by Ericka Kastner
Stunning sand dunes views, classic Colorado wildflowers, creek wading, slot canyon exploration and an awe-inspiring waterfall. Surprisingly, the short hike to Zapata Falls has it all, and then some.
The wide, quarter-mile long trail ascends gradually from 9,000 to 9,400 feet in elevation and takes only about 15 minutes to complete. There are benches at numerous points along the way, making the hike to South Zapata Creek manageable for even young children or flatlanders needing to catch a breath at altitude. The trail is dotted with blooming prickly pear cactus, bright coral skyrocket, purple asters and a host of other wildflowers.
Visitors to Zapata Falls will hear it before they even reach the creek, and the only way to see the actual falls is to wade through chilly waters (depth dependent upon the season) into a narrow slot canyon barely noticeable upon first inspection of the rock wall at the top of the creek. Carrying a change of shoes and hiking poles to assist with navigating the slippery rocks is advised.
At the canyon entrance, hikers are greeted with a cool mist shower and a dramatic temperature drop. Upon further exploration (and a bit more sploshing through water), a dramatic 25-foot waterfall comes into view, crashing down from the rock walls of the canyon and creating a thunderous roar. The light coming through the chasm above the falls varies greatly with the time of day and makes repeat trips or hanging out a while with a picnic lunch worth consideration.
For an extended day hike or overnight backpack, make the four-mile trek to nearby South Zapata Falls Lake at the base of Ellingwood Peak, accessible via a trail heading slightly southwest just before reaching the creek. Even if you don’t have time or energy for the full hike to the lake, it’s worth climbing the first eighth of a mile stretch for the aerial views of The Great Sand Dunes National Park just to the north.
Getting there: From Poncha Springs, take U.S. 285 south 31 miles, then CO Hwy. 17 south 35 miles to County Lane 6 east at Mosca. The turn is marked for the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Drive 15 miles on CL 6 and turn south on U.S. 150 for Zapata Falls. Approximately 2.8 miles along this road make a left-hand turn onto the well-marked Zapata Falls Road. There is a parking lot at the turn, but the road is just wash-boarded and slightly rough, and entirely navigable by 2WD cars in dry weather. It’s about 3.5 miles to the Zapata Falls parking lot and trailhead. A campground with incredible sunset views is available near the trailhead.
Make the day even more fun and bring your kayak or stand up paddleboard along to row in the nearby San Luis Lakes. The entrance to the hauntingly quiet state park where the natural lakes are located is along CL 6 before reaching the turn to U.S. 150. A day use fee for the park is just $7.
Waterfall lover Ericka Kastner took delight in getting her feet (and her camera) wet for this story. View more of her writing and photography online at erickakastner.com.