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By Graham Coffey

The parking lot of the Weminuche Woodfire Grille in Vallecito is packed on a midwinter’s night. The owner, Joe Zebas, talks passionately about his love for public lands as the pecan wood he picked out of an orchard this morning burns in the fireplace nearby. Across the room, locals play pool in a weeknight league. People of all ages commune while eating and drinking at the bar. Someone walks past the table every few minutes and stops to speak with Zebas. They’re all members of an extended adopted family that Zebas has created along the shores of Vallecito Lake.

“Vallecito is one of the last frontiers,” Zebas says. “You can only come up one way, and you can only leave one way. There’s no freeway system here. The people are amazing. You’ve got to get to know them. If you don’t, then you seem to think, ‘What’s Vallecito about?’”

Vallecito Lake is a gateway to some of Southwest Colorado’s best outdoor recreation. The winter season is ideal for snowmobiling, ice fishing, and Nordic skiing. With the spring thaw, adventure seekers can access 500,000 acres of the state’s largest wilderness area from the edge of town. Down below, anglers revel in the serenity and bounty of Vallecito’s cold blue waters.

How did Zebas, a successful attorney from Hobbs, New Mexico, come to own a restaurant in a town with less than 1,000 permanent residents? In 2016, Zebas looked online and saw a cabin for sale on the north end of the lake. When he arrived in Vallecito, he knew this must be the place. Zebas grew up poor and buying a 1000-square-foot cabin next to a burbling mountain stream was the realization of a lifelong dream. It was so peaceful,” Zebas says. “When a neighboring building came up for sale, I saw this as an opportunity to turn it into a welcoming place for families. I never intended to be a restaurant owner, it was an opportunity to give back.”

The Weminuche Woodfire Grill sits at the same site that was once Virginia’s Steakhouse. For years, Virginia’s was a local gathering spot where anyone stopping through could get a meal.

“We’re not Virginia’s, but we respect what she did. There were great stories in this place, and we wanted to carry the torch for Vallecito. The fireplace here was a nerve center for the town, and we’ve tried to preserve the history.”

On this night, it is clear Zebas has succeeded in large part thanks to his ethos of inclusion, which has become the restaurant’s operating philosophy. Just as he sees the restaurant as a space for everyone, he also believes the restaurant’s namesake – the Weminuche Wilderness, which starts a stone’s throw from the restaurant – belongs to everyone.

“We need to have an understanding that public lands are for everybody, and the Weminuche, to me, is for everybody. No matter your race or religion, this is your place to enjoy Earth. Most people in America are never going to experience aspen trees, blue spruce, rivers, and majestic mountains…but they’re a symbol of who we are as Americans.”

Zebas’s desire for inclusion is reflected in the menu. The restaurant features light and hearty dishes, and the menu includes vegan options. Offerings range from steaks and patty melts to sweet potato salads. Many of the restaurant’s dishes are cooked on a grill that burns the same pecan wood blazing in the fireplace. The pizzas are made from scratch—no easy task at 8,500 feet—and biting into one is a pleasant surprise. Despite being in the national forest, prices are on par with or less than those found in downtown Durango, which sits only 18 miles away.

Despite its proximity to Durango, residents hardly venture to enjoy the lake or Vallecito’s many recreational opportunities, Zebas notes. He hopes having a place to get a good meal and something to drink after a long day outside will help bring more people up the hill to enjoy the beauty of the area.

“Vallecito’s future is bright, and we’re excited to grow with the community. Are we going to help it? I don’t know, but I know through this restaurant, we’re going to try.”

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