Here’s why a stop in Cortez is worth your time
Of course, Mesa Verde National Park is reason enough to travel to this part of the Four Corners area. But there are plenty of other things to do in Cortez, Colorado, too, beyond just Mesa Verde.
Whether dining at top-notch restaurants and breweries, enjoying scenic hikes, or engaging with local artistry, our guide serves as your gateway to the popular attractions this southwest corner of Colorado has to offer.
- Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and Cortez Cultural Center provide deep dives into ancient cultures, with thousands of archaeological sites and live Native American performances.
- Mesa Verde National Park is a historical wonder with over 600 cliff dwellings once occupied by Ancestral Puebloans, offering ranger-guided and self-guided tours.
- Cortez, Colorado, is an adventurer’s delight with outdoor activities like hiking on diverse trails, mountain biking at Phil’s World, water sports at McPhee Reservoir, and unique events like the annual Balloon Rally.
Mesa Verde National Park
Naturally, we start with Mesa Verde National Park. It’s one of the attractions that gets the most attention, and for good reason. Mesa Verde is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that houses some of the most well-preserved archaeological sites in the United States. With over 600 cliff dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloan Native Americans between 450 and 1300 A.D., it’s a historical treasure waiting to be explored and appreciated.
Whether you’re an avid history enthusiast or simply looking for a unique and beautiful place to hike, Mesa Verde offers a fascinating peek into the past that’s sure to leave you awestruck.
To understand the full significance of Mesa Verde National Park, you’ll probably need to take one of their insightful ranger-guided tours. These tours offer a unique opportunity to delve into the history and culture of the Puebloan people while exploring the park’s most iconic cliff dwellings, like the Cliff Palace.
Starting in 2024, reservations are needed, which can be made on the Recreation.gov website or by phone at 1-877-444-6777.
The park’s self-guided trails cater to those who enjoy discovering at their leisure. These trails offer a mix of terrains and difficulty levels, catering to hikers of all ages and abilities. Popular trails include the Mesa Top Loop Road Exhibit, the Far View Sites Petroglyph, and the Step House cliff dwelling.
The trails are open from early May to late October, from 8 a.m. to sunset.
Further Back in Time at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Just a stone’s throw away from Mesa Verde lies the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, the nation’s densest concentration of archaeological sites.
Boasting around 8,000 recorded sites to explore, it’s a testament to the 10,000-year history of the Ancestral Puebloans. The monument features a myriad of cliff dwellings, farm plots, kivas, and petroglyphs. Be sure to start your visit at the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum for information and guidance.
Lowry Pueblo Discovery
Exploring the Lowry Pueblo, the monument’s major site, is an integral part of any visit to Canyons of the Ancients. Constructed between 1090 and 1120 CE, this historic landmark is home to eight kivas and 40 rooms, offering a glimpse into the life and culture of the Ancestral Puebloans.
Hiking the Canyon Rim
The Canyon Rim at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument provides hikers with stunning vistas and concealed archaeological treasures. Popular trails include the Sand Canyon Trail, which features fantastic canyon views, plus the Sand Canyon to East Rock Creek Trail to Rock Creek Trail Loop, each boasting a unique blend of natural beauty and ancient ruins.
Hovenweep National Monument
If you want to stay with the ancient Puebloan culture theme, Hovenweep National Monument will be a logical next stop.
Hovenweep is west of Cortez, spanning the Utah-Colorado border, and is a historic site that preserves six prehistoric Puebloan-era villages. These villages, built between A.D. 1200 and 1300, represent a remarkable testament to the architectural prowess of the ancient Puebloans. The structures at Hovenweep, including multistory towers meticulously perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders, showcase the builders’ extraordinary skill and attention to detail.
The most popular hiking trails through Hovenweep National Monument are the Square Tower Group Trails, which are a combination of paved and unpaved hiking trails that take visitors within a few feet of the ancient ruins.
For the more adventurous, and depending on the vehicle you’re driving, there are other trails further out from the visitor center. Some require four-wheel drive and high ground clearance to navigate successfully. Be sure to check in at the visitor center to get the latest road conditions before venturing out.
No matter which trails you hike, you can spend anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours visiting all the sites.
Cultural Immersion at Cortez Cultural Center
Experience the region’s local history at the Cortez Cultural Center, and by “local history,” we mean going back thousands of years. This center is dedicated to educating visitors about the Ancestral Puebloans and their descendants, showcasing a wealth of art, artifacts, and information.
Historical Exhibits and Artifacts
Beyond live performances, the Cortez Cultural Center is renowned for its extensive collection of historical exhibits and artifacts. The center showcases a variety of items that reflect the rich history and culture of the region’s Native American communities, including:
- Navajo, Pueblo, and Ute baskets
These exhibits provide a fascinating glimpse into the heritage of the area.
Live Native American Performances
Cortez Cultural Center also hosts live Native American performances, providing visitors the opportunity to witness the region’s vibrant heritage up close. Held from June through August, these performances feature traditional dances and storytelling, offering a captivating spectacle that honors the heritage of present-day tribes.
Tour the Trail of the Ancients Scenic & Historic Byway
Take to the open road and embark on a journey through the Trail of the Ancients Scenic & Historic Byway. This 480-mile route through Colorado and Utah weaves through archaeological sites and stunning landscapes in Colorado and Utah, offering a unique road trip experience that’s both educational and visually mesmerizing.
For the really ambitious, Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway winds another 763 miles through Arizona and New Mexico. Make a week of it!
Visit the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center
A short drive from Cortez takes you to the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, known for its intriguing educational programs and guided tours. Here, you can learn about Pueblo history and archaeology while contributing to research as citizen scientists through hands-on activities and discussions.
Embark on Outdoor Adventures
Cortez, Colorado, isn’t just about historical sites and cultural experiences. It’s also a paradise for outdoor adventurers. Whether you’re into hiking, biking, or water sports, the town’s diverse landscape offers a plethora of outdoor adventures that promise to get your adrenaline pumping.
Mountain Bike Excursions
Phil’s World mountain bike trail, and Rib Cage, in particular, is a beloved destination for mountain biking enthusiasts. Offering a 60-mile track with loops and downhill sections, it’s a thrilling ride that caters to both novice and experienced riders alike.
Almost Endless Hiking Opportunities
A wide variety of trails await hiking enthusiasts in Cortez. In addition to the trails mentioned at the various national monuments and parks in the area, there are about 50 other hiking trails around Cortez.
For instance, Dolores River Canyon trail offers a leisurely stroll and ancient petroglyphs, while the Geer Natural Hiking Areas has six different hiking trails, each named for a different Beatles song.
The mountain bike trails at Phil’s World are also open to hikers and include the Trust and Hippie House Loop, Doc Sardis Trail Loop, and Abbzug Trail Loop. In Cortez, there’s a trail for every preference and skill level.
As the second-largest reservoir in Colorado, McPhee Reservoir presents a variety of water activities for visitors. From fishing and boating to other water sports, it’s a fantastic spot to unwind and enjoy the picturesque views.
And to get an even better view of McPhee, take a hike! It’s generally uncrowded, and offers a much higher vantage point from which you can enjoy the scenery.
Connect with Nature at Hawkins Preserve
Another spot where you can reconnect with nature is the serene Hawkins Preserve, a perfect alternative to crowded national parks. This 122-acre preserve, owned and operated by the Cortez Cultural Center, offers beautiful views, diverse flora and fauna, and a tranquil setting for hiking, climbing, birding, and bouldering.
A brief drive from Cortez will lead you to Mancos, a charming town renowned for its local art and craftsmanship. You’ll find a variety of unique pieces that reflect the talent and creativity of the local artisans, including:
- Pastel drawings
- Handcrafted furniture
- Sterling silver jewelry
- Oil paintings
Mancos is a great place to explore and discover beautiful works of art.
Revel in Local Entertainment at Sunflower Theater
Reward a day of exploration by unwinding at the Sunflower Theater. This intimate and affordable venue underwent a multi-year restoration as a way to spur economic development on Main Street in Cortez and opened to the public in 2015. It offers a variety of plays, concerts, films, lectures, and improv classes, entertaining about 4,500 people a year.
Cortez Rendezvous Balloon Rally
Every year in August, about 20 hot air balloons launch at dawn from Parque de Vida in downtown Cortez. Be there to witness the enchanting spectacle of the annual Cortez Rendezvous Balloon Rally, where the sky is filled with vibrant hot air balloons, offering a visual spectacle that’s sure to impress.
Four States Ag Expo
Join in the celebration of agriculture and rural lifestyle at the yearly Four States Ag Expo, held in March at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds. This event brings together farmers, suppliers, and buyers from around the region, featuring demonstrations, exhibits, and entertainment that highlight the area’s agricultural heritage.
Cortez Farmer’s Market
Complete your visit to Cortez by dropping by the local farmer’s market. Happening every Saturday from June through October, it’s the perfect place to shop for fresh produce, handmade goods, and local treats.
From farm-fresh produce and baked goodies to handmade crafts, the Cortez Farmer’s Market has something for everyone.
12 Hours of Mesa Verde
If you’re looking for that perfect blend of history and athleticism, take part in the 12 Hours of Mesa Verde, an endurance mountain bike race held in early May. Teams participate relay-style over a 16.4-mile course through the national park, so grab a couple of friends and join in the fun!
Proceeds from entry fees and sponsorships go to local youth organizations in Southwest Colorado, so you’ll be exhausted for a good cause.
While the ancient cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park might be the initial reason to visit Cortez, there’s so much more to experience. The vibrant performances at the Cortez Cultural Center, the quaint farmer’s market, top-notch restaurants, and the exhilarating outdoor adventures all make the small town of Cortez an immersive and unforgettable experience. Start planning your trip today and discover the wonders that await you in Cortez!
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Cortez, Colorado, known for?
Cortez, Colorado, is known for being the cultural center of Mesa Verde Country and for its strong agricultural traditions and Native American heritage. It’s located near the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park, making it a popular destination for visitors.
Does Cortez, Colorado, have a downtown?
Yes, Cortez has a historic downtown area with Main Street buildings dating from the 1890s to the 1930s, and it’s a great place to learn about the town’s history and culture. So, it’s definitely worth a visit.
What are some of the main things to do in Cortez, CO?
If you’re in Cortez, Colorado, don’t miss Mesa Verde National Park, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Cortez Cultural Center, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Hawkins Preserve, and Trail of the Ancients Scenic & Historic Byway.
What kind of outdoor activities can I do in Cortez?
You can enjoy hiking, mountain biking, water sports at McPhee Reservoir, and bouldering at Hawkins Preserve in Cortez. Have a great time exploring the outdoors!
Are there any annual events in Cortez that are worth attending?
Absolutely! Cortez hosts events like the Cortez Rendezvous Balloon Rally, Four States Ag Expo, and the 12 Hours of Mesa Verde, which are definitely worth attending. Enjoy!