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Aspen's Conundrum Hot Springs: 18 Miles and 4 Courses

Marissa D'Orazio's picture

ASPEN, CO - This year marked my first adult birthday outside of Philadelphia's city life, and I wanted to do something out of the ordinary. I’ve always loved hiking and camping, but I had never been on a backpacking, camping trip before. I decided my 24th birthday was as good a time as ever to take the trek. I asked around among friends and co-workers to get the dish on the some of their favorites. Over and over again, recommendations for the Conundrum Hot Springs hike in Aspen came pouring in, and I was sold.

Hot SpringsHot Springs

Once I decided on the location, I began doing my research. I got the low down from my friends and read-up on a few online reviews. I was up against an 18-mile roundtrip trek with an elevation gain of 4’020 ft. I proposed my collected statistics to my boyfriend, and he eagerly signed up to be my partner in crime for the trip. Before I knew it, it was the night before the trip and we began organizing our gear; little did I know he had quite the birthday feast planned – 4 courses, a bottle of red, a bottle of white and a flask of whiskey… for variety of course, which added some serious extra weight to his pack. Pans, ropes and water bottles clanging from our packs we saddled up for a test drive, heavy, but better than we expected.
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The next morning we hopped in the jeep around 9am, later than we hoped for but ready to roll. The drive from Keystone, where we live, took just under two hours. We had the opportunity to take the short cut and cruise over Independence Pass, which I have been eager to do for a while. The twisty, turning pass road boasted beautiful mountain views and the spectacular colors of the changing aspens.

Independence PassIndependence Pass

Once in Aspen, take Castle Creek road from the roundabout. Stay on Castle Creek for about 5 miles and keep your eyes peeled for Conundrum road, at which you make a right. Follow Conundrum road, careful not to take a turn into a private driveway. Conundrum becomes a dirt-road; continue on until you see the parking lot at the trailhead. If you’re doing the over night camping, there’s a registration box by the trailhead to sign up and tag your car for over night parking.
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Once registered, we strapped on our packs and ran through our final checklist, and started on our way around noon. The first part of hike presented striking views and boldly colored aspens. The 4,000 ft. incline was distributed across the nine miles, which made the increase easier to take. Some sections demonstrated a steeper climb, but they were usually followed by a long stretch of leveled-out plains.

We occasionally ran into hikers on their return trip, and asked how long they had been hiking. It seemed we couldn’t get a consistent answer on how far we had left to go, so we decided it would just be best to keep moving in long stretches with 10 minute breaks to rest our backs. Mid-way through the hike, our backs really started to ache, hurting more as the return hikers told us we still had quite a ways to go. The hike continued to yield beautiful sights as we crisscrossed over the river on beautiful footbridges. Conundrum peak showed her face around the trail to the left and we knew we were getting closer. Eventually we hit the six-mile bridge our passing companions told us about and it inspired us to buck-up and finish up.

Mountain ViewMountain View
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The last mile or so proved to be challenging to say the least. We were tired, and sore, mostly from our packs. I didn’t realize how taxing carrying so much extra weight would be. By this time, the sun was just barely clipping the top of the peaks and I was getting chilly on our breaks, which became more frequent. On our last push through a wooded area, we saw a campsite down below. We were elated. We found the fire permitting campsites which were about 20 minutes away from the hot springs. We hurried down the cliffside and set up camp as the sun pushed out its final rays. We settled in and reveled in the fruits of our laborious climb; caprese salad, pepper crusted tuna steak with wasabi sauce, filet with mushrooms and peppercorn cream sauce, two bottles of wine and coconut, chocolate sweet tooth bars for dessert. Full and satisfied, we strung up our leftovers in a nearby tree to avoid any bear visitors that wanted in on the feast and turned in for the night.

The next morning, we woke up rested and ready to soak in the hot springs. It was about a 30 minute walk from where we camped to the hot springs. We passed conveniently located camping spots right by the hot springs; the only downside is that you can’t have a campfire there. When we finally arrived at the springs, there were five other friendly campers lounging. Soon we had the hot springs to ourselves. What an amazing view! We enjoyed the peaceful reward for our long trek and melted into the water for a good hour and a half before returning back to our campsite, refreshed and relaxed.

Chucks PackChucks Pack

We cooked up as much of the leftover food as we could and shared with some neighbors. We packed up, and strapped our packs back on to our aching shoulders. We didn’t know what to expect on the way home. We wondered if our packs were in fact lighter and if the decline would make the difference we needed to get home in one piece. Thankfully, the hike home treated us kindly. Our packs were lighter and we cut about two hours off our entrance time.

Overall this hike was an A+. It was endurance challenging, punctuated with stunning views, with an amazing reward sandwiched in the middle, and in our case, a reward at the end as well as we shacked up with a local friend at Su Casa for some happy hour, birthday margaritas. -Marissa D'Orazio