Picture this: You're in a warm pool of water, elbow to elbow with dozens of other people. There's music, drinking, general mayhem. Oh, and maybe you’re naked. If you’re picturing a Spring Break party, you’re wrong.
Try Conundrum Hot Springs outside Aspen, Colorado.
The high alpine pool draws thousands of visitors from around the world every summer and fall. As visitation numbers spike, the U.S. Forest Service, the federal agency tasked with maintaining the area’s wild character, says the hot springs’ popularity threatens the very things that make it unique.
On a cool, clear night in July, about 20 people were soaking in the pool, nestled at the top of a valley carved by glaciers, just above tree line. Revelers pass bottles of booze around. A bachelor party brought an inflatable sex doll.
Jeremy Bookman of Boulder is among those soaking after the 9-mile trek through the backcountry, lugging his gear to his camp spot at more than 11,000 feet in elevation.
“I’ve heard about Conundrum for years and years and always wanted to do it,” Bookman says.“It’s just legendary, to do an overnight to a hot springs this deep into the mountains.”
At first he thought he might luck out and get a weekend of solitude in the mountains. But when he started Googling for directions, photographs of a jam-packed hot springs popped up. It’s the middle of summer, on a Saturday night.
“Of course everyone’s going to want to do this,” he says.
On summer and fall weekends upwards of 300 people pack into this tight valley. Because of the high number of visitors, Conundrum’s built up a reputation, says Eric Tierney, a wilderness ranger with the Forest Service in nearby Aspen.
“It’s incredibly beautiful up here,” Tierney says. “It’s remote. And somewhere along the line it just started to attract more of a party crowd.”
Tierney has the unenviable task at Conundrum of being both rule enforcer and housekeeper. He writes citations for missing bear-proof canisters, required for food storage in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass wilderness, and for illegal camping, when he sees tents and tarps set up outside of designated campsites, of which there are 18. Even when he’s technically off duty for the night, he approaches the steady stream of weary hikers who venture near the springs after dark, looking for a place to camp. One young woman clutches just a sleeping bag as she looks around for a spot.
“Even tonight, it’s like, ‘Where are we going to put everyone?’” Tierney says.
Conundrum’s always been popular. But as it’s craggy cliffs, crystal-clear streams, wildflower fields and nude bathing have shown up more on the pages of glossy outdoor magazines and in Instagram posts, the crowds have swelled. In the last 10 years, visitation has risen four-fold.
“They’re having a great time, which is totally fine,” Tierney says. “It’s just when people stop taking care of the area, stop picking up their trash, not bury their human waste, that it starts to become a lot of problems.”
Last year alone, rangers cleaned up hundreds of piles of human waste. Between Conundrum Hot Springs and the nearby Four Pass Loop, rangers packed out more than 500 pounds of garbage. People will sometimes abandon whole campsites, including Weber grills and full-size air mattresses, rather than pack them back out, leaving rangers like Tierney to clean up the mess.
“Our job is unique because our packs get heavier as we go because we’re always packing out trash,” he says.
Add on the impacts to the fragile alpine ecosystem -- campers stripping trees to build illegal campfires and setting up tents on tundra -- and Conundrum is at serious risk of losing the very things that make it special, Tierney says.
Morgan Reeser and Allan Jameson, of nearby Carbondale, met at Conundrum three years ago. The couple says even in that short time they’ve seen the hot springs change.
“Very rarely have we been here when it’s not busy,” Jameson says. “It’s just been getting busier every year.”
“Honestly, I almost didn’t even want to come up this weekend. Like I don’t know if I even want to bother with it. Like people drinking and smoking. And I don’t want to sit in a crowded tub either,” Reeser adds.
If the Forest Service has its way, it could soon be a lot less busy at Conundrum. The agency is exploring how a permit system might be used to control the number of people who camp here and they’re making moves to put that system in place. Yet the details would be figured out in a public comment period that has not yet begun. Right now it’s a free-for-all. There’s a high demand for these so-called “marquee” wilderness locations, and Jameson says at some point, something has to give.
“I think it’s challenging to make any kind of resolution about this because so many more people are moving to Colorado. It’s inevitable what’s going to happen,” Jameson says.
The use of permits for high-use areas isn’t a new idea in the West. Long raft trips along the Colorado, Green and San Juan rivers require permits. So do popular camping spots in national parks across the country.
The problems faced by sites like Conundrum will only get worse as cities in Colorado balloon in population, says Sloan Shoemaker, director of Wilderness Workshop a Carbondale, Colorado-based conservation group.
“We’ve long advocated for the recreation-based economy as an alternative to the extraction based economy -- logging, mining, damming -- as more sustainable, but now we’re getting to the point where we’re extracting our experiences out of the resource too and it’s having its impact,” Shoemaker says.
At the hot springs, several people soaking essentially agree. They say rangers should crackdown on the number of people allowed.
“Unfortunately when things gets super popular, there’s a chance for a delicate spot like this to be ruined,” Jeremy Bookman says.
For this trip, Bookman came up on a whim, packing up the car and making the four-hour drive from the Front Range. Under a permit system, he wouldn’t be able to be as spontaneous. And that’s OK with him.
“Yeah, it’d be inconvenient, but it’d also be that much more special.”