A few years ago, my friend Jayme told my husband, Kolby, and I about a natural hot spring tucked deep in the backcountry, sitting at the base of multiple 14,000 ft. mountains in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Of course, this piqued my interest and was instantly added to our list.
After some research, we decided this was something we all wanted to do together – her husband included! The hot springs require a permit to camp overnight, so we had to make sure to plan in advance as permits go fast. Having a reservation system for these areas ensures they don’t become over-crowded, and in my opinion, makes the experience even more special.
Although permits help reduce the amount of traffic these areas see, it’s not enough. In such fragile environments, like hot springs and trails that run along waterways, it’s important to remember the seven Leave No Trace principles. At the trailhead, there is a large bin with “wag bags,” which are bags for you to “do your business” in so that it’s not left for other campers.
In a protected area like this, burying it isn’t enough. You are asked to “pack it in, pack it out” – including human waste. To preserve the beauty of these environments, it’s our responsibility to respect them and do our research before hitting the trails so we understand how to hike responsibly.
Preparations for the Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness
To secure a coveted permit, Jayme did her homework and went online as soon as they were available. We were lucky enough to snag one of the last spots! We had the permit a few months prior to the trip, so we had plenty of time to plan. Having backpacked many times before, Kolby and I know what we like to bring, so there wasn’t too much gear planning involved.
Because all of the campsites are near water, it wasn’t necessary to haul in our drinking water. Instead, we brought a Katadyn gravity filter that we could refill as needed. As for food, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area is in bear territory, so it’s required to bring a bear barrel to store food in.
Bear barrels are tubs to store food in that lock and are bear-proof. They are to be stashed 100 yards downwind of your camp spot. If you don’t own one and aren’t in the market to buy one, you can typically rent a bear canister for a small fee from your local REI or many local outdoor retail stores!
As for other gear, I like to always bring a rainfly for my backpack in case a storm comes by. The rainfly will ensure all of my gear, like my clothes and sleeping bag, stay dry – even if I have to hike in the rain. I also like to use trekking poles to help distribute the weight of the heavy pack.
A few other items we like to bring backpacking are our Jetboil for cooking, a Sea to Summit drylite towel for after the hot spring, our Nemo sleeping bags for chilly nights, and a lightweight, inflatable sleeping pad. Kolby and I live in Grand Lake, and Jayme and her husband Mike live in Denver, so we had a bit of a drive to get to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area.
To ensure we got a good night’s sleep before our trip, we drove up the day prior to our permit day so we could camp right outside of Aspen and wake up well-rested and close to the trail. We all love to camp and to be immersed in nature, so we chose to camp instead of finding a hotel/Airbnb.
Hiking the Conundrum Hot Springs Trail
The trail is called Conundrum Hot Springs Trail, and is about 18 miles out and back. You gain 2,800 feet in elevation over the trail, so it isn’t as taxing as some other hikes in the area, but it does become quite challenging with a backpacking pack. This trail would be best for experienced hikers. Even though it’s challenging, the hike is beyond worth it.
Huge Aspen trees line the hike for a majority of the way up as you follow Conundrum Creek winding through open valleys and patches of thick forest. The trail has miles of open valleys without shade, so be prepared to apply plenty of sunscreen throughout your hike. As you wind through the open valleys, you get breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks.
Although most of the trail is in valleys without shade, you do get the chance to cool down! There are river crossings along the trail. Some of them have logs that you can use to cross, but others have rocks. One river crossing we did was deep – having water shoes to change into is a must!
We went in June, which means that the water was higher than it would be in the late summer or fall. The water came up past our knees and was a strong flow, and therefore our trekking poles made the crossing much easier. Although it was a challenge, it made the experience fun and more memorable. Plus we got to cool down after a long, hot few hours of hiking.
The hot springs are absolutely gorgeous. There is one mid-size pool and it looks down a valley with perfect sunset views. As you soak, you can marvel at the huge mountains sitting right next to you. It’s the most amazing soak spot that feels even better knowing you earned every minute of it!