Southwestern Colorado

Southwestern Colorado, commonly called Mesa Verde Country, is a region of the state of Colorado in the United States of America that is known for beautiful landscapes, rich history, cultural heritage, and an abundance of outdoor activities. It is also home to the West Elks American Viticultural Area (AVA), part of Colorado's Wine Country and home to the highest wine vineyards in North America.


Other destinations

Archeological and geological points of interest abound throughout Southwestern Colorado's many parks and monuments.


Region boundaries in Colorado tend to be somewhat controversial (even in day-to-day life in the state) and are done in an ad-hoc way here. If you're expecting to read about some destination in this article and can't find it, check in the neighboring Northwestern Colorado and South Central Colorado sections to see if it's covered there. Broadly, this region is bounded on the:

This is a tremendously diverse area from both a geological and recreational perspective. Some of the greatest American ski resorts are here, and the San Juans pose some of the most serious mountaineering challenges in Colorado (Dallas Peak, in the San Juans, is generally considered the most difficult of Colorado's high summits to reach, and should be attempted only by the technically proficient climber). On the other hand, the lower terrain near Four Corners barely seems "mountainous" at all (although you can see mountains in the distance pretty well everywhere in the region), and the main attractions reside in canyon-and-mesa country are the numerous Ancestral Puebloan sites there.

Southwestern Colorado is dominated by two geological features: the mountains that reach as high as 10,000 and 14,000 ft (3048 and 4267 m) along the Western Slope of the Continental Divide, and a zone comprised of the Uncompahgre and Colorado Plateaus. The Rockies in the mountainous zone includes such ranges as the San Juans, Elks and West Elks, as well as smaller ranges like the Uncompahgre, San Miguel, La Plata, and La Sals. This region is dotted with mining towns converted into tourist resorts like Crested Butte, Telluride, Durango and Silverton. The mountains are still growing, thrust upwards by a subducting tectonic plate that scientists hypothesize is situated at an odd angle, which explains why Southwestern Colorado is curiously free of any volcanoes similar to the Cascades in Washington and Oregon (although there has been volcanic activity in the past, and Southwestern Colorado is dotted with geothermal pools in places like Ouray).

The plateau country is criss-crossed by tributaries of the Colorado River, such as the Gunnison and Uncompahgre, which have carved deep, narrow canyons with steep walls, including the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The broad valleys and mesas of this area are the home of agricultural towns like Delta, Montrose and Gunnison. Called Colorado's Wine Country, the grape-growing portions of this region comprise the highest vineyards in North America.

The Colorado Plateau largely features an arid, rocky region of pinon pines, box canyons, high cliffs, uranium mines and oil exploration. Hardscrabble 20th century mining towns like Vanadium and Uravan are located here, as well as an area rich in archaeological finds like the cliff palaces of Mesa Verde National Park. Much of the Four Corners vicinity is occupied by the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation, not to be confused with the better-known Navajo Nation which occupies much of the Four Corners region across the state lines in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.


Cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park

Around 10,000 years ago, the first humans entered Southwestern Colorado. Part of the Folsom culture, these hunters are believed to have been amongst the earliest transcontinental migrations to North America from Asia. Crude implements and other weapons have been discovered on the Uncompahgre Plateau.

As early as 1500 BC and through 1300 AD, the Ancestral Puebloan (formerly called the Anasazi) people populated the land. They made their homes from shaped stones, building pit houses and eventually, multi-level dwellings inside rock overhangs. These "cliff palaces" are preserved in an over a dozen national parks and monuments throughout the Four Corners area. An advanced civilization, the Puebloan culture collapsed due to environmental pressure during the global "Little Ice Age" of the Middle Ages. Prolonged drought may have forced the Puebloans to abandon their villages and look elsewhere to grow their crops.

Circa 1500, the nomadic Ute nation moved into Northwestern Colorado, with the Spanish not far behind (at least on paper). From the 1520s through the 1820s, Spain claimed a large portion of Southwestern Colorado as part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. The borders were not firmly fixed on a map, and the Spanish only managed to settle as far as South Central Colorado.

During the 19th century, the area was very much in dispute with a young nation, the United States. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the U.S. claimed all the land south and west of the Arkansas River. Spain declared a large trade zone around its colony of Santa Fé de Nuevo Méjico, a claim the U.S. challenged.

The U.S. relinquished its claim on the region as part of the purchase of Florida from Spain with the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819. In 1821, the Viceroyalty of New Spain successfully revolted, splitting with the Spanish crown. Southwestern Colorado become part of the nebulous northern border of Alta California, a province in the new nation of Mexico.

Hoping to develop the area, Mexican officials opened the land up to mountain men, trappers and traders. Between 1821 and 1840, explorer Antoine Robidoux ventured through the region in search of beaver pelts. With this influx of adventurers and speculators came many of the men who would later lead U.S. Army expeditions and Government Surveying parties through the area: Kit Carson, "Pathfinder" John Charles Fremont and Captain John Gunnison.

In 1846, the U.S. Army invaded and defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War. With the Treaty of Guadalupe y Hidalgo, the U.S. gained control of Southwestern Colorado, as well as California, Nevada, Utah, and portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming.

In the 1870s, gold and silver were discovered in the San Juan Mountains to the south. The U.S. Army forcibly relocated the Utes to Utah, and into a tiny corner of Southwestern Colorado, near Cortez.

With the Uncompahgre Reservation open to settlers in 1881, towns like Delta, Montrose and Gunnison were rapidly established to service mining towns like Crested Butte, Silverton and Telluride. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad laid narrow gauge tracks through the San Juans, founding what is today one of the oldest railroad lines still in continuous operation.

Ranching, farming and mining remained the backbone of the region's industry for the next 80 years. With the rise of the automobile and a reliable highway system, Southwestern Colorado increasingly relied on tourism as a source of income. The mining towns of Telluride and Crested Butte were remade into ski resorts in the 1960s and 1970s. This brought an influx of new money and wealth to a few isolated pockets of the region.

In the 21st century, Southwestern Colorado continues to draw people with its rugged natural beauty, abundant recreational opportunities and archeological heritage.


English is spoken, even on the Ute reservations. There is a wide circle of Spanish speaking laborers who are the working class backbone of the mountain resorts, energy, construction and hospitality industries. See the Spanish phrasebook for more information on how to better engage this group.

Also, within the ski towns, there are large, developed exchange programs with college-age students from Europe and South America. You will find them running the ski lifts and equipment rental shops, so hearing French, German, and Italian is not uncommon during the ski season. All, however, are required to speak English.

Speakers of the major European languages can sometimes be found in Durango, while Mesa Verde National Park has interpretive materials in several languages.

Get in

State line near Four Corners

To visit Southwestern Colorado, travelers are going to have fly and/or drive.

By plane

The only major airport in the state is located in Denver, which is a major air hub and served by all major domestic airlines, as well as a few international ones. A closer option is Walker Field in Grand Junction, just to the north of this region, which is a minor airport served by several airlines with nonstop service to Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angles, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City, with some service being seasonal. For private pilots, it is also possible to fly your small plane into the airport and leave it while you tour the area. Taxi and rental car service is also available at the airport.

Within the region itself, there are three small airport with limited commercial service. All three offer rental car service.

By car

By train

Amtrak has no direct service to this region; the closest train station is in Grand Junction on the daily California Zephyr line between the San Francisco Bay Area and Chicago.

By bus

Greyhound offers service to Delta, Durango, Gunnison, Montrose and Silverton; note that the stop in Silverton has no Greyhound ticketing office.

Get around

Downtown Ouray, Colorado

There's really no alternative to driving. Motorists should be aware that the eastern side of this region contains some seriously high passes, particularly Wolf Creek Pass on US 160 as it crosses the Continental Divide, and Coal Bank Pass, Molas Pass, and Red Mountain Pass on US 550 (the "Million Dollar Highway") between Durango and Silverton. These are commonly closed for periods of time during the winter. There are even "avalanche tunnels" along some of the routes, to prevent your car from being swept off the road into deep ravines by falling blocks of snow. The western part of the region is lower and less prone to road closures, but towns with gas stations and services are few and far between.

During the winter, heavy ice and snow are a major concern, which can make driving difficult and slow going. Always check the weather and road conditions before heading out. Even on a clear winter's day, make sure your vehicle's wiper fluid reservoir is full. The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) spreads both sand and magnesium chloride on the roads, which makes for an impenetrable, gluey mess on your windshield.

In the summer months, it's not uncommon to see the shoulders of the highways littered with broken-down vehicles that could not handle the steep grades and high altitude air of the Rocky Mountains. If you are venturing from a lower altitude, make sure your car can handle mountain driving. Thinner air means you will be burning more gasoline. Also, with so many steep grades, expect to gear down to avoid unnecessary friction to your brake pads.


World class dining is available in Telluride and Colorado's Wine Country. There are a variety of restaurants available in Cortez and Gunnison, outside of the National Parks. Durango is another spot for decent dining.

But if you really want to eat authentically in the region, it's not that difficult to eat like an Ancestral Puebloan. A trip to one of Southwestern Colorado's many farmers markets can provide a lot of the same ingredients the Ancestral Puebloans cultivated: garden corn, squash, pumpkins and beans. They also raised turkeys and hunted game. A visit to a small town butcher that processes wild game could add venison, elk, sage hens, ducks and geese to your menu. The Ancestral Puebloans gathered sunflower seeds and pinon nuts from the mesa tops; you can gather these ingredients a little easier at the local grocery store. Coarse-ground cornmeal could be added to the list, as native women used to spend long, grueling hours grinding grain on stone metates to have enough to eat. A majority of these ingredients are available in restaurants, since they are still heavily used today in Southwestern cuisine.

Harder to come by are staples of the Ancestral Puebloan diet like prickly pears and yucca fruit. Pickled clean of their spines, the buds of the prickly pear can be cooked and served, as can its fruit. Also called Spanish bayonette, the yucca could be eaten raw, cooked, or mixed with other ingredients. The yucca's white blossoms taste sweet and can be eaten raw. Today, prickly pear is available fresh, canned and as jelly and candy, while a Central American cousin of the Southwestern yucca can be bought diced and frozen. Both foods are usually available at gourmet and natural foods grocery stores.

However, the biggest difference between you and the Ancestral Puebloan is how easily you procure your meal and how much you get to eat. The master builders of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde spent the majority of each day simply eking out a subsistence diet.


There are trendy bars, brewpubs, as well as honky tonks and a handful of authentic mining-era 19th century saloons. The mountain resorts are famous for their apres-ski nightlife and clubs.

There is a long, storied history between drinking and the area.

It's unclear whether the Ancestral Puebloans drank. The conventional scientific wisdom says no, and that alcohol was introduced to Southwestern Colorado by the Spanish, 200 years after the Puebloan peoples left the region. However, a recent study conducted at Sandia National Laboratories says the Puebloans may have brewed their own beer using corn in clay pots. Using gas chromatography and mass spectrometers to analyze vapors produced by mild heating of pot samples, scientists produced chemicals associated with alcohol. So were the first microbreweries in the area inside the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde? Perhaps not, since the corn could have fermented unintentionally on its own inside the clay containers.

Alcohol trickled into the region in between 1800 and 1840 with the arrival of the mountain men and fur trappers. Often working alone with long hours and in extreme conditions, many Mountain Men passed their leisure hours in the solace of drink. This is recorded in their first hand journals and in the legacy of the colorful vocabulary they left behind. For instance, cheap whiskey could be called arwerdenty whiskey, from the Spanish words "agua ardiente", which means "fiery water". Other terms for cheap whiskey include "John Barleycorn","baldface", or "panner piss" (also called "panther piss"). The trappers would carry this rot gut whiskey in a "jack of likker" a leather sack of fire water, or in "hollow woods", a Native American term for the small kegs used to haul alcohol. To drink was called "take a horn", since sometimes bone horns of bulls or bighorn sheep were fashioned into drinking flasks, or powder horns that usually contained gunpowder were converted for the purposes of partying. Whilst imbibing, the mountain men would chew or smoke "baccer" or "baccy" tobacco, also called "honeydew" or "ol Virginny," because a lot of tobacco was grown in the state of Virginia.

The culmination of all this hard living was in the drink, trade whiskey - a dubious combination of "red eye" whiskey, hot chili peppers, plug tobacco and gunpowder. (A gourmet recreation of the drink can still be sampled at The Fort Restaurant, in Morrison, Colorado), near Denver. At summertime rendezvous with other trappers and in wintertime quarters like Fort Robideaux, the mountain men would drink themselves blind with earthen jugs of trade whiskey, inducing the euphoric good feelings the fur trappers dubbed, "Shinin Times."

One note of caution - while experiencing your own "Shinin Times," you may want to take it a little slower at first. Some people find that their alcohol tolerance is lower at higher altitudes. Drink slowly until you acclimate. Otherwise, the consequences may include extreme hangover and nausea.

Stay safe

Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride


There's no reason to fear the mountains, as long as you approach them with proper respect and preparation. As with anywhere else, recklessness and a lack of forethought can get you into trouble, especially in Colorado's vast back country.


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