Colorado, Colorado Hikes

Colorado Day Hikes: South Zapata Lake

Getting Covid at the beginning of July was not part of our summer plans. Especially after successfully dodging it for 2.5 years. I think we both (naively) thought we were among the lucky ones who wouldn’t ever get infected. But it turns out very little can prevent one from getting Covid when a coworker comes to the office while infected… for an entire week. And so the month of July began in a feverish, achy, miserable fashion. And all our hiking plans went right out the window. Along with our fitness.

Towards the end of the month, we were finally recovered enough to get back up into the mountains. I was very excited to be on the trail again and frolic in the beauty of Colorado’s alpine summer. And since we were already down at Great Sand Dunes for our wedding, we were well-situated to hike a trail that wouldn’t ordinarily be very accessible to us, given its distance from home.

In retrospect, maybe our first big post-Covid hike shouldn’t have been a 9.9 mile (16 km) round trip trek that gains 3100 feet (945 m) of elevation en route to South Zapata Lake. It certainly wasn’t the best decision I’ve ever made. But we made it to the lake, and it was absolutely gorgeous, so I don’t really regret it.

The hike begins at the Zapata Trailhead, located off CO Highway 17 in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of south-central Colorado. The road to the trailhead used to be an unpaved bumpy mess, but it was recently chip-sealed and now any car should be able to make it. Even if you don’t want to hike, the drive to the trailhead is worth it for the view of the dunes and the Sangres.

Overlooking the dunes at Zapata Trailhead

About 0.5 mile (0.8 km) up the trail is Zapata Falls. Because it’s a relatively accessible waterfall, this trailhead is fairly popular. During the middle of the day, parking is a disaster. Also, Zapata Falls is tucked back in an alcove that creates a bottleneck; when the trail is crowded, you have to stand in line and wait your turn to view the falls. For both of these reasons, I recommend going either early in the morning or late in the afternoon rather than the middle of the day.

Getting to the falls requires walking through the creek, so you’ll need to wear shoes you don’t mind getting wet or bring sandals to change into. I wore my waterproof Keens and they worked great for both the hike and the creek. I don’t recommend flip flops or similar sandals… the trail is very rocky and the creek is slippery. Best to have something with some support and traction. I also recommend bringing hiking poles; they were helpful in navigating the creek. You may also want to carry a towel. The water was painfully cold; I wouldn’t want to do this hike in cooler weather.

(Apparently, though, it is possible to make it to the falls without getting your feet wet. I’m not sure how, but our 12 year old nephew pulled it off. After the fact, he told me, “When you said we had to walk up the creek, I thought it was going to be hard to not get my feet wet.” 🤣)

Headed up Zapata Trail with the fam
That’s me just right of center with my legs in the water. In places, it came almost up to my knees
Headed back to the car… with a great view of the dunes!

Pat and I returned to the trailhead two days later, this time without our families, to hike to South Zapata Lake. To reach the lake, you don’t have to walk in the creek. There is an unmarked turnoff on the right, just before the creek, that leads to the lake. Almost immediately, the trail begins to climb. And climb. And climb some more. If I had to describe this hike in two words, it would be ‘steep’ and ‘rocky.’ I honestly don’t know how people do it without hiking poles. We were slipping and sliding on the descent, even with our poles. And we were huffing and puffing on the way up. Some of the sections are just stupidly steep. I tried to document it, but steepness is difficult to capture in photos.

In a couple places, I was also wishing I’d worn pants rather than shorts; plants were encroaching upon the trail and my legs got a little scratched up. A few fallen trees also blocked the path. This is clearly a lesser-used and maintained route… which was also evidenced by the fact that it was a Saturday in July and we only saw 11 people between Zapata Falls and South Zapata Lake.

About 1 mile (1.6 km) up the trail is an old miners cabin.

In some locations, we also had a view of where we were headed… way back into the mountains. And behind us, we could see out into the expansive San Luis Valley.

That mountain peak poking out just left of center is Ellingwood Point. The lake is at the base of it
Looking back at the dunes from the first high point along the trail
Looking back over the San Luis Valley

After about 4.5 miles (7.2 km) of climbing, we finally reached tree line. From here, it was about another 0.5 mile (0.8 km) through a lovely alpine meadow to the lake. In our exhaustion, this part seemed to take forever. But eventually, we crested a hill and there was the lake… oddly shaped and bright turquoise, nestled at the base of fourteener Ellingwood Point.

The trail through this alpine section was narrow and sometimes difficult to spot
First view of South Zapata Lake

We climbed to the high point on the left and enjoyed a lovely picnic break above the lake. If not for the many flies, we may have even stayed here a little longer.

Zapata Lake
It was amazing how abruptly the lake went from shallow to deep… and clear to turquoise
View from our picnic spot

The trail crosses the creek three times en route to the lake. At two of these crossings, you descend to the creek and then climb steeply up the other side. On the way back, we had to do this in reverse. It’s never fun to gain elevation on the hike out, especially when we were already tired from the ascent. Not for the first time, we found ourselves regretting our choice of trail. And by “we,” I mean I was regretting selecting this trail and Pat was regretting not talking me into doing something a little less strenuous. Fortunately, we’d talked ourselves out of backpacking it, deciding that would be too ambitious two weeks post-Covid. It definitely would have been.

Long story short, if you’re looking for a beautiful lake in the Sangre de Cristos, with a trailhead that can be reached without 4WD and a hike that will absolutely kick your butt… this is the one!

42 thoughts on “Colorado Day Hikes: South Zapata Lake”

  1. Sorry to hear that you got COVID and it took you a while to recover. Glad to hear that you picked up where you left off though and were back in the mountains in no time. I couldn’t help but laugh that you picked a 16km hike to “ease” back into it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. South Zapata Lake looks gorgeous! I’m not sure I’d have managed a hike like that so soon after having COVID. I caught it back in June (like you, I’d dodged it for two and a half years) and it took me a good month or so to feel back to my usual self.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d say it took me at least three weeks as well. It really knocked me out. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who get a severe case. Glad you are feeling better now as well!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah for sure. I did read a study which showed people who’ve not got a weakened immune system but have had a big infection in the past have naturally occurring T cells that fight it off. So my doctor said if I notice the lymph nodes in my neck swelling and no clear cause, its probably fighting covid….which I have had 2 or 3 times. Science is crazy! Or lots of us have just remained very lucky 😂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Whoa Diana, this trail is killer! With the cold mountain water to ford, big rocks, tall weeds and narrow precipitous places, I am completely impressed that you did this at all. Then following post-Covid bouts, oh wow. I do know the strong urge to get out get out get outside after being cooped up, so I do understand. Great post, great photos and terrific descriptions. I know I won’t be hiking this one, but I sure appreciate the vicarious visit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s upsetting to get it right after getting boosted. We weren’t eligible for that booster which is probably why we got so sick. I was pretty well knocked out for 5 days.


  4. Thanks for the tour of this lake – it’s really pretty. Hiking has been on my head but it’s been raining a lot so can’t really do it. Sorry to hear you caught covid. I suppose it eventually catches up. But glad you recovered and are back in the mountains.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I know what you mean, it IS hard to capture how steep a trail is, but you did a really good job. It looked steep. Loved that alpine meadow. Ugh, covid! I’m surprised you did what you did so quickly after recovering. I got it last year, was sick for three weeks. There’s no way I could have hiked that so soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was knocked out pretty well for the first week and it definitely took a couple more weeks to fully get our endurance back. This hike was a little too ambitious. But it all worked out, at least.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Sorry to hear about your Covid experience. When infected people do not stay home until symptoms are gone, we are all at risk. Now that school is back in the risk is even higher. This hike does look amazing. Glad you got back out on the trail Diana. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I am sorry to hear you got infected by COVID! Lately, there’s been so much Covid fatigue — and that’s associated with a desire to get back into the normal, or as close to normal, the swing of things as possible — that people may actually trivialize their symptoms and choose not to get tested for either Covid or influenza. I am glad to hear you recovered from it and were able to go on a hiking adventure, those views are truly stunning! Aiva 🙂 xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s exactly what happened. The person was unwilling to take a Covid test and laughed off the suggestion. I understand the fatigue but it was annoying that we paid the price.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m sorry to hear you were infected with COVID.I’m glad you recovered well and were able to get back out on another beautiful trail. It looks beautiful! And what a genius your nephew is 🤣

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Sorry that COVID got you, but it’s a relief you recovered well! A near-10 mile hike is a surprising activity to do after recovering, but hiking is in your blood, and it’s great you got to be free after getting sick! South Zapata Lake and its surroundings look great, as Colorado usually does!

    Liked by 1 person

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