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Conundrum at Conundrum Hot Springs: Are We Loving Them to Death?

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Conundrum Hot Springs party people, mid-August. Photo: Will McGough

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.

sms