Conundrum trailhead area closed southwest of Aspen due to avalanche damage
The Conundrum Creek Trailhead and parking area 7 miles southwest of Aspen was closed indefinitely Thursday by the U.S. Forest Service after it was buried earlier this month by a massive avalanche.
Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer issued a temporary closure order to prevent people from driving up there to check out conditions or if they are using the trail.
“The key now is there’s absolutely no parking up there,” Schroyer said. “I had to close the trailhead because it doesn’t exist. It’s gone.”
An avalanche estimated at a mile wide broke on Highlands Ridge late March 8 or early March 9. The snow converged in the K-Chutes and Five Fingers area and rumbled down more than 3,000 vertical feet to the valley floor. The trailhead is now part of a vast debris field in the valley floor covered in snow 15 to 30 feet in depth that settled like concrete.
Schroyer said she considered closing the trail but decided not to take action until conditions can be further assessed. For now, the Forest Service wanted to send a message that no one should drive into the area because there is no parking without trespassing on private property and turning around is difficult.
In theory, Schroyer said, a person could get dropped off at Castle Creek Road and Conundrum Creek Road and hike the extra mile to where the trailhead used to be. The Forest Service has taken reservations from 15 individuals or groups between now and April 20 for campsites at the popular Conundrum Hot Springs, 8.5 miles south of the trailhead. Those parties are being contacted and told about the closure and conditions in the valley.
Schroyer said she would advise people to stay out of the Conundrum backcountry because of the risk of additional avalanches and the difficulty of crossing debris. There are several avalanche paths on the steep valley walls up to Silver Dollar Pond, 6 miles up the valley.
Schroyer said the trailhead would be closed for an unknown amount of time. It could be summer or fall before parking can be restored.
“We are anticipating debris and damage at the trailhead and parking area when the snow melts,” Schroyer said in a statement. “The trees are virtually gone from both sides of the drainage. We assume that hundreds, if not thousands, of trees are buried under compacted snow and other debris. We are up against a big challenge this summer to restore vehicle access at the trailhead.”
The parking area used to be surrounded by mature trees. Now it is barren.
If the Forest Service finds a significant amount of trees covering the lower trail, it will consider expanding the area of the closure.
“We may have to close the trail,” Schroyer said.
The Forest Service will still accept reservations for Conundrum Hot Springs campsites, but people must be aware of the challenges, Schroyer said. There is access to the hot springs via the Copper Lake Trail on the Crested Butte side, but that is a tougher hike than Conundrum Creek Valley and assuredly affected by avalanches, Forest Service officials said. The hike to the hot springs is about 8 miles from the Gothic Trailhead.
At the Conundrum Trailhead, the avalanche deposited deep snow and debris for about half a mile. One of the foremost avalanche experts in the U.S., Art Mears, visited the site last week and said he feels it could have been a 300-year event, given the volume of snow and the destruction.
The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District said other trailheads and facilities likely have suffered damage from avalanches.
“We expect that downed trees and debris will be a challenge on our trails and roads across the district,” said Shelly Grail, recreation manager for the district. “We will prioritize our work based on the areas of highest use, extent of damage and employee capacity.”
With many lingering questions still surrounding the fate of Aspen’s historic Old Powerhouse, City Council decided during Monday’s work session to hold off on providing staff direction on moving the preservation project forward until more information can be presented.