Exploring the Lesser-Known Zapata Falls Near The Great Sand Dunes

Every summer crowds of campers make their way to Alamosa County to visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Reserve. On their way to the park, many pass right by another great camping destination filled with amazing hikes and beautiful views. Sitting just 12 miles South of the Great Sand Dunes is the lesser-known Zapata Falls Campground. Complete with gorgeous views of the San Luis Valley and a trail leading hikers straight to the base of a waterfall, Zapata Falls is perfect for those looking to explore Alamosa County while avoiding the crowds headed to the sand dunes.


Approximate drive time from Denver: 4 hours

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The road to the Zapata Falls campground is a short and rocky drive, making the ride for cars with all-wheel drive much easier. Although the road is rough and bumpy, any car going slow enough (5-10 mph) and following the tire trails of previous cars can make it.  At the top of the road sits the entrance to the campground along with the trailheads of the site’s two prominent hiking trails.

The campground is filled with individual and group sites that can fit as many as 15 people. With the Great Sand Dunes Oasis being one of the only other camping options in the area, Zapata Falls Campground provides campers with cheaper rates and equally spectacular views.

With over 20 individual sites at the campground, campers can pay as low as $11 per night with the groups sites only being $20 per night. Since the campground does not provide drinking water, you’ll need to bring your own source of water to get you through the high temperatures and various outdoor activities.

Unfortunately for campers that like to plan ahead, the campground does not take reservations. The 24 available campsites typically fill by the afternoon on Fridays, meaning you’ll have to plan your trip accordingly to secure your group a spot on the campground.

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Although Zapata Falls campers can take a quick trip to the Great Sand Dunes National Park to hike and explore, there is enough hiking at Zapata Falls to keep you busy during your stay. From the campground, there are two trails that let you explore the beautiful wilderness around the falls, offering some great views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the sand dunes.

Zapata Falls Trail (0.8 miles, Moderate) – Although the main trail of the Zapata Falls Campground is listed as moderate, its a rather easy hike. The trail is a simple out and back trail that takes you through the dense patches of trees leading up to a beautiful creek. Once you reach the creek and make your way through the large rock structures on either side, you will find the actual falls. The amazing waterfall is the perfect reward for this easy hike. Since you will have to walk through the cold water of the creek to reach the falls, it’s recommended you wear some type of water shoe to make the hike easier. The trailhead can be found right off the base of the campground’s parking lot, with plenty of signs making the trail easy to conquer.

South Zapata Lake Trail (8.8 miles, one way, Moderate) – The second of the campground’s two hiking trails is slightly harder and much longer than the trail leading to the falls. The trail is listed as 8.8 miles but is actually double that as the trail is roughly eight miles one-way. You will need to designate a significant amount of your time for this hike as it can take up to 6-7 hours to fully complete. The out and back trail leads you away from the main path, taking you through more of the Zapata Falls wilderness. The reward for this hike is a beautiful lake that sits right in the middle of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In order to complete this hike you’ll need to plan ahead, making sure you are wearing appropriate hiking shoes. Don’t forget to bring enough water to last you the whole trip.

Much like the road leading up to the campground both paths are slightly rocky, making the moderate rating of them misleading. Both trails are well known for their illustrious views of the San Luis Valley, San Juan Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and of course the Great Sand Dunes. Bringing along a camera is highly suggested as there will be plenty of sights you’ll want to capture throughout your hike.

Although many experienced and first-time campers travel to Alamosa County to visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Zapata Falls offers up some of the same amazing views and hikes, minus the sand. Just like visiting the dunes, a camping trip to Zapata Falls requires a significant amount of preparation. With such high temperatures common in this area, remembering to bring plenty of water is crucial for a successful and safe trip.

So whether or not you’ve already made plans to visit the Sand Dunes, or are just looking for a new and beautiful place to explore, Zapata Falls will fulfill all your camping and hiking needs. There are endless ways to enjoy the beautiful views of Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Sand Dunes National Park, but the hiking and camping around the Zapata Falls Campground will surely have you coming back for more.