We had another backpacking trip a couple weeks ago, to Conundrum Hot Springs outside of Aspen. It is about a nine-mile uphill hike to the hot springs. As soon as we got to the trailhead on Thursday afternoon, it started raining.
And here we are. We walked for a while and we saw a bear. It was up on the hillside. I don't have a picture of it, because when I glanced up it disappeared behind a bush. This is the first bear I have seen while hiking. It wasn't scary. It was far away and obviously afraid of us.
Then it started to pour. You need to put rain gear on when that happens, because what if it never stops? And night falls and your one outfit of clothes is soaked.
Of course, the rain did stop shortly after we got into full rain gear, and I took many pictures as we hiked on.
It was one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever been on. There were so many aspen, wildflowers, butterflies, and jagged mountain ridges. Also, there was a moose.
By the time we got to Silver Dollar Pond, maybe 6 miles in, we were getting tired.
There was much discussion about whether to camp now, or to try to make it up to the actual campsites near the hot springs. I was in favor of the latter. I hate the idea of being done with supper before dark. What are you going to do between supper and bedtime, sit around and talk?? Boring.
We watched the sun set on the mountains as we continued to hike.
We kept walking. We hiked for about 7 hours. Shortly after darkness fell, we came upon some paths. These turned out to be the unmarked sites where you could have campfires, but we didn't know this at the time, and so kept hiking, the trail continuing up steeply in the dark.
Some of us were very tired, and possibly actually asleep by this time. It was pitch black when we finally came to a sign with a map showing the locations of the official campsites, with a little trail leading off close by to campsites 1, then 2, then 3. They were still 1/4 mile from the hot springs, further away than we had wanted to camp, but the ground in front of us seemed increasingly vertical and rocky and even I was running out of motivation to continue.
We found the little trail we'd seen on the map and immediately ran into a sign for campsite 3.
"What happened to campsite 1?"
"Maybe the map is wrong. Maybe campsite 2 and 1 are after this."
I explored further down the trail. It seemed to peter out in the woods. Campsite 3 was very slanted and looked like it would be unpleasant to camp on. Also, someone had left stuff there. Were they coming back later to set up camp? We kept looking around for sites 1 and 2 in the total darkness. No luck. We thought we were going crazy.
And so we returned to the main trail and hiked up, up, up to site 4, which turned out to have a flat area just big enough to fit 2 tents. It was right on the edge of a precipice that, in the dim light of our headlamps, appeared to fall away several thousand feet or more to the rushing cataract of Conundrum Creek at the bottom.
As soon as we stopped hiking and generating body heat it began to feel very cold, because it was very cold. The others set up the tents while I boiled our bratwurst. Everyone thanked me for making supper. What! They were wrestling with freezing-cold metal tent poles while I huddled over a hot stove.
The next morning, the first thing I did when I got up was look over the precipice.
It's hard to tell from this picture, but it was in fact about a 50' sheer drop to the creek. Thankfully, none of us sleepwalks.
And we began to get ready for our day.
Erin and Kris display the Restop 2, which is some kind of bag-in-bag system for carting your human waste back to the trailhead. These are available free at the parking lot and are strongly encouraged, as the hot springs area is heavily used and we do not, after all, want to go soaking in bacteria-laden waters.
We had about a 15-minute hike up to the hot springs, where a couple people were soaking. There is one main pool and 2-3 smaller pools; I have read that the main pool is about 98 degrees, found that the smaller pools were cooler. Based on what I saw over the next few days, the main pool can fit 20 or so seated people in relative comfort, and 40+ drunken people with looser boundaries.
And it is beautiful.
You can see the bubbles where the hot water is coming in. The center of the pool was hottest, and difficult to stand for long if it was also sunny out. Sarah and I relaxed for a long time in the lukewarmish upper pool, which was the right temperature when the sun was out. It was partly shaded and we had it to ourselves, which was lovely, even if it was mucky. I thought I would get bored, but I guess soaking in an alpine valley at 11,200' with 360 degree views is different from soaking in the basement of Indian Hot Springs - after two hours of not doing much but just lying there and looking, I still felt like I could stay there the rest of the day.
Meanwhile, Kris and Erin had begun investigating the campsites that were available right near the springs, and eventually decided to pack up our lower camp and move up to them. So Sarah and I would follow... sometime. We got chilly eventually and moved to the main pool, which was by then unoccupied. It was very luxurious.
But we thought we had better pack up and re-set-up camp before the usual afternoon storms hit, so we hiked back down to site 4 and packed up, checking out an old forest service cabin along the way.
I have since read that this cabin -- a former ranger post they no longer have money to staff -- was until recently still roofed. It provided a shelter from the occasional bad hailstorms that shredded tents, piled up six inches of hail and turned summer back into winter for a day and a half. But this is a wilderness area and the forest service has decided to take the roof off and let the structure fall apart, so that the area may conform better to its wilderness designation.
We were lucky enough to be able to set up our new camp in site 8, which is on a little promontory just above the hot springs. ( I would recommend that, if anyone else is inspired enough to take a similar trip, you camp in a meadow around mile 5 or 6 the first night, then arrive at the hot springs between 9 and 2 the next day, to be able to get a site there.) Here is Sarah coming up the final stretch to site 8:
After I took this, she said, "Oh, you're not taking a picture of me climbing up the hill, are you?" I think she thought she looked droppy and exhausted. So I said, "I'll take another one without you in it." Here is a picture without Sarah in it; please only look at this picture.
With the hot springs in the middle-left. Below is the view from our site, looking out over the valley:
After we re-set-up our tent there were people in the hot springs, and, having been spoiled by our solo experience earlier, we decided to refrain and spent some time just... I forget, actually. Possibly we lay in hammocks and had wine and cheese. No, really. Kris had brought a bag of wine and Sarah had brought some fromage de chevre avec herbs de Provence, or something. We ate and drank and played cards. It was warm when the sun was out but rather chilly without it.
There were rockslides happening on a fairly continuous basis down the naked slopes of the mountain to the east of us. This was exciting to me. We all know that mountains erode, and they do so over geologic time. But geologic time includes now. It was a unique but impossible-to-mistake sound, both a porcelain-like tinkling and a deep rumbling at the same time. Sometimes I could see the cobbles and boulders bouncing down. They were far away from us, but still, just 100 feet away were some large boulders that had made it all the way down, bouncing over the piles of scree and over the fields of bush and scattered tree as well. How often did a boulder make it that far? Who knows?
As the day grew later, more and more people began to gather in the hot springs. It was friday night.
Before sunset, we walked about the hot springs area so I could get some shots of the wildflowers.
When the sun disappeared, I turned back to get a shot of Erin and Kris, just returned from soaking, getting things ready for dinner up at the campsite.
It became way too cold all too quickly, and by the time supper was ready my fingers were almost too frozen to eat it. We looked down upon the hot springs and contemplated having a nighttime dip -- some people were talking about a meteor shower -- but the noisy crowd down there with drinks in hand seemed obnoxious to me, and so Sarah and I decided to go to bed.
In the second and final installment, you will read all about our day hike to Triangle Pass, soaking in the hot springs during a hail storm, and having to ford a raging river to get back to the car. Stay tuned!