Enough of this cold weather backpacking misery we had been putting ourselves through, time to plan a trip in the summer and hit up some hot springs! A quick search for “hot springs” and “Colorado” will inevitably pull up one of the most picturesque and somewhat difficult to get to soaking grounds in the state, Conundrum Hot Springs (not far from Aspen). We started planning a trip around Conundrum and also decided to hit up another popular backpacking destination, Maroon Bells.
After the requisite shittyness that is Nebraska and eastern Colorado, we had an exciting, rain-soaked drive over the Front Range of the Rockies and on to our home base for the week, Glenwood Springs. We had decided on Glenwood due to its proximity to our destinations and unlike Aspen, we wouldn’t have to sign away our first born child to stay there for a few nights. The Residence Inn fit the bill perfectly, we could use our Marriott points, it had a kitchenette, available laundry, and most importantly, was within walking distance to nearly everything in town including the hot springs and downtown area.
Upon arriving, we had two goals: to soak in the Glenwood Springs Hot Springs, and to eat some real food. We unloaded our gear in the room and asked the concierge where the nearest place to get some good food and a great beer was. She recommended Glenwood Canyon Brewing Company so we grabbed our swim suits and headed downtown.
The Glenwood Springs hot springs really resembles a public pool more than a natural spring, but it was divided up into two temperature sections and has nice stone benches to sit on in the water. It was a little pricey at $14 per person, but well worth it after a long drive.
We were a little salty about the price of admission upon entry, but found that you could get stamped on your way out and come back any time that day. After a nice relaxing swim, we showered up and headed to the Glenwood Canyon Brewing Company.
The brewery was just a short walk away and featured delicious locally-sourced food and excellent beer. The service was friendly and prices were reasonable. To capitalize on the reentry policy of the hot springs, we returned for one more swim in the springs, which, after a hearty dinner and some beers, inevitably made us incredibly sleepy.
The next part of our journey was what could only be called a learning experience. We wanted to build in a day of altitude acclimatization before we began the uphill slog to Conundrum Hot Springs, so we had decided we would go car camping for a night. Sylvan Lake Campground seemed like a nice enough place online and on the map didn’t look too far out of the way so we had made a reservation a few weeks prior. The drive was, as with many Colorado treks, further than it looked on the map. The visitor center staff was friendly and helpful, and there my compliments will end. Sylvan Lake campground was choked with obnoxious ATVs, motor-cross bikes, and RVs with their requisite generators. Apparently, there was a 4WD road nearby that brought them there. Undaunted, we set up camp and tried to make the best of it.
At least the weather was nice! We basked in the sun, ate some great camp food, and did some reading. When we tired of sitting around camp, we explored the limited offerings of the campground and lake, but decided not to hit up the hiking trails; there would be plenty of that in the coming days. Bedtime came early because we knew the next day we had to drive to the Conundrum Hot Springs trail head just outside of Aspen, and then hike around 9 miles to get to the springs themselves.
Our restful night of sleep under the stars was almost immediately interrupted by semi after semi bringing loads of cows to some unknown destination for what seemed like all night. Around 4am we were awoken by dozens of bellowing cows not 50 yards from our tent! The “unknown destination” had actually been the very park we were camping in. We tried to sleep for another hour, but the fucking cows just kept getting louder and closer so we decided it was better to break camp and get an early start on the day. As you might guess, we were not sad to leave the Sylvan Lake Campground, and quickly found ourselves speeding toward Aspen and what promised to be a much more enjoyable experience.
We reached the Conundrum Hot Springs trailhead without difficulty and began gearing up. Both still pissy and tired from the previous night in cow hell, constant bickering began while packing our bags. Not a great start. The trail was well trodden and marked, but as we knew, was almost entirely uphill. We met up with a local not too far in who joined us for most of the way up. It was actually refreshing to see someone who lived at altitude sucking almost as much wind as we were! Our trail friend help bolster our spirits and made the hike quite enjoyable, if still difficult.
A few sections of trail were completely flooded and we were grateful that our trail mate had a trekking pole which made balancing on slippery logs a little less dangerous. Exhausted and sweaty, we arrived at the hot springs in the late afternoon and were greeted by one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. With 14,000 foot peaks surrounding it and an infinity edge pool overlooking a lush green valley, Conundrum Hot Springs was WELL worth the arduous hike. With the warm water beckoning, we hastily set up camp and donned our suits for a glorious soak.
Our only mistake was that we had only planned on spending one night at Conundrum, and had packed our food accordingly. We agonized over how to circumvent this problem but with all possible solutions leaving us rather hungry, decided to just enjoy the time we had and break camp after lunch the following day. While marinading in the 100 degree water of the spring, we met the colorful seasonal caretaker of Conundrum, Evan, who filled us in on the history and challenges facing the area as well as local edible plants. He was a wealth of knowledge and an entertaining soaking companion. The hot springs that night were almost as spectacular as during the day with what seemed like every star in the galaxy shining brightly in the cloudless sky.
Morning found us completely rested and relaxed. It is amazing how much easier it is to sleep in the backcountry after sitting in a natural hot tub all evening! We took our time enjoying tea and breakfast in our hammock before heading back down to the springs for more soak time.
Hiking down was, as usual, much quicker than the way up. Unfortunately, our morning in the hot springs had softened Molly’s feet and they were beginning to get hot spots. Mole skin and taping could only do so much and by the time we reached the truck, her feet were pretty sore.
The original plan was to camp at Difficult Campground outside Aspen that night and then head to Maroon Bells the following day. However, two things made us change our plans significantly. The first was Molly’s poor little feet which would not be ready for another long hike for at least a couple days. The second game changer actually came the week before we left when we got a call from the US Forest Service telling us that tent camping would not be allowed at Difficult Campground due to an incident with a bear. Contemplating our options, we quickly came to the consensus that a drive back to Glenwood Springs and a couple more nights in the hotel beat sleeping in the truck and trying to force what we knew would be a challenging hike on sore feet.
After picking up some pulled pork sandwiches and Vapor Cave IPA growlers from the Glenwood Canyon Brewing Co., we headed back to home sweet home, the Residence Inn. Our bags soon exploded clothes and gear all over the room and we took the opportunity to do some laundry and start getting organized for the next couple days. Rafting sounded like a fun diversion and a good rest for our feet so we booked a trip with the Glenwood Adventure Company for the next day.
Since our rafting trip didn’t depart until after noon, we took some time the following day (Tuesday) taking in some of the history and culture of Glenwood Springs. The Wild West has always held a certain mystique to both Molly and Me, so we thoroughly enjoyed taking in the storied past of Glenwood’s most famous resident, Doc Holiday. After a toast to Doc in a bar named after him, it was time to walk over to Glenwood Adventure Company for our rafting intro.
The rafting promised to be quite comical. Rafters ranged from kids to grandparents to Coast Guard cadets. After our instruction and safety talks, we were assigned groups and loaded up into the buses. Molly and I were placed with a 40-something couple from California and a 70-something couple from Iowa. I volunteered to take a front seat because I had spent a great deal of time on rivers as a kid indulging my dad in his canoeing obsession while I mostly fished. It was clear from the get-go that Molly should have taken the the other front seat. During the first set of rapids, the guy from Cali opposite me dropped his paddle and turned around to comfort his wife. This sent the boat off course, bouncing us into a huge boulder, and almost knocking the older gentleman from Iowa out of the boat completely.
Things settled down after that, and the guide gently, but firmly reminded my counterpart that he needed to paddle continuously when instructed to do so. There were a few more adrenaline-pumping rapids, but the second half of the paddle was by-in-large a float trip. Molly and I vowed to fill our Camelback with booze next time; who spends an afternoon on the water without beer?
Our rafting adventure complete, it was time to get some food (and beer)! Our guide recommended The Pullman. It was definitely more upscale than the Glenwood Canyon Brewing Co., and had excellent food with great servers who knew their menu inside and out. The only drawback was the atmosphere seemed to attract big city douchebags. Molly and I get enough of those at home in Chicago, so it was a little knock, but we sill enjoyed our dining experience fully. We proceeded to get quite drunk, hit up the Glenwood Springs Hot Springs one last time, and then headed back to the hotel.
Shaking off our headaches the next morning, we finished loading up our packs for the Maroon Bells and headed out. The original plan was to complete the Four Pass Loop, but our truncated schedule would no longer give us enough time to complete it comfortably, so we settled on hiking directly to what we had heard would be the highlight of the trail: Snowmass Lake. The first few miles from the trailhead were packed with dayhikers but they quickly disappeared as we climbed higher and higher toward Buckskin Pass.
The hiking was, to put it simply, a bitch. The trail climbed steeply and was frequently overtaken with ankle-twisting chunks of granite. We sucked it up and pushed upward to Buckskin Pass. I was glad we talked to the ranger before setting out who said there was still a good bit of snow at the pass. Molly’s ice axe seemed like a bit of overkill at the trail head, but it proved most useful in carving out steps and hoisting ourselves up and over what was left of last winter’s cornice.
The view from the pass was nothing short of spectacular! We rested for a while, taking in the views behind us of the Bells and of Snowmass Mountain and Lake ahead. Daylight was getting short and we were getting hungry so we headed down the other side of the pass at a good clip.
By the time we arrived at Snowmass Lake, it was nearly dark, the mosquitoes were eating us alive, and we were sick of walking. We made a half-hearted attempt at dinner, washed up in the icy stream, and hit the sack.
The absolute beauty of Snowmass Lake had eluded us the night before, but we took full advantage in the morning. We had definitely made the right call by spending two nights at the lake which meant we had nothing to do all day but enjoy where we were. I set up the hammock while Molly busied herself with breakfast and laundry and we had a sublime morning relaxing in the picture-perfect weather and surroundings.
The concept of a day with no hiking seemed almost too good to be true as we languished in the hot sun with occasional shriek-inducing dips in the seemly sub-zero lake.
We spent most of the day getting sunburned next to the aquamarine lake until forced into the safety of our bug-netted hammock by the hoards of evening mosquitoes. Fortunately, the quickly abated and after a much more enjoyable dinner, happy hour, and cigar by the lake to close out the day, we headed to bed feeling fulfilled.
It was bittersweet waking up the next morning knowing that it was our last day in the wilderness. We broke camp and headed out, wishing we had another day to explore Snowmass Mountain. The hike was much easier going back toward the trail head and we made it to the parking lot with relative ease. After one last stop for pictures, it was time to hit the road to Avon, CO where Molly had booked a night at the Sheraton to get us started on the long journey home.
This was at times the most relaxing, and at times most difficult trip we had been on together. The raw beauty of the places we had been left us planning our return trip before we were even through Nebraska.