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Visit Cortez, Colorado

On our travel route between Moab, Utah and Durango, Colorado, our goal was to spend a few days exploring Mesa Verde National Park. Our original plan was to dry camp inside Mesa Verde, but after reading multiple reviews of the national park's campground, we decided to look for another option. The answer? The nearby small town of Cortez, Colorado!

In Cortez we found a nice Mom and Pop RV park right on Main Street with easy access to shops, restaurants, breweries, a fantastic farmers' market and multiple historic sites!


A Brief History of Cortez CO

The city of Cortez was founded late in 1886 as a company town by the Montezuma Valley Water Supply Company. The city was built to house and provide services for the men who came to the area to build canals, tunnels, reservoirs and irrigation ditches to bring water from the Dolores River into the Montezuma Valley. Much like we learned in Fruita, Colorado, the plans were to build the Montezuma Valley into a prime agricultural zone.

And it worked. By the early 20th century, area farmers were successfully growing apples, wheat, potatoes and alfalfa. And ranchers were raising herds of cattle.

But, before we move forward from 1900, no conversation about Cortez is complete without the original farmers in this area. Indigenous people including the Ancestral Puebloans, Ute, Navajo, and Arapaho lived all around this area beginning as many as 10,000 years ago. Cortez and the area all around the town is RICH in Native American history and culture. These folks came to the area as nomadic hunter-gatherers and eventually decided to build agricultural communities here. Over the generations, the top crops became beans, squash and maize (corn).

A visit to Cortez absolutely should include visits to as many of the known archaeological sites as you have time for. In fact, the very first recognized archaeological site in what is now the state of Colorado is 15 minutes from downtown Cortez. It is now part of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. And, of course, incredible ancient cliff dwellings like the Cliff Palace are the focus of nearby Mesa Verde National Park.

Cortez Agriculture Mural
Agriculture is Important in Cortez

Jumping back now to the 1900s.

Just as Cortez was built as the community of the people who developed infrastructure in the area, in the early 20th century, it became the community that provided supplies for the growing industries in the neighboring towns. However, it faced a big challenge. As the railroads came through this area, they connected to Durango during the 1880s and to Dolores in the 1890s. However, the spur that was supposed to bring the railroad to Cortez was never built. Even with the lack of a railroad, however, Cortez continued to grow until the Storm of 1911 destroyed much of the irrigation system and agricultural fields that had been built.

Throughout the 20th century, the people who called Cortez home saw the city go through a number of boom and bust periods led by dairy farming, uranium mining, land speculation and tourism. The growth of interest in the archeological history of nearby Mesa Verde National Park, Canyons of the Ancients, and all of the many historical sites in the area surrounding Cortez led to a firm foothold in government employees moving here for work in the cultural sites and tourism dollars.

Recreation tourism grew with the building of the McPhee Reservoir, the 5th largest lake in Colorado, located near town on the Dolores River.

Today, visitors to Cortez find a thriving downtown full of unique restaurants, shops and breweries. The farmers market is a great place to mingle with the locals, listen to live music, and bring home some phenomenal local meat and produce. Yes, after all of these years, agriculture is still a leading industry in Cortez!

Escalante Pueblo Ruins
Escalante Pueblo Ruins

How Did Cortez, Colorado Get Its Name?

When Cortez was founded, it was believed that the ancient ruins built by Native Americans were former homesites of the Aztecs. The Montezuma Valley and Montezuma County (of which Cortez is the county seat) are named for Moctezuma II, the Emperor of the Aztec Empire in Mexico in the early 1500s. Interesting, Cortez is named for Spanish conquistador HernΓ‘n CortΓ©s, who history reports was responsible for conquering the Aztecs and claiming Mexico for Spain.

Through the years, researchers have come to learn that the archaeological sites here were NOT home to the Aztec people, but the Ancestral Puebloans, followed by the Ute, Arapaho and Navajo peoples. However, the early names for the area continue today.

Fun Things to Do in Cortez, Colorado

Shop local and fresh while enjoying live music at the Cortez Farmer's Market.

Play a round of golf at the Conquistador Golf Course.

Get in some exercise in the gym, swimming pool or racquetball courts at the Cortez Recreation Center.

Explore 3 miles of interconnecting trails in the Hawkins Preserve.

Wine drinkers should check out Sutcliffe Vineyards or Yellow Car Country Wines.

Learn the history of the ancestral puebloan people and the folks who followed them by visiting the various archaeological sites all located within a short drive from Cortez:

Mesa Verde National Park (recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) - 10 miles

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument - 11 miles

Yucca House National Monument - 11 miles

Hovenweep National Monument - 45 miles

The Four Corners Monument where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah all meet is 40 miles from Cortez.

For folks looking to dive deeper and learn about archeology with a hands-on experience, the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center offers immersive programs by appointment.

Mountain lions (also known as cougars or pumas) are common in this area. Keep an eye out for "Pumas On Parade", colorfully painted mountain lion statues can be seen throughout this region. Two easy ones to find are at the Cortez Colorado Welcome Center and at the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor's Center.

Free Things to Do in Cortez CO

Browse the extensive collection of the Notah Dineh Trading Company and Museum on Main Street.

Tour the museum exhibits in the recently renovated Montezuma Heritage Museum.

Enjoy 2.5 miles of walking/jogging paths, pickleball, disc golf or tennis at Centennial Park.

Just across from Centennial Park, you'll find Parque de Vida, home to all kinds of sports fields and courts including basketball courts, sand volleyball courts, tennis courts and more trails.

Ride your bike or take a walk along the 1.5 mile ADA accessible, paved trail at Carpenter Natural Area.

Mountain bike enthusiasts can head just east of town to enjoy the Phil's World Mountain Bike Trail System on BLM land.

Places to Eat in Cortez CO

There are a lot of good restaurant options in Cortez that you won't find anywhere else. During our visit, we enjoyed:

On future visits to Cortez, we would like to try:

Dinner at Mi Mexico
Dinner at Mi Mexico
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Tips for Visiting Cortez, Colorado

Free parking is available along the streets in downtown Cortez. There is also a free parking lot one block off of Main Street on Elm.

We definitely recommend making the time to enjoy the local food. We enjoyed every restaurant we visited and absolutely loved our finds at Bell Beef and the farmers' market. Food is a main attraction around here.

Be sure to stop in at the Cortez Colorado Welcome Center at the beginning of your visit to learn about all of the options of things to do and see in the area.

During the summer, we understand that free Native American dance performances are held at the Cortez Cultural Center. It was not open during our visit in late September.

If you don't already have one, consider getting a national parks annual pass to save money on entrance fees at places like Mesa Verde National Park, the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center (formerly known as the Anasazi Heritage Center) and Hovenweep National Monument.

When you visit the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, be sure to look for the views of Sleeping Ute Mountain in the distance. It is viewable from the Escalante Trail, a half-mile-long, paved, ADA accessible trail that connects the ancient sites of the Dominguez Pueblo in front of the museum with the Escalante Pueblo from the 1100s. One of the trail interpretive signs will help you spot Sleeping Ute Mountain and tell the stories associated with it.

Our Campsite in Cortez CO
Our Campsite in Cortez

There are a lot of biking options around Cortez. If you need any work done on your bicycle, go see the nice folks at Kokopelli Bike and Board on Main Street. You can even enjoy their coffee bar inside the bike shop while you wait!

Cortez, Colorado is Also Known As

You might hear Cortez referred to by one of the following names:

Where is Cortez, Colorado?

You'll find Cortez in Southwest Colorado about 42 miles from Shiprock NM, 46 miles from Durango CO, 115 miles from Moab UT, and 125 miles from Monument Valley AZ in the Four Corners Area.

This high desert town sits on the Colorado Plateau and has views of the La Plata Mountains and the San Juan Mountains. It's location makes it a great base camp for exploring everything this region has to offer (and that's a lot!).

You can explore part or all of the 236-mile San Juan Skyway Scenic Drive just east of town.

What Makes Cortez CO Special?

This town is a bridge between desert and mountains.

The very walkable downtown with free parking and a diverse variety of shopping, entertainment and dining options blends very nicely with the vast opportunities for outdoor recreation. And its all completely surrounded by and embracing 10,000 years of local history.

The city of Cortez features 250 acres of public parks and open space. A whopping 76% of Montezuma County is public land. There are multiple trailheads around town for exploring the surrounding area.

Unlike other towns in the region like Moab, Utah and Durango, Colorado, we hadn't heard much about Cortez before our visit. But after our week here, we absolutely agree that Cortez is "underrated" and definitely a place more people need to know about. Be sure to put Cortez in your travel plans when you come to the southwest corner of Colorado!

Our Basecamp for This Visit

πŸ“ Sundance RV Park

For More Information on Visiting Cortez CO

Visit the Cortez Community and Economic Development website and visit the Cortez Welcome Center when you get to town.

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The National Parks Passport Book is a fun way to keep track of our national park visits.

Cortez, Colorado Fun Facts

Approximate Population




Year Founded


Average Summer Temperatures

48Β° - 89Β°

Average Winter Temperatures

14Β° - 46Β°

Geographic Area

6.3 square miles

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A Few Photos from Our Visit to Cortez

Montezuma Heritage Museum
Montezuma Heritage Museum
Taking in the Views
Taking in the Views
Cortez Farmers Market
Cortez Farmers Market
Kokopelli Bike and Board
Kokopelli Bike and Board
Puma at Canyons of the Ancients
Puma at Canyons of the Ancients
Puma at Welcome Center
Puma at the Welcome Center

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Tom and Stacie

Tom and Stacie Langland
"RV America Y'all"

Hey y'all! We are Native Texans and (since 2018) Full-Time RVers sharing the adventures, challenges, and joys of RV life as we travel. We love camping and hiking in State and National Parks, discovering history, visiting interesting and quirky places, and exploring small towns. We're on a mission to experience life, not just live it with our dog, Star, and our cat, Astro. You can also find us on our original RV travel website, Thanks for joining us as we RV America Y'all!

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