CORTEZ, 200.5 m. (6,198 alt., 921 pop.), seat of Montezuma County, is a trading center for sheep and cattle raisers who pasture their herds on the sage flats to the west. The town was founded in 1887 when ranchers first pushed into the Montezuma Valley; many of the tan sandstone buildings were erected during that period. Cortez is interesting on Saturday nights, when its main street is filled with ranchers, farmers, and Indians; the latter are usually dressed in brilliant velveteens and calicoes, and aglitter with silver and turquoise jewelry. (…) The majority are Ute, although there is a sprinkling of Navaho and Piute.
— COLORADO: A GUIDE TO THE HIGHEST STATE (WPA, 1941)
Today Cortez is a town of 8,500 people. It is still the seat of Montezuma County, in the southwest corner of Colorado. The main industries are tourism, energy, and agriculture, and Saturday nights tend to be quiet.
Most tourists who visit Cortez are headed for Mesa Verde National Park. And don’t get me wrong, Mesa Verde is great. Along with the famous cliff dwellings, the park has an old school museum, the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, full of dioramas and displays made by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers in the 1930s. There’s also a sweet new visitor center right at the park entrance. And from the top of the mesa, you can see forever.
But if you go to Cortez, spend a day or two at Mesa Verde, and leave, you will have missed out on what makes this area so special.
The Mesa Verde complex is just one of many archaeological sites nearby. For a less crowded experience that includes stunning towers and other structures in six prehistoric villages, go to Hovenweep National Monument.
Even if you visit in midwinter, when the archaeological areas are socked in with snow, the town of Cortez has its own offbeat charm. The Cortez Cultural Center, on North Market Street, includes a small museum and an outdoor plaza that hosts Native American dances during the summer months. In winter the plaza is quiet, but it is still worth a visit to see the incredibly realistic mural of a prehistoric pueblo painted on the north side of the Cultural Center building. The mural was created by Buford C. Wayt, a local teacher, in 1991. He was 70 years old.
Mr. Wayt’s mural is my favorite, but in the years since it was completed the town has pursued an ambitious public mural program, and you will find lots of other interesting projects downtown, including “The Peach Harvest,” by Brad Goodell, completed in 2012. The downtown area also includes lots of distinctive old buildings, marked with handy plaques explaining their history.
Aside from Mesa Verde, which is east of town, the most recognizable landmark near Cortez is Sleeping Ute Mountain, to the west. The Sleeping Ute is actually a small mountain range (the Ute Mountains), with a dense cluster of peaks representing different parts of the sleeping warrior (head, knees, east toe, west toe). The story behind Sleeping Ute Mountain is so interesting that it really deserves its own entry. Another day.
So, visit Cortez if you ever get a chance. If the weather is warm, take a hike through some of the unforgettable places nearby. Stop by the Cultural Center and look at the pueblo mural. Then go to Main Street Brewery for a local beer. You’ll be glad you did.