Located at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range in southern Colorado, Zapata Falls Special Recreation Management Area is approximately five miles south of Great Sand Dunes National Park. In the 1990s, through a cooperative effort of 14 agencies, public access to the waterfall was provided and parking and day use areas were developed. The falls are about 30 feet high and can be visited by taking a short hike of about a half-mile, part of which is through a creek.
In addition to the hike to the falls and the falls themselves, a campground and day-use area are also located within the Zapata Falls Special Recreation Management Area. During winter months, the waterfall freezes and is popular for ice climbing. With its proximity to Great Sand Dunes National Park, the Special Recreation Management Area is a perfect place to visit before or after exploring the National Park and also makes an excellent place to explore for the weekend.
When looking for adventure in southern Colorado, consider visiting the Zapata Falls Special Recreation Management Area, where you can engage in a variety of recreation activities while also taking in the area’s beauty.
From Alamosa, take US-160 E for 14.4 miles until reaching CO-150 N. Turn left onto CO-150 N and continue for 10.7 miles, where you will encounter a sign marking Zapata Falls and directing you to turn right on a dirt road. You will continue on the dirt road for about three miles until reaching the Recreation Area. While you don't need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to access the area, the dirt road is rugged and slow-going and you can expect it to take about 15 to 20 minutes to travel the three miles.
At around 9,000 feet, during winter months there is a good chance that there will be snow on the road leading to the Falls; when traveling to the area during October through April, make sure to check on the road conditions.
Parking is available at Zapata Falls Special Recreation Management Area.
Public transportation is not available to Zapata Falls Special Recreation Management Area.
Located within the Great Sand Dunes National Park, the Pinon Flats Campground offers easy access to Zapata Falls and other area activities. RVs and trailers up to 35 feet in length can be accommodated at the campground and reservations are available from May through September (sites are first-come, first-served in April and October).
There are 88 sites, with each site able to accommodate up to eight people. Sites offer a picnic table, fire pit, grill, and storage locker. The campground offers restrooms with sinks and flush toilets and water spigots are available within the campground.
An ideal place to camp when visiting the Zapata Falls Special Recreation Management Area is the Zapata Falls Campground, which offers 23 single campsites and one group site. Located on BLM road 5415, the campground is seven miles from the Great Sand Dunes National Park and offers pit toilets.
The campground can accommodate RVs and trailers that are up to 50 feet long, with each site offering a picnic table, fire pit, and food storage locker. Sites are spread out along two separate loops, with one loop for tent campers. There are no hook-ups at the campground, which is first-come, first-served and open year-round.
Offering 51 sites, the Mosca Campground can be found in the dunes west of San Luis Lake. All of the sites offer electric hook-ups, picnic tables with shelters and fire grills. Vault toilets and a dump station can be found at the campground.
While all sites can accommodate RVs and trailers, some are available for those looking to tent camp. While there is no charge for sites, which are first-come, first-served, as the campground is located within the San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area, a Colorado wildlife annual access pass or hunting or fishing license is required to enter. Make sure to bring in your own water when camping here.
While the hike is short, it is a bit of an adventure! First walk along a dirt path with a slight incline, until you reach a creek (South Zapata Creek). Depending on the water flow, you may have to wade in the creek to reach the falls. You will also encounter some rocks to climb over and around.
To view the falls, you will likely find yourself knee-deep in water. However, you will be treated to a gorgeous sight! As the creek bottom is rocky, bringing along water shoes is a big help.
A quick drive from Zapata Falls Special Recreation Management Area is Great Sand Dunes National Park. The park is home to the tallest dunes in North America; however, that is not all that it offers.
During your visit, you can check out a varied landscape that includes grasslands, wetlands, tundra, forests and alpine lakes. Depending on the time of year that you visit, you can walk in a creek right next to the towering dunes. Bring a sled; you can even ride down the dunes!
If you are looking to explore the area without hiking, consider driving the Medano Pass Road. The road is primitive and considered “tricky”. While only 22 miles long, expect the drive to take two to three hours and make sure you have a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle before embarking on this adventure.
Expect to travel over deep sand, rocky sections and even across creeks. The road is typically open from Memorial Day weekend through the first major snowfall in October.
Looking to spend some time relaxing in a beautiful location while possibly catching some fish? There are plenty of opportunities to fish near Zapata Falls Special Recreation Management Area.
You can fish in South Zapata Creek, where you will encounter 7-10-inch brook trout along with cutthroat and rainbow trout. The majority of the fish can be found at the upper part of the creek near the lakes. Those who enjoy hiking can take South Zapata Trail for five miles to South Zapata Lake, fishing along the way.
Zapata Falls is often frozen and offers three routes for ice climbers to embark on. The routes are considered short and rated at W13 or below. The left and center routes utilize the same pair of rap bolts while the route on the right has its own.
It is important to note that the waterfall is usually still rushing below two or three inches of ice, so climbers should be aware and not climb directly on it.
During your visit to Zapata Falls Special Recreation Management Area, you will find yourself close to the Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center, where you can explore life in a nineteenth-century military fort. The fort was constructed in 1858 and during your visit, you can walk the parade grounds and tour five original structures dating to that time.
Visiting is a great way to learn about the history of the 9th Cavalry and its Buffalo Soldiers who were stationed at the fort, and you can learn more about the role of Colorado in the Civil War.