A magical place, the Conundrum Hot Springs in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen, Colorado is a must-do for Colorado backpackers. Only a few natural hot springs like this one are left undisturbed by man.
The reward for your exertion on the 8.5 mile trail is a soak in one of two beautiful hot spring pools with expansive views provided by the treeline location. The lower pool is cooler, smaller, and more private. It can hold about 4 people. The upper pool is much larger and can probably accommodate a dozen people before things start getting crowded. I would guesstimate the upper pool averages around 95 degrees (F) and the lower pool about 80 degrees, which in the cool Alpine air is just perfect. The temperature of the upper pool varies quite a bit depending where you sit. You will see the bubbles coming out of the ground indicating the source and the warmest area.
This is more than a backpacking trip, it's an adventure.The beauty of soaking in a hot spring in the alpine air surrounded by tall mountains is exhilarating. There are amazing views to the North, down the valley you hiked through, into Aspen. To the east and west you have high mountain ridges, the east side being the most interesting with Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak towering above you. They are both 14,000 foot peaks, although Conundrum isn't officially on the 14'ers list because it shares a ridgeline with the higher Castle Peak. Some people choose to make an ascent of one or both of these peaks during their stay, but as far as I know this is no easy task. It's very steep talus from the hot springs up to the ridgeline.
Clothing is optional at the pools and more people choose to swim in the buff than with swimsuits. Keep this in mind if you're bringing children. There are 16 campsites in the area of the hot springs. Roughly 8 of them are a close walk to the springs, the rest are a bit more distant. The sites have some isolated trees near them, but you are at treeline and storms can be dangerous. Make certain your gear is up for the weather or camp lower if there is any doubt (we brought our 4-season mountaineering tent which was perfect for the conditions but a bit heavy in the pack). Site 6 is the best because it is literally a stone's throw from the upper pool. Campfires are not allowed at any of the 16 sites in the area of the pools, however, on your hike up you will pass a sign that says "Camp Fire Sites". These sites are probably 3/4 of a mile from the springs, but they allow fires and serve as an overflow if all 16 sites near the springs are taken. They are also in dense forest and therefore are better protected from storms.
On our trip, we encountered perfect weather on our first day, except for the brief period when we were setting up our tent (it always seems to storm when we're setting up the tent).It took us about an hour just to find a camp site (we arrived at the springs around 5:00pm). There is a sign with a map of the campsites near the springs. By the time we arrived, the close ones had all been taken, and in fact there were only a couple sites left. We finally found site 14 up in the triangle pass sites, and set up camp there. It was a fairly long walk to the hot springs from this site.
We relaxed in the pools that evening, first starting in the cooler lower pool where we were alone. After about a half hour of soaking in the lower pool, 3 Pine Martens playfully ran up to the pool. One of them came up close and looked at us, let out a loud squeak, and ran back into the bushes. We eventually moved up to the more social and warmer upper pool, which probably had about 10 people total in it. On the next day, we awoke and took another soak in the pool and then packed up and headed down. As soon as we started to pack up around noon, the storms rolled in, and they were severe, with some close lightning strikes and pea-sized hail. We had to rush to get in the denser forest where we were safer from the lightning.
After a trip of this nature, you can relax in Snowmass or Aspen and reflect on the beauty of the experience, and of the difficulty in reaching it, content in the knowledge that few people on earth can even make the trip to the remote wilderness you just traversed. The aches and pains will become evident as you no longer have your hot spring to wash them away, but a warm bath will help. Before long, you will be trying to find the time to make the trip again. And you will, because it's just too good to pass up.
How to get there: The road leading up to the trailhead is called Castle Creek road. There is a roundabout near the Aspen airport, and you enter Castle Creek road from that roundabout. Take the road for 5 miles, then turn right onto Conundrum Road. Take Conundrum Road until it's very end, being careful not to turn onto any private drives. The road turns to dirt and becomes narrow and more difficult the farther you proceed, but most 2 wheel drive vehicles can make it without issues. There is a large parking lot at the trailhead, although it does come close to filling up at times.
You may want to stay in Aspen or Snowmass either before or after your trip (we did both). Snowmass has some great lodging deals during the summer so it's usually quite reasonable. If you would prefer to camp, there are National Forest campgrounds as you head up toward Independence Pass.