A short drive up the gravel road that leads to the Bureau of Land Management’s Zapata Falls Campground (CG) will let visitors to the area see the San Luis Valley and Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve from a whole new perspective. The campground offers bird’s-eye views of the valley floor below, the San Juan Mountains to the west, the adjacent Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, and several 14er’s and many other towering peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range that Zapata Falls CG sits on — not to mention spectacular sunrises, sunsets and night skies!
Zapata Falls CG has 23 single campsites, 1 group site and 1 camp host site nestled among piñon pines along two one-mile long loops. The sites on one loop are designed for tent campers. Parking spurs on the second loop vary a little in length but in general can handle RVs, towed campers, or other configurations of vehicles up to about 50 feet long.
A new trailhead in the campground supplies a link to the South Zapata Creek Trail and the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. A second trail, next door to the campground in the day-use area, leads visitors on a mildly steep half-mile hike to Zapata Falls, which gives the campground its name.
• Road signs from highway to Recreation Area.
• Improved gravel roads in Recreation Area (no pavement).
• No public drinking water system.
• 6 vault (or pit-type) toilets.
• Trash bins throughout campground and day-use areas.
• 23 Individual sites (11 Tent, 12 RV, 1 Group Tent, 1 CG Host Site, 7 Picnic sites.
• Standard campground amenities-table, tent pads, fire ring, food storage locker, parking.
• Interpretive, informational, and directional signs.
• Trailhead and overflow parking areas.
• Foot and horse trails.
• All facilities open year-round.
• Cell phone service is good.
• All recreation is at your own risk.
• The 3.5-mile road to the Zapata Falls Campground & Day-use Area is currently being upgraded and some minor delays may exist.
• There is currently no drinking water in the campground or day-use area. Bring plenty of water and do not drink from streams or lakes.
• Check-in time is after 1:00 p.m. on the first day of the reservation.
• Check-out time is prior to 1:00 p.m. on the last day of the reservation.
• If the reservation holder doesn't show up on the first day of the reservation, the campsite is released at check-in time (1 pm) the next day.
• There are no hookup services.
• Maximum length of stay is 14 days.
• Fires are only allowed in BLM approved metal fire rings.
• Individual Tent Campsites are limited to 6 people, 2 tents, and 2 vehicles (plus 1 trailer) per site.
• Only 1 RV/trailer per RV campsite.
• The Group Campsite is limited to 15 people, 5 tents, and 4 vehicles (plus 1 trailer).
• No overnight RV/trailer camping in day use parking areas.
• Food should be stored in the bear proof food storage lockers provided.
• This is a high elevation campground. Be prepared to take cover during afternoon thunderstorms.
• Quiet hours are 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.
• Pack it in, pack it out. In the backcountry, be prepared to carry out your garbage and dispose of it properly. Trash bins are located throughout the campground and day-use
• The half-mile trail to the falls is rocky and steep. Wear appropriate shoes to hike the trail and wade in the cold waters of the creek, which is the only way to reach the falls.
• The waterfall and the area around it are on Colorado State Land Board property and subject to their regulations and restrictions.
• Water levels will rise during spring run-off sometimes causing dangerous swift water. Be careful. Use caution along the riverbank. During winter beware of ice.
• Motorized vehicles are prohibited on the Zapata Falls and South Zapata Lake trails and in the U.S. Forest Service’s Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. Motorized travel is allowed
only on designated roads.
• Be considerate of others and share the trail.
• Always keep pets under control.
Zapata Falls Special Recreation Management Area
The Zapata Falls Special Recreation Management Area (SRMA) is rich in history and geology and offers opportunities to hike, camp, mountain bike and view spectacular scenery. Zapata Falls and the 628 acres surrounding them are State Trust Lands owned by the Colorado State Land Board and are also a designated Colorado Natural Area. They are cooperatively managed with the Bureau of Land Management.
The name “Zapata” is the Spanish word for shoe and is tied to the history of settlement in the San Luis Valley. In 1864, Mexican families established the community of Zapata at the western base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and raised sheep and other livestock. In the 1870s, cattleman consolidated land holdings and established one of the San Luis Valley’s first and largest cattle ranches know as Zapata Ranch, which remains an active ranch today.
Zapata Falls SRMA perches on the edge of an active rift valley. The San Luis Valley was formed when geologic activity along the Rio Grande Rift, a giant crack in the earth’s top layers, caused the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains to rise and the flat plain of the San Luis Valley to sink. Bedrock lies 5,000 to 13,000 feet below the valley floor, beneath layers of gravel, soil, and water.
Approximately two million years ago, alpine glaciers inched down the steep slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Water flowing from the glacier and snowfields in the valley above found a weak spot near the end of a moraine – a huge rock pile deposited thousands of years ago by a glacier. For thousands of years, water has carved its path, forming Zapata Falls.
Don’t Take the Plunge at Zapata Falls
The cold waters of South Zapata Creek drop more than 25 feet through a narrow, rocky canyon. Please use extreme caution when hiking or wading around the base of Zapata Falls. In spring and summer, the water is cold, the current may be strong, and the rocks are slippery. In winter, climbing to the base of the falls is a slick proposition. Zapata Creek freezes into a sheet of ice blanketed by snow. Beware, the ice may not be thick enough to support your weight. There is no view of the falls from above; trying to climb the rocky walls is dangerous to you and to people below you. The falls are home to the black swift, a rare and elusive bird that nests only in the misty reaches of waterfalls. Stay on the trails to keep from disturbing the birds nesting in the cliffs.
Zapata Falls Trail
To reach Zapata Falls, you will need to take a short but arduous hike to Zapata Creek. The falls are upstream from where the trail meets the creek. The only way to view the falls is to get your feet wet by wading carefully upstream to the base of the falls.
Length: 1/2 mile each way
Elevation: 9,000 to 9,400 feet
Connections: South Zapata Lake Trail (U.S. Forest Service Trail #852)
Other Nearby Attractions:
• NPS-Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
• USFS-Rio Grande National Forest and Sangre de Cristo Wilderness.
• BLM-Blanca Wetlands Recreation Area.
• USFWS-Baca and Alamosa National Wildlife Refuges.
• Great Sand Dunes Oasis-Restaurant, gift shop, and lodge (near GRSA Park entrance).
• Ft. Garland Museum and Cultural Center.
• Colorado Gators Reptile Park.
• UFO Watchtower.
• Sand Dunes Hot Springs Pool.
Other Nearby Campgrounds: Pinyon Flats CG, Great Sand Dunes NPP
Zapata Falls Recreation Area is a destination known for its waterfall viewing and sweeping vistas of the San Luis Valley, its soaring mountain ranges, and the adjacent Great Sand Dunes National Park. From the waterfall, the trail continues onto the Rio Grande National Forest, for those seeking a backcountry experience in the high country above and the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness.
• Standard Nonelectric
• Rv Nonelectric
• Group Tent Only Area Nonelectric
BLM-San Luis Valley Field Office 1313 U.S. Hwy 160 E. Monte Vista CO 81144
For campground inquiries, please call: 719-852-7074
Zapata Falls is accessed by Colorado State Highway 150 between mile markers 10 and 11, located approximately 5 miles south of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and 10.5 miles north of U.S. Highway 160. The turn-off is to the east, and the campground is located 3.5 miles (5.8km) up an unpaved road. Elevation 9,088ft.