Buildings lining the Cortez Main Street date from the late 1800s. | Photo by Doug Kerr /
Buildings lining the Cortez Main Street date from the late 1800s. | Photo by Doug Kerr /

Staff writer

Cortez is a crossroads town in Colorado’s southwest corner, serving as a gateway to Mesa Verde National Park and the Four Corners Monument and a jumping-off point for tourists headed into Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, Utah’s canyon country and Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona line.

Cortez got its start in 1886 as the home for construction crews working on a project to divert water from the Dolores River into the Montezuma Valley for farming.

The fledgling community was transformed by the 1906 creation of Mesa Verde National Park 30 miles away to preserve 600 cliff dwellings built by Native Americans in the late 1790s.

The Cortez area became a dream destination for archaeologists.

Mesa Verde is the nation’s largest archeological preserve at more than 50,000 acres, but it’s just the best-known of a string of notable prehistoric sites in the Cortez area, including Hovenweep National Monument, Yucca House National Monument, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Anasazi Heritage Center and Ute Mountain Tribal Park.

Cortez also sits near a branch of the 1,200-mile Old Spanish Trail, a historic trade route that connected Santa Fe and Los Angeles. The trail was discovered by Spanish explorers in the late 1500s and carried scores of pack trains in the mid-1800s bearing serapes, blankets and wool products from Santa Fe to Los Angeles and bringing back horses and mules.

The Ute Mountain Reservation, home of one of three tribes of the Ute Nation that used to range across the Colorado Plateau, begins about 10 miles south of Cortez and extends to the Arizona and New Mexico lines, with a small arm that extends into New Mexico.

The tribe has built the Ute Mountain Casino, Hotel & Resort about 10 miles south of Cortez.

The Four Corners Monument, the only place in the United States where four states meet, is 39 miles south of town.

From Cortez, highways lead north to Telluride and the San Juans, southwest to Monument Valley and northwest to the Utah canyonlands.

Mesa Verde National Park

Cortez facts
Population: 8,482 (2010 Census).
Land area: 5.5 square miles.
County: Montezuma (Cortez is county seat).
Altitude: 6,191 feet above sea level.
Climate: Hot summers, mild winters, and low humidity, with abundant sunshine year-round. Annual precipitation of 13 inches, including average snowfall of 36 inches. Snow depth of 1 to 2 inches from December through February. January averages: high 41 high, low 13. July averages: 89 high, 54 low. More weather >>