Anyone with a family understands how difficult it can be to get on the trail and take a trip to the backcountry. Recently me and my family took a trip to Colorado to see my brother and his family. This was the first time that our young girls had met and they got to enjoy some cousin time together. The plan was to spend a couple of days with them in Denver and then head west to Carbondale, where my in-laws had a nice little VRBO. Since my wife would be able to spend some time with her dad and stepmom, this was the perfect opportunity for me to escape to the woods! Being the cunning, advantageous husband I am, I managed to plan a three day backcountry trip through the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness during our week long stay in Carbondale. I am a lowlander and most times I hike barely above sea-level, so having the chance to do some hiking above 10,000 ft was too good to pass up.
I started looking around on some hiking sites and discovered the Conundrum trail which is just outside Aspen and 40 minutes from where we were staying. It has a beginning elevation of 8,760 ft and heads up to Conundrum Hot Springs at 11,200 ft. This trail was listed as 8miles long; great for a day hike but I really wanted to do a multi day backpacking trip. This would not do. After looking up some trail info on the US Forestry site, I saw that the Conundrum trail actually continues up another few miles to Triangle Pass at 12,992 ft. After that you decend down to Copper Lake and pick up the East Maroon trail that will take you to the Maroon Bells Scenic area. All in all it would be a 22 mile route that I could stretch out over 3 days and 2 nights. Perfect! I planned out my gear and had my in-laws carry it with them as they always drive on these trips. I brought along my double wall MSR Hubba NX tent (link to msr) instead of my DIY tarp shelter simply because I have no experience camping at this elevation. I packed my heavier rain jacket as well just in case the weather got nasty on the mountain pass, as I have read can happen…and it did.
My wife dropped me off at the Conundrum trailhead, and I was on the trail by 9:30am. The trail was well graded the whole way up to the hot springs, and I was pleasantly surprised it was not too challenging. It follows and crosses the Conundrum Creek for most of the way, with all of the crossing have either footbridges or is an easy stone step. This trail is popular with locals, and even being a weekday there was still a lot of traffic. I managed to make it to the hot springs by around 4pm, and chose to camp a little further up the trail, closer to Triangle Pass. I did not join the half naked group that filled the hot springs. I wanted to get to bed early, and was not interested acquiring whatever biological organisms were floating in that water. I chose to bring my 20 degree down sleeping bag and so glad I did because it got down into the upper 30’s that night. I had some trouble sleeping that first night. I was so excited to be camping at this elevation (over 11,200 ft) for the first time, and would be going over my first mountain pass at almost 13,000 ft!
Started raining lightly overnight and continued as I woke around 5:30am. Clouds had settled over the surrounding mountains and began to come up into the valley. I waited for the clouds to break so I could begin my approach to Triangle pass, and around 8:30am I set off from camp. Slowly I made my way through cold light rain and increasing winds. The clouds were still hanging around and they would stick around until I was well over the pass. I estimate the gusts were around 25 mph which felt stronger due to being totally exposed above tree line. I had never experienced anything like this and it was exhilarating! Although I’m sure locals who frequent the area would not be as impressed with these conditions. I came over the pass a couple of hours later and began my decent down to Copper Lake. The clouds began to lift as I was walking the backside of the mountains I had just crossed over.It was like a scene out of “The Lord of The Rings”. I spent the next few miles with a perma-smile on my face, as everywhere I looked was just amazing. I continued down to Copper Lake where I picked up the East Maroon trail that would take me back to the Maroon Bells Scenic Area where my wife would pick me up the next day. Copper Lake was a large pond basically, but had a really neat peninsula that was topped with a small hill covered in trees. I crossed over East Maroon pass at 11,820 ft and descended down in East Maroon Creek valley. Be prepared to stealth camp as there were no designated campsites in the valley.
I had around 6 miles left to get to the Scenic area and it was a nice easy walk through the valley. Aspen groves were scattered along the trail and the fall colors were beautiful! This was definitely a trip of many firsts for me and one I will never forget.
Now Back to the swamps!