Colorado’s southwest corner might be best known for the ancient cliff dwellings in the region, but there is much more to see.
Tucked into the southwest corner of Colorado lies a region unlike any other in the state. It’s an area with rich agricultural ties that date back more than 1,400 years.
The Ancestral Puebloans, who lived in this area from approximately 600 A.D. to 1300 A.D., left behind some of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the United States, many of them in Mesa Verde National Park. The park has more than 4,700 archaeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings, but there are many more sites sprinkled around the region.
While the area is best known for Mesa Verde National Park, there’s much more to explore here. It’s home to three distinct communities: the art and farming community of Mancos; the central business hub and ranching town of Cortez; and Dolores, where outdoor recreation is king.
As one drives from Durango into Mesa Verde country, the scenery become a bit drier, the trees a little shorter and the mountain tops a lot flatter. A cowboy on a horse is as common of a sight here as a thirty-something on a mountain bike.
Just 15 minutes out of Cortez and five minutes from Dolores, the Anasazi Heritage Center is a good place to start. This well-maintained museum tells the story of the Four Corners, as the region is sometimes called—a nod to its proximity to the corners of four states. There’s even a short, onsite trail that leads to the Escalante and Dominguez Ruins and provides an outstanding view of McPhee Reservoir and the surrounding area.
Visitors walk away from the Anasazi Heritage Center with a basic understanding of what they will encounter in their travels around the area.
Dolores, just around the corner from the Heritage Center, offers all sorts of recreational activities. The town, which has a village feel, is located along the banks of the Dolores River where visitors raft, kayak, canoe, stand up paddle board and fish.
For those who want to stay along the river’s edge, Dolores River Campground has a variety of options including RV and tent sites, rental cabins, yurts and vintage trailers. The campground hosts live music during the summer months.
Mountain bike and hiking enthusiasts should check out Boggy Draw. Just a few miles out of Dolores, Boggy Draw Loop is 8.4 miles of singletrack and because much of it is heavily treed, the trail stays cool in the summer.
Boggy Draw, located in the San Juan National Forest, is home to free-range cattle and open to car camping. There are no facilities, meaning that campers must come prepared to pack it all in and pack it all out.
Back in Dolores, visitors will find great beer, delicious pizza and one of the most inviting patios in all of Colorado at the Dolores River Brewery. This 15-year-old brewery is a longtime favorite of locals and visitors and is an excellent spot to unwind after a day on the bike or on the river.
Twenty minutes down CO-184 from Dolores, the sleepy community of Mancos is slowing waking up thanks to a vibrant art community and local farm-to-table movement. The emerging art scene is on full display downtown in the form of public murals and numerous art galleries.
Places like Absolute Bakery, which hugs the banks of the Mancos River, source all their ingredients as close to home as possible. Their website has a long list of “food partners” hailing from the area. Breakfast at the bakery is a divine experience especially if it includes baked goods or their house green chile.
Stop by the Mancos Farmers’ Market on Thursday evenings June 7 through October 4 to experience the bounty of this area first-hand.
Fans of Louis L’Amour should swing by the Mancos Visitor Center to take in its homage to this famous author. Mesa Verde country was the setting for many of L’Amour’s books.
Cortez, 21 minutes west of Mancos, has about 8,600 residents, making it the largest town in the Four Corners. It’s a bit of a throwback with a Route 66 milieu. A liquor store called the Cork n’ Bottle, for instance, has a vintage neon sign that was saved from destruction by a previous owner during a road construction project. The sign now has a historic designation that will keep it safe.
To truly experience the Americana vibe of Cortez, check into the Retro Inn. This renovated motel is a real kick. Visitors are welcomed by Elvis Presley, who guards the property’s entry. Each room at this unique inn is dedicated to a particular year in history. For instance, Room 1977 features photographs of the disco period on the walls.
A stay at the Retro Inn includes a nice breakfast in their diner-style eating area.
Downtown Cortez is home to a new brewery called Wildedge Brewing Collective. This light, bright and modern brewery serves up beer, cider and wine and a small menu of locally sourced food. For a bigger meal, The Farm Bistro, open Monday through Friday only, also serves up food grown at nearby farms and is a source of pride for many locals.
Moose & More also keeps things local by making artisan ice cream and handmade chocolates in their small downtown shop.
During the summer, make plans to see the free Native American dances at the Cortez Cultural Center every evening at 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday. These beautiful and entertaining dance demonstrations take place through the end of August.
For those who’d like to do a little dancing while in Cortez, stop in on a Saturday night at the Millennium Center for the Performing Arts on Main Street. The theme of these dance nights is either Latin or Country Western and a short lesson is provided.
A drive down Road G, west of Cortez, provides a change of scenery. This is the road to Canyon of the Ancients National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument. In these two parks, visitors can get up close and personal with Ancestral Puebloan ruins. Hiking in these two parks is an opportunity to experience this country without the crowds that are typical at nearby Mesa Verde National Park.
Road G is also home to two very different vineyards. A stop at both Guy Drew and Sutcliffe Vineyards is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon after a morning of hiking.
Along Road G, past the vineyards, is one of Colorado’s most unique lodging destinations. Tucked into a green spot along the banks of McElmo Creek, Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch is preserving a more recent history, that of one of Colorado’s most famous cowboys, Elden Zwicker.
There are six beautiful and very different guest houses on the ranch, and several are original to the property. The Cowboy Log Cabin is the coziest of the guest rentals while the Wagstaff Cabin is the newest. It was finished in 2017 and featured on “Barnwood Builders” on the DIY Channel.
Garry and Ming Adams, who bought the property from one of Zwicker’s sons, warmly welcome guests to their working ranch. They give tours that include an introduction to the many animals that live on the ranch including Navajo Churro Sheep as well as some Royal White Sheep. The majority of the cows are Angus with a few Brahman in the mix. They also have chickens, several dogs and four cats.
The Adamses sell their meat at farmers’ markets and to local restaurants. Each vacation rental is equipped with a kitchen and an outdoor barbecue grill. Guests can bring their own groceries or prearrange with the Adams’s to enjoy meat from the ranch during their stay.
The remoteness of the Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch, and indeed the remoteness of the entire area, is a big part of its overall charm. Staying in Mesa Verde country represents a true escape in a place that humans have called home for more than a thousand years.
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Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer is the founder of HeidiTown.com and author of Mountain Living’s The Heidi Guide. She specializes in writing about festivals, food and travel. To comment on this article, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.