As much as we enjoyed hiking the dunes, we also wanted to explore the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. We didn’t have time for a major hike so we opted to hike the short trail to see Zapata Falls. The road to the trailhead is located 8 miles south of the park off Highway 50. Turning off the highway will put you on a rough gravel road. Despite being a bouncy 3.5 mile ride, it is navigable by passenger vehicle. Someone even drove a fully dressed Goldwing to the trail head! There is an unnamed trail head just before you reach the Zapata Falls trail head. Drive past this and the actual trail head will be obvious once you get to it. There are interpretive signs and a primitive toilet. “Primitive toilet” might sound a little off-putting to some but if you’ve done any backpacking or backcountry hiking, a toilet of any sort is down right luxurious!
From a distance, the mountains looked heavily wooded. The trail we followed was very open and we had some fantastic views! But not as much shade as we had hoped…
Catus in Colorado? Why yes there is! In bloom even! I guess not terribly surprising considering Colorado does border Arizona and New Mexico. But still not something we expected on this trip. This was such a unique area and we were very glad we decided to spend a couple days here.
We didn’t see a lot of wildlife on this trip (except the occasional thieving deer around the campsite) but this little fellow was quite the beggar at one the benches along the trail. Obviously, his begging has been successful on many an occasion!
After visiting with our fat little chipmunk friend, we continued along the trail which was now actually a creek. The water was ice cold and flowing fairly fast. We all tried to keep our feet dry at first but it soon became evident that it was a lesson in futility. My waterproof boots were fantastic! Until I stepped into a spot with water up to mid-calf. I could tell you how the water was “refreshing”. And it was! For about 30 seconds. Then it became “really freaking cold”. Honestly though, it was part of the fun of the hike. Who wants to hike boring?
We could tell by the roar that we were nearing the falls. The rocks narrowed until there was just a slot opening to venture through. The air cooled dramatically and you could feel the spray from the falls before you could see it.
The slot opening in the rock wall was cool and dim. We rounded a sharp curve and daylight beamed down on the two-tiered waterfall. Most of us stayed back to enjoy the view but my ever adventurous son climbed up on the lower tier. It was a fantastic sight coupled with the deafening roar between the narrow stone walls.
We enjoyed the falls for a bit before working our back downstream to the dry part of the trail. The hike down was pretty uneventful but did give us some nice views of the Great Sand Dunes off in the distance. From far away, the dunes are dwarfed but the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. To put it in perspective, the mountains are over 11,000 feet high!
We amused ourselves on the drive down the mountain by counting hubcaps lost by people driving to fast for road conditions. We enjoyed the views as we prepared to say good-bye to the Great Sand Dunes.
I enjoyed this hike very much and would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park. For hardcore hikers, it’s not going to present much of a challenge. It’s short (about a mile round trip) without a huge amount of elevation change. You do hike uphill to the falls but it’s nothing lung-busting. It’s definitely not a trail you’d travel a large distance to do by itself. But combined with other area trails, it’s certainly worth a couple of hours of your vacation time.