Zapata Falls Hike: Get Ready to Get Wet!

I wish you could have heard how LOUD this is!

The day after our trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park, Dave and I took a trip to the nearby Zapata Falls trail for a short hike. Our neighbors told us to be sure to experience the hike, and we’re so glad we did! Like Medano Creek, Zapata Falls will be most exciting to visit when the snow is melting most aggressively: so the month of May is probably best, if you can.

The turn off to the trailhead road is about 3 miles before the main entrance to the National Park. There’s a 3 1/2 mile rocky unpaved road full of switchbacks that needs to be driven up to the trailhead itself. The views during the drive are gorgeous, but it’s also important to keep your eyes on the road — you don’t want to accidentally drive over a large rock! There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the views of the sand dunes from up there.

You end up climbing up to about 9000′ elevation. The trailhead has plenty of parking, as well as a number of first-come, first-served campsites. There are vault toilets at the trailhead as well.

The hike itself is short — different websites and maps have different lengths: anywhere from 0.5 – 0.8 miles. I’m guessing there’s some variation to what’s considered the end of the trail: the point where the trail intercepts the creek itself, or continuing up the creek to the falls themselves. Just the same, it’s a short hike to the creek, uphill most of the way. The trail is very well established, it shouldn’t be hard to keep on the trail.

You’ll know when you are near the creek because the people will start piling up. I don’t know how else to describe it. The trail will basically run into the creek. Many of the hikers will stop to contemplate their next move: Do I wait in the long line of people trying to stay dry on the edges of the creek? Do I take off my shoes and walk up the center of the creek? Do I leave my shoes on and get them wet? 

Since we have awesome neighbors, who gave us awesome advice: wear water-friendly shoes and the hike will be easy! They were right: Dave and I were able to plunge straight into the water and walk up the center of the creek towards the falls!

When you get to the creek, you will hear the falls up ahead. However, you won’t be able to see them. You have to hike through a rock gap around a bend to actually see the falls. Those who were hugging the edges of the creekbed, trying to stay dry, would be disappointed unless they took a risk and got wet.

Dave beginning to make his way up the far edge of the creek. Note all the people on the left side of the photo. They were all trying to stay dry. They’d eventually find out that you can’t see the falls without getting wet.

In the month of May, the creek water was fresh snow melt: it was COLD! Look at the photo above. Can you see that Dave’s ankles are bright red? That was from being in the cold water.

Yes, our feet got wet…and they kinda got numb during this experience. But you had to go straight up the creek to see the fall themselves, so that’s what we did.

COLD water streaming across my feet!
We had to head up the creek into that dark area in the center of the photo. Note all the people on the right edge still trying to keep dry….
Dave and I worked our way through the hole in the rocks. As you can see, there’s no way you can’t get wet for this! It was starting to get LOUD in there, too. And yes, out feet were SO COLD!
This was about as far forward as I could go in the creek. The falls were too vigorous and it was incredibly loud.

The falls themselves, during this time of year, are gorgeous! I couldn’t get over how loud it was in the rock canyon. Turn up the volume and hear it for yourself!

And if you are into slo-mo videos, like I am, here’s one of those, too:

So here are some tips if you make it to Zapata Falls during peak snow-melt:

  • Allow about 1 hour at the falls. This definitely won’t dominate your day.
  • The road up to the trailhead is undergoing quite a bit of construction and is very rocky. Make sure your vehicle has appropriate ground clearance.
  • Wear water-friendly shoes. Be prepared to get your feet wet to actually get to see the falls
  • Don’t be afraid of the creek bed. The rocks have been smoothed by the agitation of the creek, and won’t hurt you. Many people conquered the creek barefoot.
  • Be prepared for the noise. It was rock-concert loud in the rock canyon.
  • Be prepared for the cold! Take breaks on the higher rocks outside of the water on the way up the creek…your feet will get numb, so definitely take breaks from the water to allow your feet to warm up a little
  • It’s worth every pin and needle of feeling returning to your feet to experience this hydrologic and geologic magnificence!