By Hannah Lehr.
Zapata Falls is a 30-foot waterfall nestled in Colorado’s Sangre De Crisco Mountains. This hidden gem is 20 minutes away from the Great Sand Dunes National Park, and it makes for a great stop on the way to the park. This short hike will only take 30 minutes to an hour out of your day, depending on how long you take to soak in the views. Not only are the falls beautiful, but the hike also boasts incredible views of the San Juan Valley below.
The Zapata Falls trailhead is located East of the town of Mosca and 12 miles South of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. When following Route 150 to the Dunes, you will see the sign on your right for Zapata Falls Recreation Area. Turn here and follow the dirt road.
You will need to follow this dirt road up the mountain for about 3.5 miles to get to the trailhead. There are a lot of rocks and potholes to watch out for. I would say any passenger car would do just fine, so long as you take it slow. This is not a road for your Miata or lowered BMW. You will follow this road until you reach the parking lot. There are plenty of pull-offs to admire the Dunes from above as you drive 1,000 feet into the air.
Parking can be quite limited. There are about 24 spots, but for how popular this hike is, it can fill up at times. Head to the falls on a weekday or early in the morning to beat the crowds. The trailhead is at the top of the parking lot next to the pit toilets.
The trail itself is a moderately easy, .8 mile out-and-back trail. The part that proves to be difficult is when you must traverse the frigid river into a cave to reach the secluded falls. Even if you choose not to walk through the river, you can still watch the beautiful, glacial river flow.
Best Times to Visit
Zapata Falls can be enjoyed all year round, but it is especially great during the summer and winter months. In the summer, it is great to cool down in the cold, glacial falls. The water levels are high and expect to wade through water to reach the base of the falls.
Hikers also experience a huge temperature drop as they drive up the mountain, which can be really refreshing on a hot summer day. The downside to visiting during the summer is that the trail is especially busy during this time. Many people come from the sunbaked Dunes looking to cool off in the falls. Nonetheless, this is the best time to visit where the water is bearable.
On the flip side, winter is also a great time to visit. Though driving up the dirt road is quite terrifying in the winter, you’re guaranteed to be one of the few people on the hike. This is a great time to visit the falls if you do not want to get wet, as the falls are completely frozen in the winter. It is an incredible experience to trek across the frozen river to this huge column of ice growing along the canyon.
Visiting in the spring will ensure lower water levels, which will allow you to reach the base of the falls by only getting your feet wet. From here, you will be able to climb to the second level of the falls. This is an incredible viewpoint, and the sheer power of the falls is overwhelming! It still may be cold this time of year, so dress appropriately.
Visiting in the fall will give you that beautiful, golden foliage that is iconic to Colorado. Depending on how late into the fall it is, the water levels may still be high and will start to freeze as winter approaches.
Weather and Appropriate Dresswear
Expect the temperature to drop 10 degrees once you reach the parking lot, and another 5-10 once you reach the falls. On a hot summer day, you can get away with wearing shorts and a T-Shirt on this hike, but do not expect the water in the falls to ever be warm.
It’s best to wear crocs or water shoes, as you will be traversing a creek and wading through chest-level water if you want to reach the actual base of the falls. Although the water can be refreshing after a balmy day, it can also be quite chilly once you’ve been wet for a while. I suggest bringing a towel and sweatshirt if you do decide to wade to the base of the falls.
In the Spring and Fall, I recommend a rain jacket and rain boots to prevent you from getting too wet and cold. It’s hard to not get wet on this hike, which can really suck when it is so cold outside. In the Winter, be sure to bundle up and expect frigid temperatures! Trekking poles are recommended because the frozen river can be quite slippery.
Must-Dos at Zapata Falls
Zapata Falls is a special place among the locals and is a bucket-list destination for many travelers. The hike is particularly awesome because of how easy and accessible it is up to the river. Viewing the falls and admiring the canyon that shelters it is just one of the many things to do at Zapata Falls.
Besides the falls, there are plenty of gorgeous views on this hike! From the parking lot, be sure to catch the incredible viewpoint of the Dunes from above. This is the best viewpoint of the Dunes in Colorado, and they look so small from the top of the mountains.
Admire the San Juan Valley below, and the San Juan Mountains in the distance. This is an especially gorgeous view in the Fall with the golden foliage. There are plenty of cliffside pull-offs to take photos of the valley with an unobstructed view.
For seasoned hikers, try the nearby South Zapata Trail. This 7-mile trail not only takes you to the falls, but also to South Zapata Lake. This emerald, green lake is worth the trek if you’re looking for a day-long backpacking trip, or an overnight camping trip. Finishing at Zapata Falls is a fantastic way to cool off after the long hike.
My Personal Key Highlights
I personally had a blast traversing through the river. I visited during late September, and the temperature was about 50 degrees. It was quite cold, but I ignored the fact that I could not feel my feet in my crocs and kept going. I was able to make it a few feet from the base of the falls, where I was up to my knees in water. I was awe-struck by the echoes of the falls against the rock walls, and the beauty of the crystal clear water flowing through the canyon.
I especially appreciated the adrenaline rush I received from this hike. Reaching the falls felt like an adventure, and it was surely rewarding to see them for myself. This really made the hike unique. Also, most people don’t wade too deep in the water, so I had the falls to myself for a good twenty minutes!
Lastly, I enjoyed the drive up to the parking lot. Although scary, I appreciated the incredible views of the valley and sand dunes that I didn’t need to work particularly hard for.
Things Visitors Should Be Aware Of
Although the hike up to the river is easily accessible for anybody, walking back and forth across the river can prove to be difficult. To see the falls, you must traverse through the river. Be careful, as the rocks can be very slippery. It is best to wear water shoes, as your feet will get wet. Older people and small children may not be able to make it to the falls.
The water is cold year-round, and the temperature drops drastically as you reach the falls! Make sure to dress accordingly.
Parking can be limited, especially in the Summer and on Weekends. There are pit toilets located in the parking lot.
Visiting Zapata Falls is completely free for all visitors, and dogs are allowed so long as they are leashed.
Vehicles with very abnormally low clearance may not be able to make it up the road to Zapata Falls. Normal passenger vehicles should do just fine but drive slowly.
While Visiting Zapata Falls, Also Check Out…
Obviously, a trip to Zapata Falls isn’t complete without a visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Soak up the sun by hiking to Star Dune and visit the falls afterwards to cool off. The park entrance is located 12 miles from the falls and can be reached by continuing straight on Route 150.
There are also incredible camping opportunities near Zapata Falls. Primitive spots at Zapata Falls Campground can be booked online and go for $11 a night. At these spots, there are only a picnic table and a fire ring, so be prepared. This is a great place to base yourself for exploring the falls as well as the Sand Dunes.
If camping isn’t quite your style, there are plenty of accommodation options in nearby Alamosa and Mosca.
Dunes Inn is a great place to stay that is in downtown Alamosa. This hotel is a budget option with small-town hospitality and prices. It is only 2 miles from the airport, and is an excellent option for somebody flying in. For a pricier option, try Fairfield Inn by Mariott Alamosa. Though really, the prices to stay in these hotels are low considering how rural the area is.
The closest grocery store to the falls is the Dunes Oasis Store. Here, they sell gas, groceries, and little knickknacks to take home with you. Here, you can also rent sandboards for riding the dunes!
Nearby hiking opportunities can be found near Blanca Peak, as well as the North Zapata Ridge. Here, you will find high elevation hikes meant for experienced hikers. The falls turn into an ice climbing opportunity during the Winter months for those into climbing.
Don’t Forget to Bring
- A waterproof camera! You’re guaranteed to get wet somehow, and it would suck to ruin your camera. You’re going to want to take pictures without risking a wet camera.
- Water shoes during the summer, rain boots during the fall and spring! You won’t want to be walking around with wet sneakers.
- A trekking pole can be useful on the slippery rocks
- Appropriate layers, as it can get very cold up there!
My Rating out of /10
I’d rate this hike a 10/10! It is short, easy, and well worth it. It offers incredible views during the entirety of the trail. The hike across the river and into the canyon gave me such an adrenaline rush. I was so giddy with excitement to see the falls that I was hearing for half of the trail! I recommend making your way out here on your way to the Great Sand Dunes.
Your thoughts on Zapata Falls?
So many outdoor lovers chase the beauty of natural waterfalls. Have you visited Zapata Falls at all and if not, would this be on your wish list? Please share your thoughts with us below.