Snowmelt from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains flows through a thirsty landscape across the San Luis Valley to one of the longest rivers in the country: The Rio Grande. Along its journey is Zapata Falls, a secluded 25-foot waterfall sheltered in a rocky crevasse — a welcome respite for visitors to south-central Colorado.
The parking lot alone is worth the visit to Zapata. Views of the Great Sand Dunes are breathtaking, as layered dunes build against the base of the Sangre de Cristos to the north. Straight to the west across the San Luis Valley are the sharp volcanic domes of the San Juan mountains. A good time to visit is during sunrise or sunset when subtle pink, purple and gold tones radiate from the landscape.
Like most waterfalls, you have to work a bit to reach the prize. Hikers wade through chilly waters and maneuver over slippery rocks to Zapata’s hidden falls, or balance on a log bridge to avoid getting wet. Don’t let the sound of the hike discourage you — it’s a fun adventure and the waterfall is only a half mile from the parking lot.
Surrounded by dune fields and tundra, Zapata’s misty falls give visitors a much welcome break from the sun. Temperatures in the nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve range from 80 degrees to well above 100 degrees at the peak of summer, making Zapata’s spray the perfect place to cool off.
A bonus gem at Zapata Falls is the elusive black swift bird and its unusual nesting grounds. Common in areas where waterfalls or coastlines create misty havens, you’ll spot this sleek bird along the fall’s rocky edges.
Zapata is more commonly visited during warmer months, but visitors in winter are in for a treat as well. The falls freeze, creating a huge ice column that seems to be frozen in time. Luminous blue water is visible just beneath the hardened surface.
The Zapata Falls Recreational Area is approximately three miles south of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve entrance. From the town of Alamosa, take Hwy. 150 approximately 12 miles north of the intersection with Hwy. 160. Turn right at the Zapata Falls Recreational Area sign and drive three miles east to the parking lot.
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Photos: Courtesy of Jerry K. Hatfield; courtesy of the Alamosa Convention & Visitors Bureau