Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
Incredible Backcountry Trails
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Distance: 17.6 miles
day 1: 7 1/2 hours
day 2: 7 1/4 hours
Elevations: 4,260 ft gain, 3060 ft loss
Conundrum Creek Trailhead (start): 8,760 ft.
Conundrum Hot Springs: 11,200 ft.
Triangle Pass: 12,900 ft.
Copper Creek Trailhead: 9,960 ft.
Trail: Popular, well maintained trail
Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The higher parts of the trail are usually covered with snow from November through mid-July.
Vicinity: Between Aspen and Crested Butte
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Aspen, probably the best known town in the Colorado Rockies, is famous largely because of its location on the northern edge of the spectacular Elk Mountains. Six of the state’s fabled 14,000-foot peaks are located in this range, including the Maroon Bells, the most recognizable of all of Colorado’s fourteeners. The area has long been noted for its scenic beauty, and in 1964 Congress established the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area south of Aspen. This was one of Colorado’s five original wilderness areas, and today it receives more visitors each year than any other Forest Service managed land in the state.
The crest of the Elk Mountains runs roughly in a northwest-southeast direction some 14 miles south of Aspen, and hikers often backpack across the mountains to the town of Crested Butte on the other side of the ridge. People interested in doing this trip generally have three trails to choose from.
The shortest route across the Elk Mountains is the 10-mile-long West Maroon Creek Trail, which begins ten miles out of Aspen on Maroon Creek Road. This trail follows West Maroon Creek to its source, then crosses West Maroon Pass and descends along the East Fork of the Crystal River to a trailhead near Schofield Pass. From there it is 14 miles by road to Crested Butte.
Also departing from the Maroon Creek Road is the East Maroon Creek Trail. This trail follows East Maroon Creek to its source, then climbs over the East Maroon Pass and descends along Copper Creek to the Copper Creek Trailhead nine miles north of Crested Butte.
The third route across the Elk Mountains is the Conundrum Creek trail that I will describe below. At 17.1 miles, this is the longest route from Aspen to Crested Butte, but in my opinion it is also the most interesting. The thing that makes the trail so special is that it offers an opportunity to spend a night camping near Conundrum Hot Springs.
At 11,200 feet above sea level the Conundrum Springs are the highest hot springs in Colorado and probably in the United States. They are situated near the headwaters of Conundrum Creek at the top of a valley that could not be more beautiful. An afternoon spent bathing in one of the springs’ pools, relaxing tired muscles while enjoying the fabulous view down Conundrum Valley, can be a truly memorable occasion.
Day 1 (8.3 miles)
From the trailhead the path proceeds southward up the wide, forested valley that surrounds Conundrum Creek. The classical U-shaped glacial valley is initially forested by large groves of aspen surrounding frequent open meadows, but as you go higher the forest becomes a patchwork of aspen and conifer. After 1.6 miles the trail passes the remains of two old log cabins in the center of a large meadow, then it ducks back into the trees again on the east side of the creek.
A mile beyond the cabins the trail crosses a log bridge to the west side of the creek. There are several large beaver dams just beyond the bridge. You probably won’t be lucky enough to see a beaver, but there must be many of them in this area.
One hour above the first bridge the trail comes to a second bridge where it crosses again to the east side of the creek. Pause here to study the skyline for a moment. Electric Pass, the highest named pass in Colorado, is the dip on the horizon due east of the second bridge. This 13,300-foot pass is easily reached by trail from its eastern side (see page 186), and a continuation of that trail descends the rocky slopes below the pass to meet the Conundrum Creek Trail 0.4 mile north of the bridge. The trail down from the pass is very primitive and steep, with a 900-foot talus slope of extremely unstable rock near the top. Occasionally an adventurous hiker will follow it down to the creek, but I have never heard of anyone climbing up to the pass on this trail.
The trail stays on the east side of the creek for another 20 minutes before crossing back again for the last 2.0 miles to the hot springs. As you approach the hot springs you will begin to see a series of numbered campsites on the left side of the trail. The Forest Service requires that campers near the springs stay in one of these established sites, but there is no reservation system in place so it is first-come-first-served. There are 18 of the sites, so unless you are there during the Labor Day weekend (the busiest time of the year for Conundrum Hot Springs) you should have no difficulty finding an unoccupied site. Camping in other areas is permitted only if your site is at least a quarter-mile from the hot springs.
As you pass campsites 4a and 4b you will see an old log cabin on the right, and just beyond the cabin the trail splits. The junction is clearly marked with a sign that shows the locations of the campsites. Bear left here for the last 150 yards to the hot springs.
As mentioned before, Conundrum Hot Springs is an exquisite place to spend an afternoon. There are four hiker-constructed pools at the springs with the largest being about 15 feet in diameter and 3 feet deep. The temperature is an ideal 100 degrees F, and the surrounding scenery is spectacular. Conundrum Peak (14,022 ft.) and Castle Peak (14,265 ft.) soar high above the east side of the creek, and to the north Conundrum Valley seems to stretch on forever. You are unlikely to find solitude at the springs, but for me that is not a distraction. An evening spent relaxing in the hot water talking to fellow hikers about the wonders of Colorado’s mountains can be very pleasant indeed.
Day 2 (9.3 miles)
On the west side of Conundrum Creek, 150 yards from the hot springs, you will see the trail junction with a sign indicating the way to Triangle Pass. Turn south at the junction to begin the climb up to the pass. Very soon the trail passes the last few Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir trees as it crosses above timberline and climbs up the west side of Conundrum Basin.
Ahead lies a confused jumble of alpine peaks and saddles; four major ridges come together above Conundrum Basin, and it is unclear at first which saddle the trail will use as it crosses over the crest of the Elk Mountains. Initially the path appears to be headed for Coffeepot Pass, the lowest pass to the other side. But a glance at a map will confirm that this route would lead to the West Brush Creek drainage. Just before reaching Coffeepot Pass the trail veers to the right and climbs another 160 feet to the top of Triangle Pass.
From the summit of Triangle Pass the path ahead is clearly visible for at least two miles. Although some sections have been severely damaged by rock slides the trail is well defined and it is obvious that a great deal of effort has been expended in building it. Just below the pass the trail turns west and begins a long traverse below the ridge as it descends gradually into the Copper Creek drainage. 0.6 mile from the top of the pass there is a trail junction where another trail ascends to the right over Copper Pass and eventually joins the East Maroon Creek Trail. The distinctive peak rising in the distance directly behind Copper Pass is Maroon Peak (14,156 ft.).
2.1 miles after leaving Triangle Pass the trail finally reaches timberline and enters a grove of trees. Within another 50 yards you will come to a signed trail junction where a spur trail to Copper Lake branches off to the right. If you are in a terrible hurry you can bypass the lake, but doing so would only save 0.4 mile, so it would be a shame not to see it. Turn right here and within 0.2 mile you will come to the East Maroon Pass Trail. Copper Lake is easily visible through the trees below this second junction.
By now you have probably become so spoiled by the incredible scenery on this hike that Copper Lake may be something of a disappointment to you. It is not the prettiest lake in the area, but it is still worth a look. It is also a fairly popular overnight stop for backpackers walking between Aspen and Crested Butte through East Maroon Pass, so you may see other people there. There are several established campsites just south of the lake.
Walk south from Copper Lake on the East Maroon Pass Trail and within 0.4 miles it will rejoin the Copper Creek Trail. From there it is a somewhat uneventful 3.8 miles down the Copper Creek drainage to Judd Falls, where another 0.7-mile spur trail will take you to the Copper Creek Trailhead.
The last four miles of this hike are, in my opinion, a huge disappointment. For one thing almost the entire distance is along an old mining road. This area is now part of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area and vehicles are no longer allowed on the road; nevertheless the scars from previous vehicles are so well established that it will take many more decades for them to disappear. Furthermore, the road generally stays far from the creek, seemingly following the least scenic part of the valley. But my greatest misgiving along this part of the hike is the presence of large numbers of cows. As you approach Judd Falls there are so many cows hanging around the trail that you may occasionally have to detour through the bushes to get around them. The cows uproot young trees, trample the ground cover, muddy the riparian areas, and generally degrade the wilderness experience to the point where you might as well be on a farm.
Shortly after exiting the wilderness area you will see a viewpoint above Judd Falls on the left. Until recently there was a trail from Judd Falls down to the town of Gothic, but in the late 1990s the land on the east side of town was acquired by the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and there is now a gate across this section of trail. A nearby sign directs hikers to a bypass trail that leads to the new trailhead northeast of Gothic. Follow this trail for ten minutes, past more cows, until you see a sign that says "Private Property: Access Courtesy of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory". (From the looks of the area the primary interest of scientists working for the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory must be to study the detrimental affects of overgrazing.) From the sign it is another 8-minute walk along another jeep road to the Copper Creek Trailhead.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Conundrum Creek - Gothic Trail
Aspen, Maroon Bells, Crested Butte (Trails Illustrated, maps #127, 128, 131)
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