Monday, January 10, 2011

Adventures (& Misadventures) to Conundrum Hot Springs

The minute I heard about it, I knew that I had to go.

At 11, 200 feet, Conundrum Hot Springs is the highest-elevation, natural hot springs in North America, nestled between aspen and pine trees, wildflowers bursting with color and alluring mountain peaks. Its beauty and seclusion draws many, but its travel requirements deter droves of people from visiting. Why? Because it involves a walk in the woods. Well, more like an eighteen-mile round-trip trek into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness of Colorado, with an elevation gain of about 2,700 feet.

As an outdoor enthusiast who moved to Colorado to hike, backpack, ski and enjoy the splendor of this sunny state, I immediately decided that this would be my first backpacking trip in my new home state (of seven months by that point). Screw an easy overnight trip in higher altitude. I wanted to visit this Holy Grail of a hot, natural bath spot.

I easily convinced an equally-outdoorsy friend, Erin, to join me on this backpacking adventure. And an adventure of misadventures it would be.

We loaded Erin’s mature Volvo with our gear, bursting with anticipation, and hit the road on a blistering hot day in Denver. The temperature was pushing 100 degrees. With the A/C blasting and conversation flowing, we headed into the mountains. Then, her car started stalling…and decided to call it quits. We pulled over, waited and tried to restart the car without luck. After frantic calls to the Mr. Fix-its in our lives – our dads – we still were without a running car. Thus, we turned to the next best thing – AAA.

About 30 minutes later a tow truck arrived, and we had already decided to return to Denver and get my car. Erin and I were not going to let this little hiccup stop us from soaking in those hot springs. Well, come to find out from the driver, her car was suffering from a thing called “vapor lock,” which can easily be remedied with a 45-minute wait of car silence. Apparently it’s very common in high altitude on hot, summer days, especially with cheap gas (and we saw many cars on the side of the highway that day). He pulled over as we neared a western suburb of Denver and discovered that her car was fine! Despite this good news, we still went and retrieved my Subaru, just to be safe.

So, a few hours later than planned, we were back on the road! The music was blaring, the sun was setting. As we neared Aspen, our last town stop before the trailhead, we picked up food for the trek. By that time (around 10 p.m.), we were starved since neither of us had eaten for several hours due to the misadventure. We headed to the Aspen town center and made a beeline for the first open place – a bar. They had to serve food, right? Oh, and ladies drink free. Sold.

Here, in our camping gear and flip flops, Erin and I walk into this establishment filled with trendy 20-somethings on a Friday night. Not out of place at all. But we still enjoyed our one free drink and some pizza.

From Aspen, we drove down a pitch-black road to find the trailhead for Conundrum Hot Springs. We had finally made it! But the catch? All of the parking spots were taken. Sh*t. So we had to create our own (legal) parking spot near some trees, not blocking any traffic.

Since it was past midnight, we just slept in the back of my Subaru. But I couldn’t stop staring at the stars. They littered the sky, twinkling so bright.

Groggily, we woke up the next morning to make our final preparations for our backcountry trip – packing the food, filling up on water and checking our bags to make sure that we had all of the essentials. That’s when I realized my water bladder was missing…mistakenly left on my kitchen counter filled with water. F*ck. Thankfully, I always bring extra Nalgene bottles so I was just going to have to survive off my two bottles and lots of filtered water.

As we stepped through the trees and on to the trail, the view literally took my breath away. It was a near blue-bird day, with only a few clouds dotting the sky. The mountains towered in the distance, sloping into an army of trees and vividly green fields. I really live here, and THIS is how I get to spend my weekends? Heaven.

Along the nine-mile trail, Erin and I crossed over several log bridges, passed hundreds of wildflowers, waded through a COLD creek, rock jumped through a pond and steadily climbed 2,700 feet. And, routinely, we couldn’t resist the temptation to stop and stare, enjoying the spectacular views and overwhelmingly beautiful solitude…and catch our breath and guzzle some water.

After four to five hours, we arrived at the fire-friendly campsite and setup camp. Next stop – the hot springs! And, oh, did we enjoy them. First, we slipped into the largest hot spring that offers a breathtaking view of the Rocky Mountains still patched with snow and the lush valley that we had ascended that morning. We literally soaked in the clothing-optional, 95-degree hot spring for almost five hours – chatting with the other hikers, admiring the beauty that surrounded us (and I’m not talking about the naked folks!) and regretting that we didn’t bring any wine to sip on.

I really didn’t want to pack up and leave the next morning. But we began our descent back to civilization. Clouds were rolling in, and we did NOT want to get caught in a storm. Thankfully for us, the rain and thunder did not begin until about two miles from the trailhead. As soon as we reached the car, we threw off our hiking boots and grabbed some water. And then a ranger – decked out with the outfit and hat -- came over to talk to us. We had forgotten our permits (whoops, Mr. Hot Ranger.), and he warned us about a SUV that was illegally parked further down the dirt road that potentially could block some cars from leaving the lot. He said that a tow truck had been called, but it may not arrive for a few hours. Seriously? We did not have a few hours since we were running low on water and food.

We investigated the scene with some other trekkers, and the blocking car was not in good shape. It had been scrapped and bumped by people trying to get by, keyed, and stacked with rocks and the oh-so glorious poop bags that hikers are asked to use. They sure were going to have more than one unpleasant surprise once they returned.

After watching a few vehicles skim by the car (talking inches here!) with some amateur four-wheeling moves, we decided my Forrester could make it. But I didn’t want to be behind the wheel, so one of the successful navigators who shimmied his way through the small space offered to help. The minutes passed by slowly, and from the passenger seat, I waited to see the outcome. And we got lucky – a freed car without injury. And that was the end of our misadventures, well minus 1-70 traffic delays and blistered feet.

For me, an adventure is almost not complete unless there are a few mishaps and delays. They’re great reminders that you cannot predict what will happen and why, sometimes, the journey is just as fun as the destination. And it doesn’t hurt to have a travel companion who can also “roll with the punches” and laugh about the absurdity of the situation.

I look forward to making an annual trek to Conundrum Hot Springs with Erin, my boyfriend and other friends…not only for the spring-soaking and awe-inspiring scenery, but also for the new stories and memories that I’m sure will come with each trip.

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