The hike from the Conundrum Trailhead to Conundrum Hot Springs is roughly 8.5 miles. Round trip is at least 17 miles of hiking. I say AT LEAST as I have been on plenty of hikes where side excursions, both planned and unplanned, lead to covering a total distance that exceeded the official distance of the hike.
Due to the distance, and the destination, nearly all the people we encountered on this hike were backpacking. This is an attractive option, as the trail is pretty long but not terribly challenging, and the hot springs are the kind of destination one would want to spend a significant amount of time at. However, Conundrum Hot Springs is a popular destination, and there are limited camping sites in the immediate vicinity of the springs.
Conundrum Hot Spring is close to Aspen, which is three and a half hours from Denver. Some of the people in our group, myself included, were not able to leave early enough on Friday for us to be confident that we could secure a camping spot. We ended up deciding to find a campground somewhat close to the trailhead, and hike to and from the springs as a day hike. As an added bonus, we would not have to bring, or carry nearly as much equipment, as we would be “car camping”. The hike would be both easier and harder. We would not be carrying nearly as much weight, but we would be cramming 17 miles of hiking into one day.
Up in the mountains of Central Colorado, trees change color earlier in the Fall than they do in many other parts of the Country. In general, the second half of September, and maybe the first few days of October, is the best time to see the Aspen trees here change colors. I was partially surprised by how vibrant the colors were, by September 16th. For the first two hours or so of the drive, before sunset, we saw a preview of the kind of colors we’d be seeing during the hike, certainly early season, but vibrantly colorful, with sections of bright yellows and oranges periodically appearing in front of us.
To be sure we would have enough time, we had to wake up, eat breakfast and leave the campground at Lincoln Creek (dispersed camping roughly 40 minutes from the trailhead) all before sunrise. We arrived at the trailhead and started hiking at roughly 15 minutes after 7 A.M.
The morning chill was both an obstacle and a boost. Overnight temperatures dropped to roughly 30F (-1C) at the campground. For the first 90 minutes of the hike, the ground was covered in frost. In fact, the frost even made our first river crossing a bit slippery.
This morning cold made me cary several layers, adding a little bit to the weight of my backpack (although it was still way, way, lighter than it would have been had we been backpacking). However, the cold weather motivated us to begin our hike at a rapid pace.
We would cover over four miles before we even reached the sun!
I would describe at least the first five miles of the hike as “easy” from the standpoint of evolution gain.
Many sections of the trail are actually close to perfectly flat, giving me plenty of time to take in the natural beauty that is around me, and also connect with my friends who I was hiking with. When hiking, it is challenging to have a conversation when hiking up steep terrain, but fairly easy to do so in largely flat sections.
The appearance of small lakes precludes the transition to the more challenging part of the trail.
This occurs somewhere around six and a half miles into the hike. First of all, there are sections that are more technically challenging, including a couple of tricky creek crossings, and a section where one must scramble over rocks.
There last two miles of the trail also includes some fairly steep sections. I wouldn’t say they are overly challenging, but in the context of a 17 mile day that included hiking at a rapid pace towards the beginning, they ended up being fairly exhausting.
We ended up spending roughly two hours at the hot springs (including changing and eating lunch). There were a lot of people in the hot springs, but it was not as crowded as some of us had feared.
For a variety of reasons, the fall colors appeared even more magnificent on the way back down! The most significant reason had to be the manner in which the trees appeared in the mid-afternoon sun.
I was also pleasantly surprised to see a significant amount of deep orange shades. In prior experience with fall in the Rockies, I had almost exclusively seen the yellow shade that seems to be the most common fall color for Aspen trees. While “autumn gold” is pretty, I had, in some ways, missed wide variety of shades that leaves on maple trees take on during fall.
I would definitely describe the color we enountered as “early season”. There were still many Aspen trees primarily shaded green, particularly at lower elevations. This indicates that the next two weekends could be just, or perhaps even more, colorful! The colorful trees, the yellows and the oranges, tended to be those higher up. The several patches of deep shaded orange I saw were nearly exclusively up closer to the tree line.
Both the hike up to the hot springs and the return trip took roughly four hours.
We got back to the trailhead sometime just after 5 P.M., and, after the 40 minute drive back to Lincoln Creek, I finally got to see what the campground looked like. And I got to do something I had not previously done. I got to park my car with the rear left tire on top of a rock, showing off just how rugged my vehicle is. Well, at least in an auto show pamphlet sort of way.
Capping off an exhausting day was a side excursion, to a waterfall, well, multiple waterfalls, that those of us in our group lucky enough to be able to leave early Friday had located roughly a quarter of a mile from the campground. In fact, they hyped this place up over the course of the hike. So, we had to go. Additionally, this side excursion was enough for me to achieve something meaningless, but also something I am likely never again to achieve. I recorded 50,000 steps on that step counter thing that comes with every iPhone6. Yay me!
We would explore this likely unnamed waterfall area again Sunday morning before departing for Denver.
If you count all the places where water squirts out of random places in the rock, there are probably close to a dozen “waterfalls” in this area. What a great unexpected treat!
The return trip on Sunday was eventful as well, with some great stops at Independence Pass and Twin Lakes, both places I had driven by on Friday, but after the sun had already set.
I titled this blog “The Longest Day Hike of My Life”, as, well, I can not picture a day where I hike more than 17 miles on a day trip. However, I probably would have never imagined hiking 17 miles in one day a few years back, so there is no way to definitively say never. I am prepared, though, for this to be my longest hike, and understand the significance of it. Like many of the adventures I had over the course of this summer, and in previous years, it was both exhausting and amazing. But, most worthwhile experiences, from relationships to starting successful businesses and such, are. Being exhausted after this experience should be a reminder to all of us that what is easiest is often the least rewarding, and that which is most challenging often comes with the greatest reward.