Updated: Apr 15
February 22, 2021
Colorado boasts an abundance of waterfalls in all different shapes and sizes, some easy to access, some requiring long and strenuous hikes. Just like many of Colorado’s popular hiking trails, you can expect high traffic on most hiking trails that lead to a waterfall. This is certainly the case on Zapata Falls Trail.
Zapata Falls is a spectacular waterfall within a rocky crevice in the northern part of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range. The water of South Zapata Creek drops 30 feet before flowing out of the rocky chasm and turning toward North America’s tallest sand dunes.
While there are many reasons to add this hike to your list, there are also many reasons to plan ahead to beat the traffic. Other than a quiet, peaceful hike, here are five reasons to get out early on your trek to Zapata Falls in southern Colorado.
5 Reasons to Beat the Traffic
1. Close Proximity to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
The Zapata Falls Trailhead is a 12.3 mile drive from the visitor’s center of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. While the close proximity to this National Park makes it a bit of a bonus outing for anyone visiting the park, it also increases the traffic on the trail. We hiked this trail during a long holiday weekend camping trip at this southern Colorado national park. To avoid the traffic (and the heat) we left our campsite just after 7am. Having the waterfall to ourselves, especially during a pandemic, was well worth the early start!
2. Rough, Rocky Road Conditions
Zapata Falls is on public land--BLM land instead of National Park land. Therefore, the road up to the trailhead is a bit sketchy and not ideal for low-clearance vehicles. Because of our early start, we avoided any traffic we might have encountered on the dirt/rocky road leading up to the trailhead, and seeing the rough condition of the road I was thankful we did. Keep in mind that though the drive from Great Sand Dunes to the Zapata Falls Trailhead is only 12.3 miles, most of that drive is slow-going up this backcountry road. With that said, the road offers several spectacular views of the San Luis Valley below and the sand dunes to the north!
3. A Cool Break from the Summer Sun
Summer temperatures in the San Luis Valley can be fairly oppressive during the summer months, especially with little cover in the way of shade. But once you get up into the mountainside shade is plentiful. Not only that, but South Zapata Creek is still flowing even into late summer which means this hike provides a cool, shaded reprieve from the summer heat down in the valley. If you’re fine with wading into the creek with lots of fellow hikers, then head out at midday. But if you’re like us and want the place all to yourself, best to get out early.
4. The Hike’s Short Distance
Unlike some of Colorado’s other waterfall hikes, this trail to Zapata Falls is relatively short. In fact, you only need to cover a distance of approximately 0.5 miles from parking lot to waterfall. I’m guessing that the short distance of the hike attracts more visitors to this trail, though I haven’t asked around to find out!
5. Zapata Falls is Hiding within a Chasm of Rock
Reaching the end of this trail is relatively easy, but viewing the waterfall is a whole other story. The roaring of the falls is easily heard from the end of the trail, as is the water leading out of the crevice in the rock. But in order to actually view Zapata Falls you need to wade through the rocky creek and into the chasm that South Zapata Creek carved into the rock. It’s not a big chasm by any means, and I know I certainly would not like to be stuffed in there along with dozens of other sightseers. Luckily, our early morning start meant we got the waterfall and the creek all to ourselves for a good 20 minutes, at least. Believe me, it’s worth it!
While this is a short, heavily-trafficked hike, I definitely recommend the visit. Get out there early, be prepared for rough road conditions, and bring footwear appropriate for wading in the creek.