Tucked away in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado is an alpine gem, an untouched wilderness lake far above the crowds of the popular Zapata Falls Trail. This challenging hike starts at the Zapata Falls Trail at the Zapata Falls Campground south of Great Sand Dunes National Park. The first half-mile will likely be busy with people taking the short hike to the falls. If you don’t mind getting your feet wet it’s a worthy side trip, but your destination lies far above. Follow the sign to the lake and climb up and away from the falls, leaving all your new friends behind. Be sure to stop and turn around to enjoy the view of the San Luis Valley, the world’s largest alpine valley. After 2.25 miles there is a junction with the North Fork South Zapata Creek Trail (Trail No. 868). Stay right and continue up the south drainage on a wide trail. You’ll pass some old cabin ruins before emerging above timberline at the lake. It’s 4.5 miles and 2,700 feet of climbing, so take a break, have lunch and explore this beautiful location.
I never camp above timberline. The Colorado weather is too erratic, the storms too frightening, the shelter too nonexistent for me. But when our group arrived exhausted at South Zapata Lake in early summer 2009, one friend wanted to just pitch a tent up there. He was outvoted and after exploring the lake we descended a mile to a nice campsite in the trees. Later that night, when the winds were howling and the thunder rumbling, we were all glad we were snuggled in our tents in the trees.
- If you have time, take the side trip to the waterfall. You’ll have to wade or rock-hop through a cave, but it’s worth it to see the falls gushing 30 feet down the side of the cave.
- Camping is limited at the lake, so backpackers may want to select a campsite among the trees below.
- Most of the hike beyond the falls is in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, so only foot and horse travel are allowed and dogs must be leashed.
Recommended season(s): Mid-summer – mid-fall.
–R. Scott Rappold