South Zapata Lake
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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Incredible Backcountry Trails
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    Distance: 9.2 miles (round trip)

    Walking time:  6 1/2 hours

    : 2,800 ft. gain/loss
       Zapata Falls Trailhead (start): 9080 ft
       Zapata Falls: 9,400 ft.
       South Zapata Lake: 11,900 ft.

    Trail: Well used, well maintained trail.

    Season: Midsummer through mid-Fall. The higher parts of the trail are generally covered with snow from late June through mid-November.

    Vicinity: Near the Great Sand Dunes National Park

    South Zapata LakeSouth Zapata Lake


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    A hidden waterfall, several old minerís cabins, and a high alpine lake are the rewards of this hike. The Zapata Falls are only 0.5 mile from the trailhead, and that is as far as most people get. The cabins are less than a mile beyond Zapata Falls, and they are also a worthwhile goal for a short day hike into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The real highlight of this hike, however, is South Zapata Lake, a small alpine lake at the end of the trail in a majestic basin surrounded by 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks.

    It will become apparent when you begin this hike that the trail to Zapata Falls is actually an old jeep road, and although the road is now closed to vehicles the first 0.5 mile of the hike is not as pretty as it might otherwise be. The jeep road ends in a shady, tree-covered glen at the base of the mountains, where several well-placed benches invite hikers to stop and enjoy the scenery below the falls. The falls themselves are located inside a large notch in the cliff face 100 feet beyond the end of the trail, and if you want to see them you must wade through the water and enter the notch. Inside the dark, sunless grotto you can see the 30-foot ribbon of water crashing down from above. But if you want to photograph the falls you had better have a waterproof camera with high-speed film and a super-wide-angle lens.

    100 feet before reaching the end of the Zapata Falls Trail you will pass a junction with a sign pointing the way to the South Zapata Lake Trail on your right. Turn here and follow the trail toward the lake as it begins climbing through the juniper trees along the south side of South Zapata Creek. There is a great view to the north along this section of trail. The expansive sand dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park are clearly visible 9 miles away, and the Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak rise dramatically above the skyline in the distance. After 0.3 mile of climbing the trail passes the connecting path to the South Zapata Lake Trailhead, and 10 minutes later it crosses to the north side of South Zapata Creek.

    Just 5 minutes after crossing the creek the trail passes the remnants of at least three old log cabins, one of which is still in reasonably good condition. What a pleasant place to live this must have been. The terrain is relatively flat, water is not far away, and the cabins are well shaded by an open forest of Douglas fir. The occupants were most likely miners who spent their summers scouring the surrounding hills for precious metals.

    Shortly after leaving the cabins the trail resumes its climb above the north side of South Zapata Creek. After 0.6 mile you will see a sign informing you that you have crossed the boundary of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area, and 20 minutes later the trail passes by another old minerís cabin on the right. About all that is left of this cabin is the first four courses of logs and the fireplace. The cabin is located near the bottom of a large scree field and has probably sustained considerable damage through the years from rock slides.

    Upon leaving the cabin the trail continues along the bottom of the scree field for the next 1.0 mile before again crossing South Zapata Creek. Once on the south side of the creek the trail climbs 400 feet through the spruce and subalpine fir to the edge of timberline, and then breaks out into a lovely alpine meadow for the last 0.6 mile to the lake. If it is early in the summer you may have trouble following the trail through the tall grass that fills the meadow, but the route is obvious. Finally, after gaining 140 feet over the last 0.5 mile you will cross a low ridge and step onto the north shore of the lake.

    South Zapata is a relatively small lake, scarcely 200 yards in diameter, but the ruggedly beautiful setting of the tiny alpine tarn compensates for its diminutive size. The lake is situated high above timberline in the back of the South Zapata Basin with the crest of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for a backdrop. Ellingwood Peak (14,042 ft.) is less than a mile away, and the view of the fourteener from across the lake is an impressive sight. Blanka Peak, Coloradoís forth-highest summit is only 1.4 miles away, but it is effectively hidden by Ellingwood Peak.


    The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.

    If you are interested in a supplemental map of the South Zapata Lake Trail
    we recommend:
    Sangre de Cristo Mountains  (Trails Illustrated, map #138)

    Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS

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