Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness
Sunday & Monday, August 16-17, 2020
This weekend Diane and I finally got our chance to visit the Conundrum Hot Springs in the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness, which is something that has been on my to-do list for as long as I can remember. For the longest time I figured this was one trip that I probably would never actually do because of how popular it is and how busy it gets in the summer, and the last thing I wanted to do was hike all the way in to the hot springs only to find out that all the designated campsites were occupied. However, last year the Forest Service finally started to require permits that have to be reserved online in advance to camp near the hot springs, and I knew that this was finally my chance to go! I wanted to try to go last year, but I was out of town the weekend when the permits became available, and by the time I returned back home all of the dates I could go were already booked, so I figured I’d try again this year. This year I was around when the permits became available in the middle of June, and after a frustrating morning trying to secure one on the Recreation.gov website, I did finally manage to get one for this Sunday night.
After spending Saturday morning in the Uncompahgre Wilderness I headed back home and got my backpack ready for our overnight trip to the Conundrum Hot Springs. Throughout the week leading up to this trip I kept an eye on the status of I-70 and Independence Pass which were both closed because of the Grizzly Creek Fire burning in Glenwood Canyon, just in case we had to alter our driving route and come from a different direction. I kind of hoped that with the road closures and all the smoke in the air from the wildfires, it might help keep some people from hiking to the hot springs this weekend so it wouldn’t be too crowded. I will say that because of the road closures there was very little traffic all the way to Aspen on Sunday morning as we made our way to the Conundrum Trailhead, but there was a lot of thick smoke in the air the whole way. We arrived at the trailhead around 9:30am and Diane managed to squeeze her car into the only available parking space that was left. We made sure we had everything in our backpacks that we needed and were off hiking up the Conundrum Creek Trail by 10am.
Ready to start the hike from the Conundrum Creek Trailhead.
Right away we had to cross an area of avalanche debris from the previous winter’s historic avalanches. There was a trench through this section that made it pretty easy, but my friend Jackson had hiked through here last summer and said it was a mess.
Entering the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness
This trail starts at a lower elevation than I am used to when hiking in the mountains, and with the excessive heat we’ve been having plus some humidity, it kind of felt like a jungle.
It was pretty smoky out for much of the day. Here’s a view through the smoke to Keefe Peak.
Trees In Smoke
Looking back down the Conundrum Creek Valley as we continued to climb up it.
Here’s a couple smoky views up the valley…
Soon we reached Silver Dollar Pond which is where the permit area for camping begins.
We had a good view of Castleabra (13,803) as we climbed higher into the basin.
For a short stretch of the trail we even had a view of Castle and Conundrum Peaks.
When we reached this old guard station we knew we were getting close to the hot springs.
We had to walk past the hot springs to get to our campsite, so I snapped a quick photo while there was almost no one in it. Last weekend we had visited the highest Fire Lookout in North America, and now we were visiting the highest hot springs in North America!
By the time we reached our campsite in the late afternoon we were pretty exhausted. I really underestimated how difficult this hike was going to be and we were moving pretty slow the last couple of miles, so we were happy to have finally made it to camp. After we sat down and rested for a little bit, we got our tent set up and then took a nap for a short while. When we woke up it was finally time to head over to the hot springs for a soak! We ended up staying in the hot springs for much longer than we thought we would and didn’t leave until around sunset when more people started showing up.
This was our evening view while soaking in the Conundrum Hot Springs just before sunset.
Diane in the Conundrum Hot Springs.
We got out of the water around sunset and walked back to camp at dusk. This was our smoky view down the Conundrum Valley at the time.
After returning to our tent from the hot springs we got changed and then headed down to the creek to get some water. Then we had a late dinner and went to be early. It had been a long day and we were pretty tired.
We had thought about going in the hot springs first thing in the morning before heading back out, but it got a bit windy overnight and when we woke up shortly before sunrise we really didn’t feel like going back in again. At least the wind seemed to have blown some of the smoke out of the area! I got out of the tent shortly before sunrise to take a few photos from near camp and once the sun was up we packed up and started the long hike back out.
A view down Conundrum Creek at dawn with a little less smoke in the air.
I’d say we had one of the better campsites near the hot springs. We were close enough that it was a short walk to the hot springs, but not so close that the people in the pools were too loud. Plus, we were only a few steps away from a great view of the surrounding basin.
Sunrise in Conundrum Basin
Morning light on Keefe Peak (13,392)
We saw quite a few deer hanging around the hot springs area and they seemed pretty used to people walking around.
A morning view of Castleabra as we hiked back down the trail.
I caught the sun coming up over the ridge next to Cathedral Peak (13,943).
The views of the surrounding valley were a little less smoky today.
A nice reflection in a small pond along the trail.
Trees, light & smoke
Conundrum Creek Trail
Hiking down into the lower valley.
Diane hikes back through the avalanche debris right before we reached the trailhead again.
Although we enjoyed being able to soak in the hot springs after a long hike and understand that this is a very unique experience that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, I have some conflicting feelings about this trip and was actually a little let down by it. Maybe I was expecting too much and had built it up in my mind over the years? The hike to the hot springs was longer and more difficult than I was expecting, and honestly the scenery along the way really wasn’t anything special and was kind of boring for such a long hike. There are so many places in Colorado with better scenery than in this valley, I just didn’t find the effort worth it. I guess I’m also not a fan of sitting in dirty water with groups of other people around me. That’s just not for me, but I can understand that some people enjoy that kind of thing and it’s probably the reason this hike is so popular. So like I said, it was a cool experience once, but I have no interest in repeating it, so for now I’ll just stick to the private hot tub with clean water in our backyard instead of returning to a place like this, even if the view from my yard isn’t quite as nice…