It’s no secret that Conundrum Hot Springs is a popular spot for hikers and campers, so much so that the U.S. Forest Service said it’s losing the wilderness for a different kind of wild. This summer, officials are working on a permit system to try to preserve the fragile area.
There’s a bachelor party with a blow-up sex doll, libations — including moonshine tied to a sandal — wafting marijuana smoke, and about half of the 40 people packed into the pool are naked. It’s a rowdy pool party, but this scene is at a natural hot spring deep in a glacial valley in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, surrounded by fourteen-thousand foot peaks.
Conundrum is one of only two hot springs that sit in designated wilderness in Colorado, and Andrew Larson with the U.S. Forest Service said there are weekends, especially in the fall when the colors turn, when more than 300 people pack into the narrow glacial valley.
“One of the four things that we really try to preserve is a primitive experience, an experience of solitude,” Larson said. “This is mandated by Congress that we as managers preserve those experiences, and we’re clearly not achieving that goal up there.”
The U.S. Forest Service began collecting data on overnight use of this wilderness area more than a decade ago. Since 2005, use has gone up 285 percent, and rangers are dealing with a wide array of problems as a result: Overflowing parking lots, trash, habituated bears, noise, illegal camping, illegal campfires and human feces littering camping areas.
U.S. Forest Service ranger Eric Tierney said, for the most part, he loves his job.
“It just breaks my heart sometimes to see this area just getting abused a bit,” Tierney said. “It’s sad to see piles of human feces everywhere or green trees that have been chopped down. That’s probably my least favorite part of the job.”
Especially since he’s the one who has to pick it up. When Tierney is the ranger assigned to Conundrum, he talks to backpackers in the area. He checks to make sure that they have filled out a wilderness registration form, and that they are using bear-proof canisters, and in parting comments, always reminds them to bury human waste, including toilet paper. All of this in an effort to minimize human impact on the land.
Out of 19 contacts like this, Tierney wrote 12 tickets, mostly for not having a bear proof canister. Many campers are surprised by the statistics he provides, like that he carries out about 20 pounds of trash each time he comes up to Conundrum. Almost all the backpackers this weekend are from the Front Range or are visiting friends on the Front Range.
Word is out, and it seems the Internet hype is sending some mixed messages to those looking for a high-country hot springs experience. Justin Rau is from Oakland, California, visiting friends in Denver.
“We knew this was a popular spot and we wanted to come and see it,” Rau said.
U.S. Forest Service lead ranger Andrew Larson acknowledges that many campers come to the hot springs for the party scene.
“Conundrum has a unique demographic of all of the wilderness,” Larson said. “The people who go there are not always seeking a wilderness experience and people don’t understand we are required to provide a wilderness experience even if they’re not seeking a wilderness experience.”
In that spirit of the Wilderness Act of 1964, the U.S. Forest Service will establish a permitting system by next summer. The draft management plan is expected to be ready for public comment in the next few months.
Many campers, like Jeremy Bookman from Boulder, seem open to the idea. Bookman soaked in the springs at about 9 at night, hanging on the edges of the crowd and watching the liquor float around the pool. He said he’s all for permitting.
“Yeah, it’d make it inconvenient, but it’d also make it all that more special,” Bookman said.
The next morning, ranger Tierney is up early picking up trash and writing tickets for the late-arrivers who camped illegally about 30 feet from the springs. There are only rumors and memories of last night’s party. Pamela Reese and her boyfriend soak up the sunrise alone in the springs. She said she’s already heard about the party the night before.
“Evidently [it was] a lot of fun, like 40 people passing around moonshine, which -- that sounds great and all, but I’d way rather be here for this. Damn near pristine,” Reese said. “And the park rangers just came and picked up all the trash that was here, so it’s even more beautiful.”
Tierney and Larson both hope that the permitting system will give space for that pristine solitude, but without the rangers taking care of the housekeeping. Morgan Reeser from Carbondale said it’s time for permitting.
“You know, just like children, if you’re gonna act like a child, your privilege is going to be taken away,” Reeser said.