If you’re looking for a quick get away trip that doesn’t require a ton of planning and is fairly easily accessible, then this is the one for you. The kicker is to plan it during the right time of year as the sand dunes see a lot of visitors during the summer months. Spring and Fall are the ideal times to visit, the weather is bearable and the crowds are minimal.
The 2nd week in October arrived and I loaded up my Explorer and headed east towards Alamosa and the San Louis Valley. My plan was to dirt-bag-it-up and spend the night in my SUV at the Zapata Falls parking lot. There were plenty of camping spots, but after showing up late in the day (around 10pm) and hearing what sounded like 10-20 raging college students celebrating “Ashley’s” birthday (btw, happy birthday Ashley), I decided to park in the lower lot and set up shop in the comfy confines of my backseat/trunk.
The hike from the lower lot to the falls is only about a mile, maybe even a little less. The falls are tucked back into a narrow slot canyon formed by the South Zapata Creek. It takes a little route finding to work your way through the creek, which in early fall was only about a foot or so deep in places. I wore my Teva sandals which eliminated the need to route find as I just walked straight up the creek, unconcerned about keeping my feet dry.
Zapata Falls is an impressive 20 foot waterfall and the noise resonating through the canyon can be deafening. I had the falls completely to myself for 30 minutes as I tested out my amateur photography skills.
After trekking back to my car I ate some lunch, took a nap, read about avalanche awareness and safety in the backcountry (safety first, kids), and then headed for the dunes, which is only about a 15 minute drive from the falls. Even in early fall the camp grounds at the dunes were completely full, which is another reason to pack up your tent and hit the trail. Be sure to stop in at the visitors center and pick up your FREE backcountry permit. The rangers will ask to see your permit at one point or another, so spend the 5-10 minutes and grab your permit.
Hiking in the dunes isn’t an easy task, especially getting over the first set of dunes. Once over the first wave of sand the scenery opens up to an endless sea of sand. The further into the dunes you go the better. There are a couple of dunes that people will hike to in the mornings and evenings for pictures, so if you’re looking for complete solitude try to get as far away from these dunes as possible. If you talk to the rangers prior to setting off, they will point out which ones to avoid.
It took me about an hour and a half to hike a couple of miles into the dunes to a spot that I felt offered me with great views and more importantly a little bit of privacy.
I’ve never been on the moon, but I imagine it is sort of like this.
I picked out a spot on a nearby dune to set up my camera and I headed back down to my tent to make dinner. The peace and quite of this place was deafening, or maybe my ears were still ringing from my visit to the falls earlier in the day? Either way, it was the quietest moment of my life, almost to the point where even my thoughts were loud (does that even make sense?).
The sunset was amazing (no surprise there), and the milky way and accompanying stars showed off all night.
I neglected to bring my sleeping pad in the hopes that the sand would make a comfortable cushion. Wrong. It could have been that I was on a hard packed section of sand, but don’t make the same mistake I did. Pack your sleeping pad. The trek out was easier than the trek in and took very little time. If I could do it over again I would stay an extra day and explore the dunes more and witness another night in this amazing place.
Zapata Falls – Take US-160 E out of Alamosa for 15 miles – take a left onto CO-150 N – Zapata Falls is roughly 10 miles from US-160 (there will be a sign that calls out the falls) – Turn right onto a 2-wheel drive dirt road (look for signage)
Great Sand Dunes National Park – Take the same CO-150 N as Zapata Falls until you hit the dunes (19 miles from US-160)