The Cortez area has thousands of Ancestral Puebloan sites, from sprawling pueblos to easy-to-miss rubble piles.

Joshua Hardin

Cowboys Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason had been riding for hours trying to track down stray cattle whose trail kept leading them deeper and deeper into the rugged backcountry south of Cortez. 

Thick stands of juniper and piñon pine slowed their progress, while falling snow limited their vision, making them worry they might accidentally ride off the edge of one of the canyons that spread like fingers through the tableland. 

Wetherill and Mason never found any cattle on Dec. 18, 1888. But they did find something else.

As they dismounted near the rim of a canyon to rest their horses, Wetherill grabbed Mason’s arm and pointed up the canyon. Together, they peered through the snow at an uncanny sight: An immense, sprawling castle built into an alcove in the cliffside. Wetherill’s Ute friend Acowitz had told him something like this was hidden in the general area, but it was more incredible than he’d imagined.

Abandoning their search for strays, they investigated the massive stone ruins with multistory towers and 150 total rooms. Wetherill dubbed it Cliff Palace. Along with hundreds of neighboring Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, it is now part of Mesa Verde National Park. 

Although Cliff Palace is the largest ancient structure in the United States, Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings were just a tiny part of a vast network of Ancestral Puebloan communities that filled the mesas, valleys and canyons in and around what’s now the city of Cortez, the seat of modern Montezuma County.

About 26,000 people lived in Montezuma County in the 1200s, when the Ancestral Puebloan civilization was at its peak.

And about 26,000 people live in Montezuma County today. Life in Cortez has changed a lot in the past 800 years – but not as much as one might think.

Lying in the heart of the Montezuma Valley, the city of 9,000 is surrounded by ranches and farm fields. The high, jagged San Juan Mountains fill the northern and eastern horizons, while the green table that is Mesa Verde rises sharply just south of town, and the lone promontory of Ute Mountain forms a distinctive, well-loved landmark to the southwest.

Cortez is at the extreme southwest corner of the Colorado map. The city is an eight-hour drive from Denver but just 45 minutes from the Four Corners, where Colorado comes together with New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Being so remote from Colorado’s big population centers yet so near three other states makes many people in Cortez feel they have a sort of dual citizenship.

“We’re loyal to Colorado, but we really are citizens of the Four Corners region more than any one legal jurisdiction,” said Gail Binkly, founder and editor of the Cortez-based Four Corners Free Press, which covers regional news from all four states.

People in Cortez also have an understanding of time, and their own place in it, that’s different from most Coloradans. Both the longtime ranchers and the outdoorsy young people who have moved here more recently realize that, compared to the Ancestral Puebloans or the Ute Mountain Ute tribal members, whose reservation is just down the road, they are all relative newcomers.

Like most people who own more than a few acres around Cortez, Kevin and Bunny McComb have ancient ruins on their 160-acre cattle ranch north of town. Kevin’s family has been in Cortez for about a century, with those roots keeping them anchored as they embrace the future. 

“There will always be the good old days, but sometimes the good old days weren’t that good,” Bunny McComb said. 

If not better than the old days, modern ranching is, at least, a lot easier. They now use video auctions to sell many of their cattle, rather than shipping them across the state at auction time. And the McCombs recently drew on cutting-edge animal psychology when they hired a Colorado State University graduate, a former student of the school’s world-renowned animal expert Temple Grandin, to overhaul their cattle chutes and corrals, making them far more efficient.

Over the past 40 years, the McCombs have watched a slow but steady influx of people, many from urban areas, integrate themselves into the traditional farming and ranching community. 

“I think diversity’s good,” Bunny McComb said. “People will have opinions you may not always agree with, but sometimes you need that learning curve to look at things differently and improve.”

This new blood is evident from the McElmo Canyon countryside, where the award-winning Sutcliffe Vineyards bottled its first vintage in 1999, to Main Street, where The Farm Bistro & Lounge opened in 2009, specializing in local farm-to-table fare – including yak burgers from Mesa View Yak Ranch in nearby Mancos, a few miles east.

A year after The Farm arrived, Cortez got its surest sign that the town was evolving when Stonefish Sushi & More opened just down the block. 
“Everybody thought we were nuts,” Stonefish chef and owner Brandon Shubert said, laughing as he recalled the reaction when he told people he was opening a sushi restaurant in rural Colorado.

People here are more open to new ideas than they get credit for, Shubert said. He estimates 95 percent of his customers are from the Cortez area. “We’re a locals’ place,” he said. “Tourists are gravy to us.” Still, Stonefish Sushi initially drew a younger, trendier crowd, which was why he was so astonished, after about a year in business, to see 13 cowboys walk in the door one day just before the dinner rush.

“They looked like they just walked off the ranch: overalls, boots, cowboy hats,” Shubert said. “I thought, oh my, are they in the wrong place?”

They weren’t. They’d come to try sashimi – raw fish. And they liked it. A lot. By the time the cowboys left a big tip on the table and headed out the door, they had eaten so much raw fish that Shubert had to make an emergency call to his supplier to have enough for the next evening. Nowadays, it’s a rare evening when Shubert doesn’t see at least one or two cowboy hats in the dining room.


For the rest of the story see the Novemeber/December 2018 issue of Colorado Life.

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