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Fewer people, less ruin: A case for Conundrum's permit system

The popular hot springs near Aspen has run into overcrowding and other issues in recent years, prompting a permit system that started this summer.
Credit: Bobbi Sheldon, KUSA
Conundrum Hot Springs.

ASPEN, CO — A few weeks ago, I got the chance to hike and camp at one of Colorado’s most picturesque spots: Conundrum Hot Springs near Aspen.

The more than 8-mile hike one-way through the Snowmass Aspen Wilderness (my GPS mapped closer to 9.2 miles each way) is something I’ve wanted to do since moving to Colorado more than three years ago.

I had heard the horror stories about trash being left at campsites, human waste being found near the hot springs, people bringing their dogs to the area despite multiple signs warning that they’re not allowed, erosion along the trail and general overcrowding.

Remember this scene?

Credit: Courtesy US Forest Service
Campers at Conundrum Hot Springs near Aspen.

All of that led way to a new permit system where those wanting to stay overnight had to apply for a camping spot in advance. The $10 permits are now required year-round.

So when the permits went on sale at the beginning of the summer, I decided to jump on the chance to go.

And from what I could tell during a Sunday in late July is that the permit system seems to have set out what it intended to do – reduce overcrowding and help preserve a wonderful stretch of Colorado wilderness.

The hike to Conundrum Hot Springs

We started the hike a little before 7 a.m. after grabbing some WAG bags that were available at the trailhead. (Pack in pack out!)

We hiked through a mix of meadows and forest for the first two hours without seeing another soul – which, when hiking in Colorado, can be rare.

Credit: Bobbi Sheldon, KUSA

The people we did see were coming down from the hike and were friendly and encouraging – assuring us that the trek was worth it for the warm hot springs at the top.

About 4.5 miles into the hike, we crossed paths with two park rangers who were eager to check our permit and make sure we had a bear canister. They both echoed how, so far, the permit system has been well-received.

Up until that point we had seen only four backpackers, all of whom were heading back out of the trail. The trial was clean, narrow and offered stunning views of surrounding mountains and wildflowers at nearly every turn.

Near the first major creek crossing, a group of day hikers passed us going toward the springs. Those same four hikers were also the only ones at the main hot spring when we arrived near our campsite a few miles later.

Credit: Bobbi Sheldon, KUSA
Views from the Conundrum Creek Trail.

The last mile was almost entirely uphill with loose rocks lining the path. By the time we got to our campsite and unpacked, we were more than ready to relax in the hot springs.

In the three times we returned to the springs during our trip, by far the busiest time was at dusk where about 12 people were in the springs. But everyone there was cool and happy to make room.

One guy offered me wine from a bag while another recounted his trip to the springs back in the 70s after climbing Castle Peak. The night was cut short by some lightning overhead, but views of the stars were among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

Despite having a permit to stay two nights, we opted to head out the next morning due to storms in the forecast. It was the perfect 32-hour getaway.

A couple takeaways from the trip

I didn’t see any trash by the springs, any dogs running loose or any people being blatantly disrespectful. Those who had brought beverages to the springs packed it out.

Most people were kind, courteous and followed the rules. The only visible trash was a single cigarette butt we noticed next to the trail while hiking out.

And even though we packed bug spray, biting flies and mosquitoes were somewhat of an annoyance the closer we got to the springs.

Credit: Bobbi Sheldon, KUSA

Compared to what I had heard from co-workers, read online and expected going into it, there were far fewer people on the trail than I anticipated.

Of course, there will always be cases where this doesn’t hold true, but overall it seems like the permit system is a step in the right direction for those who want to keep Colorado’s most beautiful places in good shape for years to come.

Have your own Conundrum Hot Springs story? Send me a note at bobbi.sheldon@9news.com