By Will McGough, Wake and Wander
Sitting in the nearly 100-degree water, among several naked bathers in the Conundrum Hot Springs near Aspen, Colorado, I looked around at the pine trees and boulders and white clouds over the mountains, the green of the valley below and the tight groups of Aspen trees. It’s not hard to figure out why so many people are willing to walk 8.5 miles to get here.
The secluded location simultaneously relaxes and excites, the booze sipping and joint passing further fueling the overwhelming feelings of freedom that the springs incite. The beauty and brightness of the large valley provoke a free spirit in all its visitors—it’s almost as if nature is calling you to go on, cut loose.
And cut loose they do, both in a good way and a bad way. Uniting with a hundred people in the middle of nowhere seemed to me even more special (and rare) than two days of solitude. But popularity can certainly tear something down in a hurry. Overuse has become a problem in the eyes of the U.S. Forest Service, the increase in human presence degrading the once pristine valley.
Andrew Larson, lead wilderness ranger for the Aspen-Sopris District, told the Aspen Times in May that maintaining the natural conditions at Conundrum is difficult due to the remote location and newfound fame. “We're supposed to provide for a primitive experience,” he said. “A lot of people come up here for a party experience.”
This year has been especially tough for the Forest Service. Not only is it unable to consistently station rangers at Conundrum during the summer months due to a lack of funds, about a dozen cows froze to death near the springs this winter. The animals were part of a herd that a rancher lost last fall. The Forest Service has done its best to remove the carcasses from the camping areas, but during my stay in mid-August there was one literally 20 yards from my tent, and another within eyesight of the flowing river. The rotting corpses are obviously a threat to the water sources in the area, but luckily there have been no reports of contamination as of the publication of this post.
The human impact, on the other hand, is a different story. It seems the party atmosphere is drowning out any sense of responsibility. The next morning I found cans, wine bags, and food containers left in and around the springs where a party had taken place the previous night. And believe me, it was some party—there were close to 50 people in the springs from sunset until long after midnight.
I’m not here to tell people to stay home, I’m here to tell them to show a little respect, mostly because the consequences of the careless behavior are already being felt and more restrictions may be just around the corner. Dogs are banned within 2.25 miles of the springs, but during my stay I saw several, and no Forest Service rangers to enforce the policy. The agency is trying to figure out how to better manage the area and mitigate the environmental impact of its overuse—it’s even considering enforcing rules that would require visitors to pack out human waste. Larson hinted to the Aspen Times that limiting use of the area might be the only option for preserving the landscape. “We’ve done everything we can,” he said.
Conundrum, which at 11,200 feet is the highest natural hot springs in North America, appears to have survived another summer without a major incident, but it seems obvious that the area is in worse shape today than it was in May.
To visitors: Lose your clothes and your inhibitions, but don’t lose sight of why you’re there in the first place. Cut loose, but clean up. Pack it in, pack it out. Put your foot down when you see others not following suit. Bury human waste and leave no trace, or be prepared to enter a reality where a place even as remote as Conundrum becomes subject to strict regulations. The saddest thing, in my opinion, is that the damage is being caused by those who supposedly love nature, by those who consider an 18-mile walk in the woods to be part of a relaxing weekend.
We are, it seems, loving Conundrum to death.