This is a story that began about two million years ago when alpine glaciers covered the mountains peaks and valley floors of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains like an icy blanket. The ridge that is home to Zapata Falls is a huge pile of rocks deposited thousands of years ago by a glacier. Water flowing from the glacier and snowfields above found a weak spot near the end of the rock pile and water carved the path of what is now Zapata Falls.
In late spring and summer the water rages, but in winter and early spring you have an icy encounter. Zapata Falls should be short detour on any trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve since it’s just south of the park on Highway 150. Before venturing down the trail to the falls, take time to enjoy the view of the dunes from the trailhead parking. You’ll get a chance to enjoy the view again on the hike back.
This is not a long hike or a difficult one. It’s great for families or those just wanting to do a quickie hike with a big payoff. You follow the fairly flat trail for about a half mile where you come up to the cave entrance.
From there you really have to watch your footing as it’s gets icy as you hike along the creek. It can be slick the rest of the year too! My buddy hiking with me and I wore Yaktrax to help hike on the snow and ice.
Around the corner you come up to the nearly 30-foot waterfall nestled in a rocky crevasse. In winter, the icy column through the narrow chasm can take on a bluish hue, depending on how the sunlight hits it. It looks like a giant ice sculpture weaved into the rocks. We had to maneuver around a small opening in the ice that looked like a tiny pond at the base of the falls. As we enjoyed exploring the icy falls, listening to the water flow beneath the ice was a wonderful water symphony.
This is an out and back hike, so enjoy the stunning scenery of giant sand dunes and snowcapped mountains as you head back to the trailhead.