There’s a reason the 8.5-mile trek (one-way) to Colorado’s Conundrum Hot Springs is one of the most popular backpacking trips in the state. Not only is it home to incredible alpine scenery in the Elk Range Peaks of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, it’s also one of the most unique backcountry experiences you can find anywhere in North America. Why? Because at the end of this moderately difficult trudge up Conundrum Creek Valley, visitors are met with an irresistible hot springs pool perfect for soaking weary muscles and for meeting a variety of interesting (and sometimes rowdy and rambunctious) people from all walks of life. If you’re looking for a backpacking trip with a splash of sociability, this is it. And if you’re looking for the best time to go, it’s in the fall. Here are some reasons why.
1. Three Seasons of Scenery
If you hit this trail in mid-October, you’re all but guaranteed zero guarantees in terms of which season will dominate the landscape. It’s not at all surprising to be hiking in 70-degree summer temperatures while autumn-tinged golden aspen glow on the hillsides and distant wintery peaks loom ahead with fresh layers of early season snow. Such a fickle display of the seasons gives way to a feast for the senses. You’ll hike through sun-drenched meadows buzzing with crickets. You’ll pass under towering stands of aspens—many of which are barely covered with the last gold-coin-like leaves of the season, stubbornly clinging to branches and flapping in the wind. You’ll also journey through shaded groves of evergreen forests where the ground can be a mix of snow, ice, and frozen mud. And along the entire route, the crystal clear waters of Conundrum Creek will be your babbling companion until you reach the hot springs. Simply put, it’s quite nice.
2. Fewer People
Few-er people is the key word here. In reality, the hike to Conundrum Hot Springs will always be pretty crowded, but in mid-to-late fall there are far fewer people than you’ll find in summer and early fall. This means a variety of things. First, it means you’ll likely snag a parking spot in the designated lot, whereas in the summer months, it’s not uncommon to be forced to find overflow parking on Castle Creek Road (about a mile from the trailhead itself). Second, you’ll have better luck at landing one of the designated (and highly coveted) campsites near the hot springs. There are only 16 sites and they’re all on a first come first serve basis, so it helps to get an early start. Third, with fewer people, this obviously means a better seat in the actual hot springs, and considering most of the warmth is concentrated in the center of the largest pool, it pays to have a good seat.
3. Perfect Weather
Hiking to Conundrum in the fall means t-shirts and shorts during the day and long johns and down jackets at night—the perfect backpacking weather, in our humble opinion. It also means that you’re less likely to encounter afternoon thunderstorms that are synonymous with Colorado summers. Instead, bluebird days are much easier to come by and they’re also much more likely to last. The chilly night temperatures of fall also make soaking in the springs a borderline divine experience, with refreshing, nippy air on the face and shoulders and warm, soothing waters on the rest of your body. Just be sure to have a pair of dry clothes waiting outside the pool once you’re done. Getting out and feeling the blistering chill on your wet skin is the only seriously unfun part.
4. Easy Creek Crossings
One of the notable aspects of the Conundrum Creek Trail is how many actual crossings of the creek there are. There are three: one at 2.5 miles, one at 6 miles, and one at 6.5 miles, plus a number of boggy sections. Prior to June, high water in these crossings can make fording them a serious challenge. As summer wears on, the creeks become fordable, but you’ll definitely still end up with sopping shoes and socks. In the fall, however, the water is low enough to cross bog-logs and creeks with light-footed, rock-hopping ease. This means your feet will stay dry and happy.
5. You’ll Meet Some Cool People
As we’ve mentioned, you definitely won’t have this place all to yourself. But it’s quite possible you might make a new friend or two as a consolation prize. Will it be the former navy pilot who’s surfed in Northwest Florida and shredded slopes in the Pacific Northwest? Or it will be the navy pilot’s girlfriend of 10 years who dreams of swimming with great white sharks and who once spent a night in a South African prison? Maybe it will be the project manager from Boulder who’s explored the salt flats of Bolivia and the jungles of Mexico? Whoever you have the chance to meet at Conundrum Hot Springs, the fact that they’re there in the first place means that you already have something in common. And it’s likely you’ll have a lot more to talk about, too. (Just be sure you’re okay with nudity, because the new friend you’re making is probably baring it all under the water just inches from you.)
The trip to Conundrum Hot Springs is one that sparks a lot of debate in Colorado. On one hand, locals and conservationists have the very valid right to lament how popular the springs have become in recent years. It’s a crying shame when uneducated visitors leave their trash and their waste littered about the place. But if you’re a conscientious visitor who knows (and respects) the rules and regulations, we hope you have a great time exploring this Colorado gem in the shoulder season. Happy trails!
Rules and Regulations:
- Dogs are prohibited beyond Silver Dollar Ponds at the second creek crossing.
- Campfires are prohibited.
- Bear-proof food storage is required.
- Leave No Trace principles apply. Pack out all human waste, trash, clothing, and leftover food.
- Camping is prohibited within 0.25 miles of Conundrum Hot Springs, except in designated campsites. Dispersed campsites must be at least 100 feet away from lakes, streams, and trails.
- Bikes or motorized travel are not allowed.
- Group size is limited to 10 people per group.
- Overnight campers must register at the trailhead.