Sarah Mausolf
Vail CO, Colorado

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August 22, 2008
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Trip to Conundrum Hot Springs near Aspen

Conundrum Hot Springs near Aspen is the type of place that spawns rumors. I had heard hippies clog the nine-mile trail to the springs.

I had been told the pools attract cliquey nudes who make fun of people in bathing suits.

Was the gossip true?

For nearly a year, I had been looking forward to finding out. I had visited several other hot springs in the area, but Conundrum was the Holy Grail of hot pots " a secluded bath in the Maroon Bells, reachable only by an 18-mile roundtrip backpacking trek.

I had never tackled a hike this demanding before, and neither had the other three people in our group.

We had no idea what we were getting into.

I was pretty nervous during the drive to the trailhead. Beginning at 5 a.m. on a recent Saturday, hail pelted our cars three times. Thunderstorms raged throughout the two-hour drive, leaving us to cringe at every lightning flash.

Should we turn back?

At the trailhead, a sign informed us that the trail's bridges were out, meaning we would have to ford the streams.

We stood there in the rain, looking at each other. This was the dumbest idea we had ever had.

We decided to start walking, with the understanding that we would turn back if the storms persisted. We shouldered our overnight packs and trudged single file through the rain. Just when it seemed morale could dip no lower, a patch of blue sky peeked through the clouds.

In the clear weather, the hike became infinitely more fun. We snapped pictures of a waterfall cascading down a mountain. We admired the alpine meadows studded with wildflowers. We started to think that we could make it all the way to the springs.

The trail remained flat throughout the first six or so miles, making for easy hiking, but a few stream crossings stood in the way. The smartest people in our group changed into those plastic sandals called Crocs and waded through the shallow water.

When we hit the last two miles of the hike, the trail pitched upward and took on a rocky complexion. It felt like my backpack doubled in weight. We made slow but steady progress up, up, up, stopping every so often for water. By the time the campsites came into view, I was exhausted and dripping with sweat from the four-and-a-half-hour hike. These hot springs had better be good, I thought.

Few things have ever looked as appealing as Conundrum hot springs did just then. Clear and steaming, the main pool featured a handful of nude Aspenites. We set up our tents at a campsite unofficially called "The bluffs." Though it sounds like the name of a condo development, it was in fact a secluded camp overlooking snow-covered mountains.

We donned our bathing suits and skirted down the steep, rocky path to the springs. There was nothing else to do but get in. The water felt warm " our nude friends estimated the temperature reached 98 degrees. Champagne-like bubbles gurgled up from the center of the spring, which spanned about 20 feet across and three feet deep.

What happened next could have been socially awkward. I made small talk with the naked Aspenites, thinking "eye contact, eye contact." The woman in the group expounded on the high cost of living in Aspen, periodically thrusting her nipples above water. I looked up at the wrong moment, only to see a man's nether regions in full detail as he toweled off his foot. Eventually the nudes wandered off.

A new group of women in their 20s and 30s joined us in the hot springs, this time with bathing suits. Upset over the loss of the only "eye candy" at the campsite (a group of 20-something guys had left earlier that day), the women took comfort in large juice boxes of wine.

After about five hours of soaking, we retired to our campsite. Because we had chosen a spot close to the hot springs, fires were prohibited. We sat around for a while until the sun went down. It had been an exhausting, but highly rewarding day.

Not long after sunrise, snowflakes started to fall. I sauntered down the path to the empty hot spring and admired the steam rising off the water. Trekking to the hot springs, I mused, had been worth it after all.

We packed up our gear and embarked on the nine-mile hike back to our cars. Walking downhill proved notably easier. The stream crossings were uneventful with the exception of a heroic rescue of an escaped Croc. This time we barely stopped. We made it to the trailhead in three-and-a-half hours.

When we reached the cars, a sense of accomplishment flooded over me. We all hugged and congratulated each other for making it. We were starving, wet from the stream crossings and sporting some brutal hair dos, but it had been worth it. If nothing else, the trip would make for a good story.

High Life Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2938 or smausolf@vaildaily.com.

* 45-liter or larger backpack

* Small, lightweight tent

* Sleeping bag

* Small stove for boiling water

* Water filter

* Water bottle

* Food like jerky, trail mix, freeze-dried meals, power bars, summer sausage, dried fruit, hot chocolate/tea/coffee

* bathing suit (optional)

* Towel

* Hiking boots

* Pack flip flops or sandals for walking to and from the hot springs

* Pack Crocs, water shoes or spare sneakers for fording the streams

* Hat, gloves, scarf (It gets cold up there!)

* Raincoat

* Warm winter jacket (if it's waterproof it can double as rain coat)

* A few pairs of socks

* Shovel

* Booze (optional)

* Sunscreen

* Bug repellent

* Map (Though the trail is well-marked, it's nice to know where you are)


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The VailDaily Updated Aug 22, 2008 07:16PM Published Aug 22, 2008 07:06PM Copyright 2008 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.