Welcome to Cortez
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. These days 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.