Zapata Falls

After walking the dunes twice in one day, I needed a little break from slogging through sand. We hung around the campsite all morning, then in early afternoon took a little ride up to Zapata Falls, located outside the park about 10 miles. In all the years we’ve come here, we never investigated this place. I guess I just always thought it would be at the end of a 30 mile bad road and not be very interesting. Turns out, it’s kind of a cool place.

In reality, it is only about a 1/2 mile hike after a 2 mile drive over a pretty good dirt road. There is also a BLM campground up there with pit toilets but no water. Quite a few level sites and many with great views of the entire valley. It wouldn’t be a bad place to camp if the Dunes campground was full or the private campground just outside the park was not to ones liking.

Entrance to Zapata Falls near Great Sand Dunes, CO

So Zapata Falls is actually located in a chasm hidden from view unless you walk up to it through the ice cold stream it creates. In summer it’s a pretty cool waterfall. In winter it freezes and, they tell me, is really cool. Most guidebooks I’ve read say to not bother with your camera – it will get wet, but I just had to make a picture.
The hidden Zapata Falls - a very moist experience.I rolled up my pants but kept my boots on. The water is not deep this time of year, just too cold to be in it for long. There is a cable attached to the cliff on one side to help steady oneself, and plenty of rocks to balance on to get up to the falls if you are careful. I used my extended tripod leg as a hiking pole to further steady me and eventually got to the face of the falls. A wind the rushing water created as it spilled over the cliff also caused a steady blowing mist which coated my camera immediately. I set my camera and tripod up, took a light reading and made a quick exposure. I wiped off the lens, and repeated. I managed one good shot, then bailed.

A little downstream

Outside the chasm, the stream made for some nice water shots. After the short hike back to the car and the ride back to camp we took it easy the rest of the day. An interesting trek, but now I want to see it frozen.

Another Day, Another Dune
September 18
I was ready to hike the dunes again after taking it easy yesterday. The mild storm had passed and the weather was warming up again. Yesterday was nice, but still a bit of a cool wind – which probably meant windy up on the dunes. Better to wait a day anyway. This morning dawned calm. I was up at 6 AM again and out the door quickly (Mary stayed in bed again). I chose my route more carefully this time and made it up and over to the smooth, untouched areas of the dunes in a much easier fashion than the previous try. It is so different when it is calm. The quiet stillness, the long uninterrupted views really is inspiring.

Approaching Dawn on the Dunes

Early morning moisture gives many of the dunes a two-tone appearance and creates odd patterns in the sand. Soon after the sun rises, they dry up. I stopped and photographed often and the sun came up, it created even more interesting patterns of light and dark. Being on the less traveled side of the dunes was pure photographic joy. While there was still some amount of footprints, the dunes were largely smooth and I really enjoyed the whole morning. This was a perfect morning on the sand. After a while, I just stopped and enjoyed the views before heading back.

Later in the day we took a stab at the 4-wheel drive Medano Pass Primitive Road. It skirts along Medano Creek, a seasonal waterway that has always had at least some water running when we were here. In spring it runs all the way around the dunes, sometimes disappearing before reemerging further down. There are always interesting photographic opportunities with the sand and water and leaves.

Wind on grass creates patterns in the sand.

This year it was completely dry. We only drove a little way over the road. It was really not too bad. Early on, as the road follows along the stream bed, it is quite sandy, but not undoable in the Rav. There really was just not much point since the creek was dry. We stopped at one of the picnic sites, got out and explored a little before heading back to camp. We enjoyed a wonderfully warm evening and will be moving on to the Gunnision area in the morning (Today).

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