A spectacular land of ancient cliff dwellings, alluring mountains, colorful cowboys and farm-fresh flavors
Driving along southwestern Colorado’s Highway 160, part of the San Juan Skyway, you’ll see some spectacular Western settings and breathtaking sunsets. National Geographic calls the striking scenery here “sculpted horizons.”
But if you want your group to experience what Mesa Verde Country is truly like beyond the beautiful sunsets, and learn about the cultural and historical gems waiting to be discovered, you’ll need to turn off the main highway and spend a few days in the area. You’ll be surprised at what you find.
Cortez, population 9,000, and at an elevation of 6,200 feet, could be your home base for a three- to five-day visit, as it is the largest town in the area, with accommodations for groups of any size. Cortez is in the middle of the area’s farming belt and close to many important sites, most notably Mesa Verde National Park. If you’re in town on a Saturday, check out the large farmer’s market for locally grown fruits like apples and peaches to vegetables, eggs, pork and lamb from family farms like SongHaven, Ower’s Farm and Bountiful Ridge Farm.
Check out the new vineyards popping up around Cortez in McElmo Canyon. Sutcliffe Winery, begun by John Sutcliffe and located in sandy loam near picturesque bluffs and mesas, is open every day between noon and 5 p.m. for wine tasting. Groups can enjoy tasty merlots, cabernets, syrahs, dessert wines, rieslings, roses, chardonnays and sauvignon blancs on a shady patio overlooking the vineyards and red-rocks scenery.
The rustic Farm Bistro in Cortez can handle groups that want to have lunch or dinner served in style. The downtown restaurant uses iron skillets and farm-to-table ingredients and brings in fresh fruits, vegetables and meats from as many as 17 local farms.
The Mesa Verde Country Visitor Information Center in Cortez (800-530-2998) and Colorado Welcome Center (970-565-4048) on Main Street can answer questions and provide groups information on lodging, sports and recreational possibilities, history and dining. Mesa Verde Country offers group farm tours in season.
Mesa Verde National Park
One of the high points of the region, both literally and figuratively, is Mesa Verde National Park, established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people. The 50,074-acre park sits atop high ground reachable by a paved two-lane road. In 2017 more than 613,000 people visited the park to view some of the 4,500 archeological sites and 600 spectacular cliff dwellings. The World Heritage Site is open 24 hours every day of the year, and is the only national park in the United States created to protect cultural and historical sites rather than natural features.
Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum within the park is 21 miles (or about 45 minutes) from the park’s main entrance. To view Balcony House, Cliff House and Long House, ranger-guided tours are offered. Lodging, a restaurant, cafeteria and gift shop are all found within the park. There are hiking and backpacking trails, and bicycling on some roads and camping are permitted. The four-hour, ranger-led 700 Years Tour follows a chronological journey from the earliest pit houses and Pueblo villages to the classic Pueblo-era cliff dwellings.
In addition to Mesa Verde, your group will likely want to explore a portion of the 170,000 acres that make up the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. First, stop at the Anasazi Heritage Center, a couple of miles north of Dolores, to get an overview of the area and learn what this substantial national monument offers. At the center there are numerous color photos, well-done exhibits and an overview film.
Also at the Canyons of the Ancients, the Sand Canyon and Rock Creek trails are open for hiking, and Sand Canyon Pueblo features some 420 rooms, 100 kivas and 14 towers. Lowry Pueblo, west of Dolores, is the only developed recreation site within the monument. If you have the time, Hovenweep National Monument, located near the Utah border, is also very popular.
At Ute Tribal Mountain Park, full- and half-day tours are available, and visitors can see up to four well-preserved canyon cliff dwellings. At Tree House, built around 1140 A.D., the Ancestral Pueblo Indians occupied the space for about 20 years, moved and then returned later.
Horseback and Rail Adventures
At Rimrock Outfitters near Mancos, your group can join in a breakfast trail ride with cowboy coffee, pancakes, bacon and eggs, or a dinner ride followed by a good juicy steak cooked over a bed of hot coals, cowboy beans, potatoes and more. You just might be serenaded by some cowboys around the campfire.
Rimrock Outfitters also offers one- to four-hour rides through the aspens and pines and across high country meadows with views of the striking La Plata Mountains. All-day rides are also offered where views of four states are featured, as are overnight and extended pack trips. Large groups are welcome.
In the three-blocks-wide town of Dolores, stop by the old Rio Grande Southern Railroad depot on Railroad Avenue and explore the long lost days of narrow gauge railroading in the Rockies. The depot, open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., offers free admission and features original station furniture and railroad displays. Special rail excursions are also offered at times by the Galloping Goose Historical Society on the Durango & Silverton and Cumbres & Toltec railroads. Down the street, stop in at the Depot Restaurant for a good burger and on Central Street, check out the red-brick Mercantile building, where you’ll find lots of Western antiques from the area.
If your group is into fly fishing, some of the best fishing in Southwest Colorado is found near the Dolores River, which runs near town. Or check out nearby McPhee Reservoir, which has 50 miles of shoreline and a marina for fishing and boating. North of Dolores, the elevation increases dramatically, and the scenery is dotted with aspens, evergreen conifers and high mountain peaks.
Mancos and Cowboys
For some local history, your group may want to spend time in the small but absorbing town of Mancos, incorporated in 1894. When American novelist Louis L’Amour wrote about the West, he was likely talking about the Mancos River Valley. Today this riverside town boasts loads of history, and metal plaques on many of the business district’s structures give the details.
The 1905 Mancos Bank building, the colorful 1910 Opera House, the Mancos Times Tribune building from 1910 (with printing presses still inside) and the local bar (the oldest in Colorado) are all testament to exciting earlier cowboy days in Mancos. Other historic houses and buildings include the 1890 Bauer House, 1903 Wrightsman House, 1910 Copston House, 1893 Methodist Church and 1894 Ausburn Hotel. You can also visit quaint shops and art galleries on Main Street, and you may even have to dodge a cattle drive or stagecoach at times.
At newly-opened Outlier Cellars, stop by for a glass of homemade hard cider on the banks of the Mancos River. The museum down the street focuses on local history. Take a scenic drive on engaging Route 42 to Mancos State Park and Jackson Gulch Reservoir, where you can fish, hike, swim, boat or camp. In the winter there are opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and ice fishing.
Four Corners Nearby
Drop down about 35 miles southwest of Cortez to the Four Corners region where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet. There, on Navajo Nation soil, you can take your photo while you stand with a limb in each state, something only possible at this spot. While there you can search for turquoise jewelry or blankets from Indian vendors. A few miles south is Shiprock, a 7,178-foot-high monadnock that towers into the sky and can be seen from 50 miles away.
Mesa Verde Country in the fall brings an added dimension to the impressive scenery of the region. The golden aspens mingle with the green pine and spruce trees on the hillsides and offer a brilliant patchwork of color. The fall days are clear and crisp, and the temperature warms as the morning progresses.
Ancient history, breathtaking scenery and friendly folks combine to make a group trip to Mesa Verde Country something out of the ordinary.
IF YOU GO…
Blue Lake Ranch in Hesperus, Colorado, is a 1910, 200-acre homestead turned Southwest-style country estate where guests can enjoy unsurpassed views of Blue Lake and the 13,000-foot La Plata Mountains. The ranch offers 16 different housing options, is a haven for wildlife and birds, features a private lake stocked with trophy trout, and offers a homemade breakfast served buffet-style in cozy surroundings. Groups of all sizes can be accommodated for overnight stays and special events or meetings. The ranch’s Ridgewood Event Center can accommodate up to 200 guests for conferences, receptions and reunions. www.bluelakeranch.com or call 888-258-3525.
Story and photos by Don Heimburger