Zapata Falls Hike Guide: Tips, Trail Info & Advice
Zapata Falls is a fun waterfall hike in southern Colorado near Great Sand Dunes National Park. While it is only a mile round-trip, it includes a final rock-hop or wade to reach the falls, which are hidden within a deep gorge and only viewable up close. There is a campground at the trailhead for those who want to spend the night (reservations are required and fill up far in advance).
In this Guide, I will share everything you need to know about the Zapata Falls hike, including a route map and description, the local weather forecast, links to nearby camping and lodging options, and conservation and safety tips. Lace up your hiking boots, pack your bag, and get started below!
Zapata Falls Hike | Fast Facts
Zapata Falls Hike Guide
From Alamosa, Colorado:
Turn onto US-160 E for 0.4 mi. Turn left onto CO-17 and drive for 13.1 mi. Turn right onto Lane 6 N and continue for 10.2 mi. Continue onto Ln 6 for 5.6 more miles. Continue onto 6 for 0.2 mi and then turn right onto CO-150 S and drive for 2.8 mi. Turn left, drive for 3.5 miles until you arrive at the Zapata Falls Campground.
The hike to Zapata Falls is very simple. The waterfall is only a half-mile away from the trailhead – most people hike there and back within 45 minutes. Bring towels if you plan to spend time wading and enjoying the water during a summer visit.
The trail starts by the parking area north of the main campground. The trail is sloped and has some loose gravel and rocks, so be careful to avoid trips and falls. Follow the trail for approximately half a mile until you come across South Zapata Creek.
Some people stop at the Creek where you can hear, but not yet see, Zapata Falls. I recommend rock-hopping or bringing a set of waterproof shoes you can use to wade close to the falls. Over thousands of years, the creek has cut a channel through the softer sedimentary rock here, creating a cave-like grotto and the falls themselves. Getting to experience this ancient rock formation and feel the mist from the cascade is worth the effort!
NOTE: The rocks in and around the creek get very slippery from the mist – and they freeze early in the fall and into late spring or early summer. Be very careful when walking on the rocks. I recommend bringing water shoes so you can simply wade through the creek to the falls with less risk.
Digital maps like this are helpful planning tools, but you should always bring a paper-copy as a backup. Phones break and batteries die – especially in cold, high-altitude environments. Be prepared and print out a map or buy one online to bring with you.
Here is the most up-to-date information from the National Weather Service for Zapata Falls. Scroll down further to see the area’s forecast completely. If your hike is several days away, check again the night before as things may change considerably.
Just because you can hike in a pair of sneakers and jeans does not necessarily mean you should. The right gear and clothing will help you stay safe and comfortable so you have a more enjoyable hike. Here’s what I recommend bringing with you while hiking to Zapata Falls and other areas in the San Luis Valley.
Hiking Boots: Salomon X Ultra 4 Mid GORE-TEX Boots
Power through uphills and descents in any weather with Salomon X Ultra 4 Mid GORE-TEX men’s hiking boots. They give you the stability and grip you need, plus a higher cut for extra ankle support. Buy at REI →
Backpack: Osprey Talon 22 Pack
The Osprey Talon 22 is the perfect size for day trips and hikes at in the Rocky Mountains. It includes a pocket for a hydration system, lots of pockets of varying size, and a suspension system to go easy on your back. Buy at REI →
Trek Poles: REI Co-op Traverse Trekking Poles
Trek poles provide stability while hiking and help you use your upper body strength while moving to give your legs a break. These award-winning poles from REI are lightweight, strong, and adjustable for rugged terrain. Buy at REI →
Always Pack the Ten Essentials
The ten essentials are the most important pieces of gear you need to survive in an emergency in the backcountry. They empower you to actively respond to a crisis instead of passively waiting for search and rescue to respond. You should tweak the specific equipment you bring on each hike according to conditions, but you should always have something for each of these ten categories.
1. Navigation Gear
I recommend bringing a map and compass. If you want to use GPS, get a dedicated unit. Phone batteries die quickly in the cold on a 14er.
2. Headlamp and Batteries
Even if you don’t plan to be out until dark, you can’t plan for everything. If you’re running behind, having the ability to see – and be seen – is everything.
3. Emergency Shelter
When bad weather strikes without warning or someone falls and is injured, a shelter to get out of the elements can save your life.
4. Extra Water
Bring 2 liters of water per person on your hike – if not more. You also want to bring a purification system to get more if you get stuck outside. That could be purification pills or a life straw.
5. Extra Food
I recommend packing 1,000-2,000 extra calories while hiking. If you do get stuck out there longer than expected, some extra power gel or energy bars will make a big difference.
6. Knife or Multi-tool
The benefits of having this around in an emergency are self-evident: You can prepare firewood, create a shelter, fix gear, and solve other problems. I recommend a leatherman multitool, which is so much more helpful than just a knife.
7. Sunglasses and Sunscreen
The solar radiation is powerful when you are above the tree line. Bringing strong sunscren (60+ SPF) is recommended to avoid sunburn. Bring a pair of polarized sunglasses to protect your eyes too.
8. Fire-Starting Kit
If you get stuck outdoors in the mountains, the cold is one of the biggest immediate threats to your life. Being able to start a fire can keep you alive through a cold night. Bring a small kit with matches and tinder for starting a fire.
9. First Aid Kit
For hiking Adams Falls you don’t need to go overboard. Some bandages, moleskin, and pain relief medication is more than enough to deal with falls and scrapes, blisters, and altitude sickness.
10. Extra Layers
Bring one layer beyond what you expect to wear. In summer, that usually means bringing an extra coat or jacket you keep packed away in your bag. If you end up stuck outside overnight with a broken ankle, you will very happy you brought it with. Nanopuff jackets from Patagonia are lightweight but provide a ton of warmth.
Satellite Messenger/SOS Device: Garmin InReach Mini
When something goes wrong out on the trail, it is immensely helpful to be able to contact search and rescue teams quickly. Many areas in the National Park do not have dependable cell service. A satellite messenger or personal locator beacon allows you to call for help in an emergency in almost any location. They are expensive and require a subscription, but they have saved many lives.
I recommend the Garmin InReach Mini 2, which also offers premium GPS mapping in addition to text and SOS features. Buy at REI →
- Zapata Falls Campground
- Piñon Flats Campground
- Lake Como Road Dispersed Camping
- San Luis Lake State Wildlife Area Campground
In this section we answer some common questions about the hike to Zapata Falls.
Q: How long is the hike to Zapata Falls, and what is the difficulty level?
A: The hike to Zapata Falls is less than one-mile round-trip. While there are 200 feet of elevation gain, it is short and considered an easy hike. However, remember that it will be more difficult if you are ascending from a lower altitude. Build in time for acclimation to make the hike easier before you go.
Q: What is the best time of year to visit Zapata Falls?
A: The falls are most impressive during the spring when the snow is melting and increases the flow rate. They are also popular in winter when the waterfall freezes into a solid column of ice. It is much quieter then as well.
Q: Are there any fees or permits required to hike to Zapata Falls?
A: There are no permits, fees, or reservations required for the Zapata Falls hike. However, if you want to camp at the campground at the trailhead you will need an advanced reservation.
Q: What facilities and amenities are available at the Zapata Falls trailhead or nearby?
A: There are pit toilets and picnic trailheads available at the campground and trailhead. However, there is no drinking water available. Make sure you bring your own – the nearest public source is located quite far away at a gas station along the highway.
Q: Can I swim or wade in the water at Zapata Falls, and what are the safety considerations?
The water below the falls is very shallow and is not swift, so it is generally safe to wade through. Be careful during the spring and fall – getting wet can quickly lead to frostbite or hypothermia if you do not have a towel or other dry clothing to change into quickly. Bring towels or warm clothing if you plan to go wading in the water. Do not swim in the Creek above the falls as it is rougher and there is a risk of being pulled into the waterfall.
More people visit Zapata Falls each year and the trend shows no signs of stopping. Leave No Trace practices help us limit our impact to preserve the area’s natural beauty for future generations. Help us in this effort by following these Leave No Trace tips during your hike to Zapata Falls.
- Plan Ahead: Check the weather and trail conditions so you can bring appropriate clothing and gear to stay safe.
- Dispose of waste properly: Use the pit toilets when possible and pick up and carry out any litter or trash you encounter.
- Stay on designated trails and campsites. Don’t wander off-route or clear new campsites as this speeds up erosion.
- Give wildlife 75+ feet of space and avoid feeding them either purposefully or by accidentally leaving food out.
- Minimize campfire impacts: Only use pre-existing metal and rock rings, keep fires small, put them out cold, or skip them entirely.
- Practice proper trail etiquette. Smile and say hello to others. Yield to uphill hikers. Don’t listen to music with speakers, and help others when you can.
Zapata Falls formed over thousands of years as melting snow in south Zapata Creek slowly cut through many layers of soft sedimentary rock and created the grotto and falls we see today.
The name of the waterfall refers to a shoemaker in Spanish and is tied to the early settlement of the area by Spain. The first large consolidated ranch in the area is named the “Zapata Ranch” and likely provided the name for the nearby creek and waterfall.
The waterfall is known for being one of the few known nesting spots of the rare Black Swift bird. They prefer the cool, misty environment created by the cascades of Zapata Falls. Look for them along the cliffs that line the lower creek.
Hiking Zapata Falls is an inherently high-risk activity – do so at your own risk, and use the following best practices to help keep yourself safe.
- Research your route and bring a compass & topographic map.
- Check the weather forecast and stay home during inclement weather.
- Bring the Ten Essentials and the knowledge/skill to use them.
- Leave your plans with someone back home along with a detailed itinerary.
- Start early, and end early: Be back below tree line by noon to avoid lightning.
- Bring a buddy on your first ascent, preferably someone experienced.
NEW TO 14ERS? CHECK OUT MY BEGINNERS GUIDE FOR A SAFE FIRST SUMMIT!
Hiking Zapata Falls and other mountain trails is an inherently high-risk, dangerous activity. There is a significant risk of injury or death, even with proper planning and experience. Those using my guide accept all risks associated with hiking in the mountains and do not hold this website or any information they obtain from it liable for any accidents or injuries that occur while engaging in these activities on Colorado’s high peaks. It is each hiker or climber’s responsibility to research their route carefully, bring the ten essentials, and practice other safe practices, though even these precautions do not eliminate risk and danger. Visit these hiking trails at your own risk.
Looking for more information or details to plan your hike to Zapata Falls? Here are some more resources and links to explore. If you have any additional advice or resources to share, post a comment below and share it with our community.
Alex is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.