and 1,200 feet in elevation to go.”

“Piece of cake,” I say, pretending the blisters forming on my heels don’t exist.

Right then, a lightning bolt shoots across the sky and we scurry for cover. We spend the next 20 minutes huddling under sparse aspen branches, praying the dime-size hail doesn’t turn into the storm of the century. Then, just as quickly as it began, the storm clears and the sun comes out, a weather miracle our D.C. friends find hard to believe.

After the trail’s second water crossing, which like the first has a log bridge, we encounter the Silver Dollar Pond. The area looks more like a large pool of melted snow than the fragile wetlands Lamb had described. But in fact, the area is a breeding ground for the boreal toad, an endangered species in Colorado and New Mexico.“Most people stay on the trail, but sometimes kids and dogs wander off,” Lamb had said. “People don’t always think about it, but the damage that can be done by wandering off in an area like the Silver Dollar Pond can be devastating.”

From the pond the trail leads up into an evergreen canopy, where we traipse through leftover snowdrifts until we come to the third and final water crossing.

“What’s ‘ford’ mean?” our friend, Chris, asks, pointing to a wooden sign with the word carved into it.

“It means the water’s pretty deep and there’s no bridge,” Paul explains with a bit of a sigh. “We have to wade across this sucker.”

The diehards in our group (aka natives with head-to-toe waterproof gear) unbuckle their packs and head into the water while the rest of us use felled trees to scoot, shimmy, and balance our way across. The thrill of the crossing keeps us smiling for another half mile or so, which is a good thing because the trail grade starts picking up steam and our 30-pound packs are beginning to weigh us down. We huff and puff our way up another mile until we come across a map of the campgrounds. The light at the end of the tunnel.

The map shows five sites, a half-mile down from the hot springs, where fires and dogs are allowed, and 16 sites at the top, where they aren’t. At this point, exhaustion has set in and for a moment we consider taking the easy route and camping at the first spot we come across. But we’ve come too far to stop now, so we unanimously opt for making the last mile trek to the top. Upon reaching the top campground, it is evident others had the same idea. Of the 16 campsites, four are available. The most coveted spots, sites four and five, which offer the most protection under trees, are already taken. So we secure two other spots, quickly unload. Then it’s pool time.

We pull on our bathing suits and head to the springs where we join six other folks, none of whom bothered packing bathing suits. Too tired to feel awkward, we explore both pools, plus a third pool made from the runoff of the larger two. Unlike the pristine pools at many hot springs “resorts,” the water in these natural pools appears murky and remains shallow. But that doesn’t bother us. Sitting in our warm perches overlooking the Conundrum Valley, we talk with strangers and watch woodland creatures scurry around the lunar-like landscape. And when the sun starts to sink in the sky and the peaks on one side of the valley are bathed in a vibrant mixture of orange and yellow alpenglow, we all ooh and ahh and sink farther down into our pools.

After an hour we pull ourselves from the springs and begin filtering and boiling water from Conundrum Creek to heat up our freeze-dried dinner.

I devour my rather tasteless re-hydrated sun-dried tomato pasta, thinking that after six hours with a 30-lb. pack strapped to my back, it’s one of the best meals I’ve ever had. I survived a hailstorm (okay a quick one), two bleeding blisters, and one slightly nerve-wracking river crossing. And I loved every minute of it.

As I drift off to sleep, I’m already dreaming of my next adventure. Maybe my recreational backpacking days are over. Maybe investing in my own extreme-weather, lighter-than-a-feather sleeping bag isn’t such a crazy notion after all.

[This article originally appeared in 5280 magazine.]