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.
- Cortez - The self-proclaimed archaeological center of the United States, Cortez is located in the very southwestern corner of the state, nestled between the La Plata Mountains, Sleeping Ute Mountain, and the flat plateau of Mesa Verde National Park.
- Crested Butte - A major ski resort located in the far northeastern corner of the region.
- Durango - The largest town in the region and the southern terminus of a superb scenic narrow-gauge railway
- Gunnison - Gateway town to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
- Montrose - Home to part of Colorado's Wine Country and offering plenty of outdoor recreational opportunities.
- Ouray - Nicknamed the "Switzerland of America," Ouray is a Victorian town home to hot springs and lots of outdoor recreation.
- Pagosa Springs - A town at the southeastern corner of the region famed for its hot springs and nearby excellent skiing.
- Silverton - An old mining and railroad town in the San Juans at the northern end of the scenic railroad linking it to Durango.
- Telluride - A posh resort town with miles of great downhill skiing terrain.
- Towaoc - The present tribal headquarters of the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation.
Archeological and geological points of interest abound throughout Southwestern Colorado's many parks and monuments.
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park - Twelve miles of a spectacular and scenic gorge.
- Canyons of the Ancients National Monument - A national monument near Cortez that contains more than 6,000 archaeological sites, representing Ancestral Puebloan and other Native American cultures. Just outside the monument is the Anasazi Heritage Center, an archaeological museum.
- Curecanti National Recreation Area - Three reservoirs, including, Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado's largest body of water.
- Four Corners - Twist your body and be in four states simultaneously.
- Hovenweep National Monument - Protects six Ancestral Puebloan villages spread over a twenty-mile expanse of mesa tops and canyons along the Utah-Colorado border. Iconic to the monument are the multi-storied ruins.
- Mesa Verde National Park - Home to an iconic set of Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.
- Yucca House National Monument - A monument near Towaoc that preserves an entire unexcavated city of Ancestral Puebloan houses, built between 1150 and 1300 A.D.
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:
- North, by Northwestern Colorado, which contours along the southern borders of Mesa and Pitkin Counties, an arbitrary line 50 to 100 miles south of the east-west running Interstate 70.
- East, by the Continental Divide as it winds its way along the ridge line of the San Juan Mountains, which separates this region from South Central Colorado.
- South, by the New Mexico state line.
- West, by the Utah state line.
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.
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.
To visit Southwestern Colorado, travelers are going to have fly and/or drive.
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.
- Cortez Municipal Airport (IATA: CEZ) in Cortez has daily flights to Denver International Airport offered through Great Lakes Airlines.
- Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport (IATA: GUC) in Gunnison provides service to Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles through Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and United.
- Montrose Regional Airport (IATA: MTJ) in Montrose is a small airport which has seasonal service on Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta, and United. Used most heavily during ski season.
- Cortez - US 160 runs east west from Durango and terminates in the center of town, joining the north-south running US 491. On 491, Cortez is situated between Monticello, Utah to the northwest and Shiprock, New Mexico to the south. It's 46 mi (74 km), or about an hour's drive from Durango, while it's 60 mi (97 km) or hour's drive from Monticello. From Shiprock, it's a 42 mi (68 km), or 45 minute drive.
- Delta, Montrose- US 50 runs north-south from Grand Junction to the north, then curves and runs and east-west to Gunnison and Pueblo. US 92 runs east-west from Hotchkiss, Paonia and Aspen. Grand Junction is about 45 mi (73 km), or an hour's drive, while Aspen is 161 mi (259 km), or about 3 hours away.
- Durango - To the south, Farmington, New Mexico is about 30 mi away, about a one-hour drive. To the southwest, Cortez is about 45 mi (73 km) away and is also about an hour's drive. To the north, Montrose is 206 mi (332 km), or a two-hour drive on US 550. To the east, Walsenburg is 221 mi (356 km) or 4 hours away on US 160.
- Gunnison - US 50 runs east-west from Montrose and Pueblo. From the west, it's about 65 mi (105 km), or an hour's drive from Montrose on US 50. From the east, it's 160 mi (258 km) or about 3 hours from Pueblo.
- Ouray, Silverton, - US 550 runs north-south from Montrose in the north to Durango in the south. It's about 60 mi (97 km) or an hour's drove from Montrose, and 48 mi (77 km) or an hour's drive from Durango.
Greyhound offers service to Delta, Durango, Gunnison, Montrose and Silverton; note that the stop in Silverton has no Greyhound ticketing office.
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.
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.
- Altitude sickness - Can lead to dizziness, headaches, nausea, even blackouts and pulmonary edema. Give your body a few days to adjust to the high altitudes before going full throttle with your hiking or skiing.
- Dehydration - When you engage in strenuous outdoor activities, be sure to replenish your fluids as you go. You may be losing moisture through your mouth and nose and through sweating, but be completely unawares due to the arid mountain air. May result in dizziness, intense thirst and elevated heart and breath rates.
- Giardia - Drinking untreated water from regional streams is not a good idea owing to Giardia parasites, but tap water is not a problem.
- Hypothermia - Prolonged exposure to the cold can result in confusion, a slowed heart rate, lethargy, even death. Dress warmly in non cotton clothing to allow any sweat to wick away from your body and evaporate. Otherwise, it may thoroughly chill you later in the day when temperatures drop.
- Frostbite - During periods of severe cold, your circulatory system pulls all your warming blood into the core of your body to protect your vital organs. This makes your extremities such as your ears, fingers and nose especially vulnerable. Wear a face mask, insulated gloves and other heavy gear on the worst winter days. It gets cold sitting still on those ski lifts!
- Sunburn - Lather up with sunscreen, even if there's cloud cover. Colorado's high elevation means you have less protection to the sun's powerful ultra violet rays. This can be compounded while skiing or snowboarding, when the rays are reflected off the snow and hits the underside of your jaw. Don't forget to wear UV-rated goggles or sunglasses, as well. There's nothing more painful than sunburned eyeballs.
- Avalanches - Colorado claims about a third of all avalanche deaths in the U.S. The ski resorts have groomed slopes that are safe, but it is extremely dangerous to ski or snowboard outside of the designated terrain. It's popular amongst daredevil skiers to "run the shutes," steep, shaded slopes that funnel into tight gullies. These are classic avalanche zones. Far more common (and deadly) are slab avalanches that break along a fault line and bury unsuspecting snow mobilers or skiers. Always wear a homing beacon and check the conditions at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center before heading into the back country.
- Lightning - This is especially deadly in the high country above timberline when no shelter is nearby. If you hear crackling or hissing sounds, or your hair begins to stand on end, squat down immediately in the "lightning desperation position" - feet together and your hands clapped over your ears. Remember, a tent and inflatable mattress offer no protection from a lightning strike. Avoid the high ground, or solitary objects like trees that stick out higher than the surrounding terrain (they may act like natural lightning rods). For more information, see the safety tips at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) .
- Northwestern Colorado lies to the north, and is a diverse area of both red rock country and snow-capped peaks. Within this area is Colorado National Monument, red rock pinnacles, arches and other geologic features, the rich fossil beds of Dinosaur National Monument, the trendy ski town known of Aspen, and Vail, with some of the largest ski slopes in North America.
- To the east, on the other side on the San Juan Mountains, is the San Luis Valley of South Central Colorado. Within the valley is Great Sand Dunes National Park, which holds North America's tallest dunes.
- The canyon and mesa country of the larger Four Corners region, including Northwest New Mexico to the south and Utah's Canyon Country to the west, offers many more famous national parks and monuments that preserve red rock wonders and Ancestral Puebloan ruins.