General Trail Information: South Zapata Lake
South Zapata Lake Rating: ★★★ ( 3/5 Stars)
Distance: 9.8 Miles RT
Elevation Start: 9,089 ft
South Zapata Lake Elevation: 11,800 ft
Total Elevation Gain: 3,000 ft (approximately)
Estimated Time to Complete: 6-8 hours RT
Difficulty: Moderate What does this mean?
Class: Class 1
Season: June – September (expect snow outside of this period)
Trailhead: South Zapata Creek
Getting Here: There are a variety of ways to get to South Zapata Lake, but they all start at the Zapata Falls trailhead right outside of Alamosa, Colorado. Your best bet would be to plug your starting location into Google Maps or your favorite navigational device with an end destination of Zapata Falls. One thing to note, once you turn on to the Zapata Falls road (dirt), you are about 4 miles from the TH. These 4 miles are a bit rough and some lower clearance cars may have a tough time in sections. However, in general this road is doable for most vehicles.
Parking: Parking for South Zapata Lake is shared with Zapata Falls, Ellingwood Point & Blanca Peak, so expect other cars year round. However, the lot is free and can fit about 20-30 cars. In the summer, this lot will absolutely fill up on weekends, so try to get to the parking area earlier or later in the day. There is a non-plumbing bathroom at the trailhead in addition to a doggy poop bag dispenser.
Dogs: South Zapata Lake is a dog friendly trail with plenty of water sources along the way. Be aware there are several creek crossings with few shallow or dry paths across (i.e., if you just gave your dog a bath, go ahead and schedule another one). The start of the trail does have trash cans for your poop and may have poop bags as well if you forget yours.
Camping: The most popular option to camp near South Zapata Lake would be to camp at the official Zapata Falls campground (located about 500 yards from the trailhead – $9 fee, does not accept reservations). This campground will fill up, even in winter months (there are are only about 20 official spots to camp). If that area is full, you could also camp at Great Sand Dunes National Park Pinon Flats campground which is open from April-October each year. During the winter, the campground inside the park is closed so you will have to seek alternative options. If you want to hike in a bit, your best bet would be to camp around the 3 mile mark when the land flattens out a bit. If you want to camp near the lake, you can do that…but honestly, the options are not stellar.
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Trail Summary: South Zapata Lake is a high alpine lake located in the Sangre de Cristo Range of southern Colorado. While Zapata Falls below is a popular hiking destination, the lake is a relatively quiet trip off the beaten path. Trail conditions up to the lake range from packed dirt to some open grassy plains at the top with several creek crossings along the way.
Trail Route: Includes hike up to Ellingwood Point & Blanca Peak
Trail X Factors: Elevation Gain
When you first start your hike to South Zapata Lake, you may see an old trailhead sign along the way. If you look closely, you can see someone has carved into the sign something like “Hike is longer than described and is straight up from here on out. Very difficult!” I read that and said “oh shit.” While it may have been a bit of an exaggeration, the hike up to South Zapata Lake was still very taxing on my legs. From the trailhead up to the lake, you are almost constantly gaining elevation.
- Mickey’s Mountain Kit
- Waterproof (or resistant) footwear
- Water / Snack
- Optional: Hiking Poles – great for the way down
- Optional: Camera
Jack’s Tip: As previously mentioned, this trail includes several creek crossings with no clearly establish paths. Be prepared to hop across slippery rocks and potentially have your feet partially submerged at times. Water-resistant boots are highly recommended for this trip, especially in the early summer months when snow runoff is high.
Photography Tip: In my opinion, the best views on this hike come at the lake itself and working up the valley. I would strongly recommend this hike in the fall when the leaves are starting to turn and the mountains are dusted with snow. However, year round there are awesome views of Great Sand Dunes National Park and the Sangre de Cristo Range. This area is known to have mountain goats, big horn sheep and other native animals.
Jack’s Trip: South Zapata Lake
Editor’s Note: Special Guest blogger for this hike, hope you guys enjoy!
While I’m proud of Mickey’s persistence and passion to summit all of Colorado’s “14ers,” I can’t say I share his enthusiasm for 3 AM wake up calls and potentially lethal ridgelines. When Mickey ventured out into the pitch black darkness to conquer Ellingwood Point and Blanca Peak, Juno and I were happy to stay cozied up in our sleeping bags for a few more hours, #thankyouverymuch. Once the sun (and temperatures) had risen, Juno and I packed up camp and headed towards the Zapata Falls trailhead for our hike up to South Zapata Lake.
After a taxing 100 yard walk from the parking area to the trailhead, Juno and I were on our way! We enjoyed the initial flat, easy quarter mile walk up to the falls. We had previously been to visit Zapata Falls in March 2017 when they were frozen, but it was really cool to see the contrast of them flowing in the early fall. Knowing there was a long hike ahead of us, we didn’t linger too long before heading back to the South Zapata Lake turnoff. As we wound our way up the first series of switchbacks, I made sure to appreciate the views of Great Sand Dunes National Park through the treeline. After a quick and easy 1.3 miles, we found ourselves at the first creek crossing of this trailhead. While I tried to carefully hop across the slippery rocks in the creek and avoid wet boots, Juno jumped in head first and leisurely swam through the freezing waters.
From the first creek crossing, the trail wound up around the valley via a series of steep switchbacks where we caught our first views of the fall foliage and Ellingwood Point in the distance. Our plan was to meet up with Mickey at South Zapata Lake after his summit of Blanca and Ellingwood, so we took our time working our way up what I *thought* was an easy remaining 3 miles. LOL. Eventually, the trail relented and descended quite rapidly into a dense forest. I appreciated the relief and picked up the pace, quickly reaching another creek crossing and starting the uphill climb again. At this point, the steep ascent was beginning to make my legs and lungs burn, but I thought there was only about a mile to go. No big deal, right? Around this time, I crossed paths with a couple of hunters who cheerfully informed me there was at least another 2 miles until reaching the lake. I almost asked them to take their rifles and shoot me right there.
Sure enough, as we continued on our hike we passed the 3 mile mark and still hadn’t broken tree line. However, I knew we were getting closer because there was snow on the ground and a notable chill in the air. Thankfully, the cool weather kept me motivated to stay moving and keep warm. At around 4 miles, we finally broke treeline and found ourselves in a very open, very windy grassy meadow. We continued our trudge through the muddy meadow for another 1.5 miles until we reached South Zapata Lake.
We enjoyed snacking on some beef jerky and taking in the beautiful views of South Zapata Lake with the Sangre de Cristo range in the background. If it weren’t for the whipping winds and lingering snow storm in the distance, I could have stayed there all day! Eventually, I realized that Mickey and I had not timed our hikes well and we would not be meeting up at South Zapata Lake after all. So, Juno and I took one last look at the views and headed back down the trail. The hike down was relatively uneventful, minus Juno calling it quits in the middle of the trail and treating herself to a 30 minute nap. After a few quiet hours, we found ourselves back at the car and ready for a hard earned meal.
Overall, I found the hike up to South Zapata Lake beautiful, with lots of mountain views, fall foliage and relatively few hikers along the way. However, the elevation gain up to the lake is no joke, so I would recommend you take your time working up to the lake.