At the foot of the unmistakable silhouette of the Mesa Verde land formation, the small town of Cortez in Colorado lies among the richest archaeological centers of the U.S. Southwest. Steeped in the history of the Ancestral Puebloan people, Cortez offers a glimpse into their lives through the surrounding sites, from the world-famous Mesa Verde to Crow Canyon, and small sites you’ve never heard of.
In the center of it all, Cortez offers the best base for exploring them while learning about the ancient people who lived in the Four Corners area. Though I have visited the area often over the years, I still find new things to discover every time.
To explore the ancient sites surrounding Cortez, you’ll need at least a few days. But if you enjoy the archaeology of the Southwest, you might stay longer or return over and over. You can start with the following things to do in and around Cortez.
1. Visit Mesa Verde Archaeological Site
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best-known archaeological sites in the U.S. Southwest, Mesa Verde is home to hundreds of cliff dwellings, spectacular structures built into the crevices of steep canyon walls. Once homes of the Ancestral Puebloan people, they are the best-preserved in the country thanks to being protected as part of Mesa Verde National Park.
As you approach the park, you’ll find the visitor center at the bottom of the scenic drive. Stop here to buy tickets to ranger-led tours to the cliff dwellings, while enjoying the gorgeous surrounding scenery and the museum exhibits.
From the visitor center, follow the scenic drive rising towards the mesa top. Once among the ruins, visit the mesa-top sites and look down into the canyons for a glimpse at some of the spectacular cliff dwellings. Make sure you take at least one tour to experience them first-hand. The not-to-be-missed tour takes you to the largest and most spectacular site, Cliff Palace, featuring 150 rooms and 23 kivas.
Pro Tip: To fully explore Mesa Verde, spend at least 2 days in the park. But if you only have 1 day, make sure you get a ticket to Cliff Palace, and if you have time, make Long House your second choice.
2. Learn About The Ancestral Puebloans At The Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center
Though desolate now, the area known as Canyons of the Ancients surrounding Cortez was inhabited for over 10,000 years by people we know as the Ancestral Puebloans. A visit to the area reveals thousands of remnants of villages, kivas, cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, and ancient agricultural fields.
When you are in Cortez, you can’t miss exploring some of these sites, and a good start is the Visitor Center and Museum. Highlights of the exhibits include a furnished replica of an ancient pit house and artifacts collected from the surrounding sites and mural fragments from Lowry Pueblo’s painted kivas. Hands-on exhibits, including a Pueblo-style loom with instructions to weave, add another dimension to the visit.
Outside, take the paved trail up the hill to the ruins of the Escalante Pueblo. Interpretive signs and benches offer opportunities to stop on the steep walk and enjoy gorgeous views of the mysterious Sleeping Ute Mountain. You can even read about its legend.
The Escalante Pueblo ruins themselves, dating from the 1100s, lie on top of the hill, overlooking the Dolores River and the surrounding farmlands below. You’ll find a few kivas and remnants of ancient walls.
Before leaving, stop at the tiny four-room structure of the Dominguez Pueblo.
3. Explore Lowry Pueblo
The largest site in the Canyons of the Ancients, Lowry Pueblo is known for its four painted kivas inside a “big house” comprising 40 rooms and eight kivas.
The interpretive trail leads inside this big house, where you can see the painted kivas. Though the murals are gone (the Museum at the Visitor Center has some of them on display), the lower walls of the kivas feature fragments of plaster.
Besides the kivas, you’ll walk through a maze of interconnecting rooms inside the structure.
Outside, the pueblo’s most remarkable feature is the Great Kiva, one of the largest in the area. The Ancestral Puebloans used Great Kivas for community activities and ceremonies. The one at Lowry Pueblo was one of the earliest buildings of the village, used continuously over generations, and remodeled often.
You’ll reach Lowry Pueblo by driving 18 miles from Cortez, on US Highway 491, then turn left at the “Pleasant View and Lowry” sign.
4. Visit Cortez Cultural Center And The Hawkins Preserve
Housed in a gorgeous pueblo-style building, the Cortez Cultural Center offers a wealth of information about the Ancestral Puebloans and their descendants, some of the modern-day Native tribes of the area.
Hosting live performances of the present-day tribes, you can catch a variety of programs. During the summer evenings, their most popular attractions are the Native American dances held in their amphitheater, showcasing not only the dances but explanations of their significance.
The Cultural Center manages the Hawkins Preserve, home to the archaeological site of Hawkins Pueblo, and miles of high desert wilderness. Protected under a large roof, Hawkins Pueblo features the outlines of several room blocks.
You’ll find a paved trail along the western edge of the preserve, and a network of other short trails through several habitat areas. You’ll walk through sagebrush fields, pinion pine and juniper forests, and sandstone outcrops. Some trails lead to a canyon rim overlooking McElmo Creek and its riparian habitat, and a view of Mesa Verde and the La Plata Mountains.
5. Shop At The Notah-Dineh Trading Post
While you are in town, stop at the Notah-Dineh Trading Company and Museum, showcasing an extensive collection of unique Pueblo, Ute, and Navajo art pieces. Established in 1961, the Trading Company specializes in original unique pieces, including handmade Navajo rugs, Hopi kachinas, sandpaintings, cradleboards, moccasins, beaded baskets, sculptures, and pottery.
Even if you don’t plan on shopping here, the Trading Post’s museum is worth a stop. Opened in 1994, it displays an array of historic Native American art and artifacts. Kachinas from the 1920s and 1930s, antique Navajo rugs, cradleboards, ceremonial gloves and moccasins, and woven baskets are some highlights of their collection.
6. Explore Hovenweep National Monument
Drive out to Hovenweep National Monument to visit another ancient city of the Ancestral Puebloans. Built between 1200 and 1230, the six villages within the National Monument were once home to about 2,500 people.
Stop at the visitor center and from there take the half-mile paved trail to the Little Ruins Canyon overlook. You can see some of the best structures from there, but to experience it, take the 2-mile long Square Tower loop trail. The easy trail follows the canyon rim, eventually leading down into it and crossing it to form the loop.
We usually start to the right, towards the Hovenweep Castle, the most spectacular structure at the site. While walking, you have a great view of the Square Tower built inside the canyon. On the far side of the canyon, you’ll walk by the Twin Towers. Past it, the trail leads into the small canyon, and out, back to the viewpoint.
Pro Tip: Hovenweep is about 40 miles from Cortez on County Road G. You can also get there through the Canyons of the Ancients. Either way you go, follow the signs from Cortez and make sure you have a good map; don’t rely on your GPS.
7. Drive The Trail Of The Ancients Scenic & Historic Byway
One of the best ways to experience the archaeological sites in the area and some stunning scenery of the Four Corners area is to drive the Trail of the Ancients Scenic and Historic Byway. The 480-mile long road with segments in Colorado and Utah starts in Cortez and leads through the densest archaeological sites in the Four Corners area.
The road takes you through Mesa Verde, Canyons of the Ancients, and Hovenweep in Colorado, then passes into Utah, through Edge of the Cedars National Monument, Butler Wash and Mule Canyon Ruins, Natural Bridges, Valley of the Gods, Gooseneck State Park, and Monument Valley Tribal Park.
Dining And Lodging In Cortez
Given that Cortez is a gateway to such an array of ancient archaeological sites, it offers a few lodging and dining choices. You’ll find several hotels from all the major chains here, from budget motels to luxury hotels.
For a unique experience, filled with public art pieces, in a gorgeous outdoor setting, book a cabin at the Mesa Verde Farm & Studio. Or, to feel more in touch with the ancient sites, try the Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch in McElmo Canyon. Both places offer dining opportunities, featuring their own fresh-from-the-farm ingredients.
You can also find farm-fresh meals in the center of town at the Farm Bistro on Main Street. But if you are looking for something different, Cortez has one of the best Thai restaurants in the region, Thai Cortez & Sushi. These are two of my favorite restaurants in town, but you have plenty of other choices, from Mexican fare and steakhouses to microbreweries and pizza.