Conundrum Hot Springs is one of the most popular backpacking trips in Colorado. It is in the Maroon-Bells Wilderness in Aspen, near the Four Pass Loop (another very popular backpacking route). A friend was lucky enough to snag the highly coveted Conundrum permit and invited me to join her. Even though I’m not a big fan of hot springs, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

The wildflower in early July

The Nitty Gritty

Length: 16.9 mi
Elevation gain: ~3000 ft
Route type: Out & back
Trailhead: Aspen, CO (map)

Permits: Permits are required year round from to camp overnight. These permits are hot ticket items so make sure you get online as soon as permits are released to snag them. Overnight campers are required to reserve and camp in designated sites. Depending on the site the maximum number of people allowed vary from 2-6. We encountered rangers hiking in AND out so yes they patrol to check permit and to make sure you have a plan for food storage and waste.

Food and waste: Proper bear containers are required (a small bear can was enough for both of us – buy it here). In addition, packing out your waste (including poop) is highly recommended. They have wag bags at the trailhead, but bring your own just in case they ran out.

Campsites (map): The first campsite you encounter is #20. Don’t get too excited yet, it’s still a 15 min walk to the hot springs and you’ll pass more numbered sites along the way. Campsite 9-20 range from 1/4 mile to 3/4 mile from the hot springs so keep that in mind. Site #7-8 are the closest imo, and #4-6 are located on a small rise not too far from the springs. During peak season (June 1st- September 1st) there is a maximum stay of 3 nights. If your campsite is uphill from the hot spring (sites 1-11), it should be easy to collect water from Conundrum Creek upstream from the spring.

Where to stay the night before: Aspen is also a long drive from Denver and we wanted to have an early start at the trailhead. So my friend booked a room in Basalt, a town near Aspen.

Difficulty: At 8-9 miles, the trail to Conundrum is probably the most distance I’d like to do in one day with a heavy pack. Even though the trail doesn’t have steep ups and downs, the 3000 ft elevation gain is nothing to scoff at. It is doable as a first backpacking trip if you are fit and used to the altitude. Pack light and take your time.

Gear List: Don’t forget your rain jacket and pack cover. Some people brought water shoes/Tevas for river crossings and trips to the hotsprings. Bug spray (we like this DEET-FREE one from Sawyer – link). Waterproof sack to keep your wet clothes. Bear can and wag bags.

After a good night rest in Basalt, we got to the small-ish parking lot at 8am and it was already quite busy. We were able to snag one of the last 2 parking spots. One thing I quickly learned after moving here, often times parking is the most-stressful/most-annoying thing about hiking in Colorado.

The hike begins with a mild grade through meadows, along Conundrum Creek, and through stands of aspen trees. I made a mental note to try to come back in the Fall because I think it’ll be amazing here.

Lots of wildflowers and epic views of the snowy mountains kept us company during the first third of the hike. There are 4 river crossings total. The 3rd crossing proved to be the trickiest. The water was knee-high, cold and moving fast. Some care was definitely required in navigating the crossing. After the crossing we had our lunch sitting on some dawned logs while watching other backpackers crossing the river.

While the trail is always technically at an incline, the increase in grade actually becomes more noticeable after this crossing.

After lots more uphill hiking, we finally reached the first group of campsite. I was getting quite tired and admittedly impatient for the hike to be over. However, the trail continues through a forest – quite pretty actually – and we passed more campsites along the way. Ours was #4 and it felt like we were never going to reach it. We saw the hot springs, which are at an elevation of 11,200 feet. Our site however was an additional 300 feet up a steep trail above the springs.

I was quite happy with our campsite but the bugs made it hard to sit and hang out for long. We set up our tent, filtered water, and quickly went down the trail to check out the hot springs. The largest pool can fit maybe 15 people. The setting is quite scenic, overlooking the valley we just came from with snow capped peaks around us. The water was hot and it felt heavenly sinking into the water.

The hot water feels so good after a long hike – at Conundrum Hot Springs

Conundrum Hot Springs is clothing optional and there were quite a few people enjoying the springs au naturel. The atmosphere was social and we got to learn a little bit about everyone there.

As the sun went down the air got chilly and it became much harder to leave the springs. After multiple attempts at leaving and chickening out at the last minute (I so hate the cold), I finally decided that it wasn’t going to get better unless I’m planning to spend the night in the pool. Besides, dinner was calling.

After dinner my friend wanted to go for another soak. I opted for a partial one.

The next day we decided not to go for another soak, and instead we quickly broke camp and started hiking out. We got intermittent rain on our hike out which was nice and helped made the hike out seemed shorter. As in many other backpacking trips, the promise of food at the finish line is the greatest motivation. As a matter of fact, the topic of meals dominated our conversation on the trail: where to go eat, what kind of food, beer or no beer? Definitely beer.

We got back to the parking lot in the afternoon and headed straight to a brewpub where I ordered beer and all the fried food.

All in all I’m glad I did it. I can see why Conundrum is such a popular destination: a natural hot spring in a beautiful setting, what’s not to like? Would I go back? Probably not. The permit is too much of a hassle and Colorado has too many other great trails that I want to explore.

Read more Colorado adventures: Backpacking Four Pass Loop, Offroading in the San Juan, the One Million Dollar Highway.