I’ve learned two things from being a foodie: Take care of your teeth or you won’t be noshing for long, and do something to work up an appetite from time to time. So, when my friend suggested we spend the perfect day in Vallecito, sampling the best food and drink they had to offer, along with paddle boarding, fishing, and hiking, I was in.
Vallecito is one of my favorite places to escape for the day. It’s not far from Durango – maybe a 45-minute drive – but you’ll feel transported. The scenery is quiet and peaceful but the community is vibrant, filled with laughter and camaraderie. As you head out, Durango begins to fade. In its place are gamble oaks, aspens, and thick-barked ponderosa pines, their signature three-bundle needle branches feathering out to wave at you as you pass.
Slowly but surely, the dense forest thins as you wind your way down the two-lane road, passing Helen’s Country Liquor Store with its old-school, red Coors sign. Soon, signs detailing rentals and lake activities proudly announce your arrival at Vallecito, and maybe – just maybe – you miss that 25 mph sign. Before you can say “Vallecito doesn’t have police,” you may (or may not) get pulled over for speeding by the sheriff… not that I would know anything about that.
Our first stop was the Country Market for fuel – food, coffee, and gas, everything you need to start an adventure. This family-owned restaurant is full of Vallecito charm. Every silverware roll has a different patterned cloth napkin, and the mismatched coffee cups line the shelf above carafes of 81301 Coffee. The Ranchero-inspired menu is so huge, you could probably eat three meals a day there for six months and never eat the same thing. Personally, I can’t pass up the cheesy Sunrise Breakfast Enchiladas smothered in smoky red sauce, or a crunchy Breakfast Stuffed Cheese Crisp (or, a few juicy shredded beef tacos and a side of queso for lunch).
We pick up a PRID parking pass – also available at the General Store or Pine River Lodge – on our way to Over the Top Adventures. You can’t miss them, with their big yellow tent and trailer full of kayaks and stand-up paddle boards. They’re usually there on the weekends after 9 a.m., or call in advance and they’ll meet you at the lake. I love this company because they’ll rent boards for just an hour. They explained that the winds are calmer in the morning, which makes ideal conditions for SUP. Kayaking is easier in the wind, but afternoon gusts can cause inexperienced paddle-boarders to go around in circles.
After a few hours of paddling, we’re ready for a picnic and a hike. We head to the Rocky Mountain General Store to pick up the essentials: made-to-order deli sandwiches, beer, canned rosé, and the store’s famous elk and beef snack sticks. They have a USDA-certified smokehouse on-site, and they make the best sausages around. After stocking up, we pile into the car and head toward Middle Mountain – Vallecito’s personal recreational mountain. There are over half a dozen trails for hiking, ATVs, mountain bikes, horses, and dirt bikes (and, probably, Sasquatch-ing). There are other hikes in the area, and on another day we might trek 2 to 3 miles down the beautiful Vallecito Creek Trail to picnic at the bridge. But today, we have our eyes set on a different prize: the vistas.
We pull off onto a gravel path, tame enough to drive in a car, but rugged enough to keep us at 10-15 mph. Pretty, pink wild roses line the road while the aspens sway in the wind, their leaves shimmering like green and silver coins. This drive is unbelievable in the fall, full of colors until you head above the tree line at over 10,000 feet. Surrounded by evergreens, we pass Cave Basin trail head and continue on to Runlett Park. We pull over to enjoy the perfect view of the lake below, knowing it’s 4WD territory beyond this point. One day, I’ll have to come back to visit the ghost town of Tuckerville, which supposedly has a breathtaking view of Los Pinos Valley and Emerald Lake.
Satisfied with the sights, we head back down for happy hour. It’s either the Rusty Shovel, known for their excellent tap list and pool tables, or Pura Vida on the southern end of town. The latter has a marina-facing patio where we can enjoy cool breezes and watch the osprey fly over the lake, their keen eyes on the lookout for trout. The hummingbirds buzz by, happily drinking from a nearby feeder as we sip our house margaritas (a drink so popular, they keep it on draft). We snack on wonton-wrapped bacon poppers and a seared tuna and guacamole tower, reminiscing about our perfect day.
I mean, how could it get better than rosé all day, good-timing people, tasty food, and – of course – a few damn fine vistas? Well, did I mention that Vallecito’s extra 1,300 feet in elevation makes it significantly cooler on a blazing hot Durango day? I won’t turn that down this summer.
Lindsay D. Mattison is a professional chef and food writer living in Durango. She enjoys long walks in the woods, the simplicity of New York-style cheese pizza, and she’s completely addicted to Chapstick. Contact her at [email protected]