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Great Sand Dunes and Zapata Falls in Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Zapata Falls in Colorado

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As you drive toward Alamosa, Colorado, you see two distinct sights, the towering mountains of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range and the sandy white hills of Great Sand Dunes National Park. We were able to experience both of these formations; the Great Sand Dunes and Zapata Falls in the mountains are within just a few miles of each other.

Zapata Falls

Our original intention was to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park; however, we saw a small sign as we were driving toward the entrance pointing toward Zapata Falls. We thought a trip to a waterfall sounded like a fun diversion. In actuality, it was an adventure unto itself!

The hike was not steep, but definitely an good incline. We began hearing the sound of Zapata Falls about halfway through the hike, and the hikers returning all assured us that we would definitely not regret the remaining trek. We were relying on that because the girls were grumbling about the hike.

When we finally reached the stream that resulted from the falls, we realized that we had to cross it to reach the base of the falls. The stream was very cold; I would estimate about 50 degrees in mid-July. You are able to jump from river rock to rock, but you should expect to range from ankle deep water to approximately knee deep.

The end result is absolutely fabulous. I can’t begin to explain the majesty of standing at the base of the falls, feeling the spray of the water, and looking up some 60 feet to the hole where melting snow water pours down through a shower of sunlight.

At the height of the falls, we saw birds, squirrels, lizards, butterflies, and chipmunks. The cool water was a treat and the girls agreed that Zapata Falls was “the best thing ever” and was definitely worth the short hike. In the next two weeks, we hiked several to other waterfalls but never experienced one quite as magical as Zapata Falls. Every waterfall after Zapata elicited a comment like, “It was nice, but it wasn’t as good as Zapata!”

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Just past the turnoff for Zapata Falls is Great Sand Dunes National Park. We visited in mid-July and it was very hot. The sun reflecting off of the sand was brutal. Sunscreen is a must, even if you don’t normally burn, and a hat of some sort is advisable. Be sure to pack ample water and refreshments; fruit would be a good choice here.

Great Sand Dunes National Park features the highest sand dunes in North America. Think BEACH + MOUNTAINS and you get the picture. When we visited, the water that formed the marshy area at the base of the dunes was not there. We didn’t know the difference, but other visitors who were familiar with the area said that it was the first time they had seen the Dunes without water. Sand sledding is an option that we didn’t try. It honestly was too hot to make that 90 minute hike to the top of the dunes.

There is also a Junior Ranger program at this National Park. The Visitor Center featured movies, exhibits, hands-on demonstrations, and air conditioning. The entire park is unique because it covers a variety of geographical areas and landscapes: grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, alpine lakes, and tundra. Having the opportunity to see all of the areas in one location is a real treat!

Junior Ranger Pledge at Great Sand Dunes National Park

Taking the Junior Ranger Pledge at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Either or both of these parks would make a great road trip from and of the Hilton hotels in Colorado Springs.

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Zapata Falls photo by Larry Lamsa / CC BY 4.0

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Heather and her family were born and raised in east Texas, where she is an assistant principal. Her husband teaches high school chemistry and her daughters are…

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