Durango to Cortez
Leaving Durango, Fort Lewis College sits on a bluff above the town. The college has unique origins, history and mission that visitors to the area should know about. In 1891, Fort Lewis was decommissioned and converted into a federal, off-reservation boarding school. In 1911 the school was mandated to provide a tuition-free education for qualified Native Americans. In the 1930s, it became a two-year college and then in 1948 became Fort Lewis A&M College. In 1956, when the college moved to what was then known as Reservoir Hill overlooking Durango, it became Fort Lewis College, a four-year institution, awarding its first baccalaureate degrees in 1964. In 2008, Fort Lewis College became one of six Native American-serving, non-tribal colleges approved by the U.S. Department of Education. Because of its unique origins and history, Fort Lewis College today awards more degrees to Native American students than any other four-year, baccalaureate-granting institution in the nation – about 26% of all degrees the school awards.
Besides gaining a first-rate college education, not unlike visitors to Durango students at the school can enjoy hundreds of miles of trails for biking, hiking and backpacking in the Weminuche Wilderness, rock climbing in Moab and much more. The school’s culture of cycling is so strong that its cycling team consistently wins national championships. The college campus is connected to Durango by the steep Centennial Nature Trail that has become a favorite of the school’s athletes for training. Hikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers from the school also can join visitors in the hills and valleys of Overend Mountain Park, rock-climbers in Dallas Mountain Park or mountain bikers on the 12 miles of the marvelous Twin Buttes trail system. Some hiking around Durango only can be done in summer and fall months, like on Perins Peak that hovers over the town.
Hiking options abound in the Durango area, even year-round like Telegraph Trail which also is very popular for mountain biking. Telegraph Trail actually consists of a system of at least four interconnected trails not far from downtown Durango. Durango truly deserves a glowing reputation for hiking trails. Just four miles from Durango begins the trailhead to the 486-mile Colorado Trail. Southwest Colorado and Durango are fortunate to have a high percentage of these hundreds of miles of trails. About 80 miles of the Colorado Trails lies in the Animus District of the San Juan National Forest where Durango is located. There are so many hiking and biking trails that start near downtown Durango.
Located between Durango and Mancos, La Plata Canyon Recreational Area lies within the San Juan National Forest. The La Plata Canyon Recreational Area has numerous trails for serious and other hikers. La Plata Canyon trail climbs up the La Plata Canyon Road reached from Durango by Hwy. 160. The top of this road reaches the Colorado Trail at the top of Kennebec Pass. Approximately 9.25 miles in length, the trail gains over 2,800 feet to its intersection with Columbus Basin Road/trail. Popular for jeeping and 4WD in dry season, in the winter La Plata Canyon Road is often “groomed” for a few miles for cross country skiing and snowshoeing.
Just 23 miles from Durango, the little town of Mancos is located in beautiful Mancos Valley and situated on the Mancos River. Mancos traces its roots back to ranching, farming and timber industries that started back in the 1870s. After the peace treaty with the Utes, and because of its potential for grazing, Mancos became one of the first towns in southwest Colorado. Ranching is still a mainstay in the area. Some of the spirit and charm of the Wild West still persists in Mancos. The quaint historic streets of Mancos include a Creative District that has attracted and nourished a great many artists and artisans.
Mancos also has the distinction of being the home of Richard Wetherhill who, in 1888, headed down the Mancos River into Mesa Verde. At the time, the plateau above the valley cut by magnificent canyons was unknown except to the Indians. Searching for lost cattle, instead that discovered the ancient “Cities” of the Anasazi. Deeply religious, wonderful weavers, potters and builders, the Anasazi built amazing structures that became known as Cliff Palace, Square Tower House, Balcony House, Spruce Tree House and Sun Temple. The unique world of the “Ancient Ones” includes a museum and other facilities for visitors. Today the proximity of Mancos to the Mesa Verde National Park (8 miles) make it an excellent home base for visiting the Park. Northwest of Mancos on the western side of the La Plata Mountains is a series of trails that attract hikers, mountain bikes, and horse riders.
From Mancos the Skyway continues west on Hwy 160 to Cortez near the Four Corners where the borders of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet. The town is best known for its location along Colorado’s Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway that travels between Mesa Verde National Park and several other lesser known historic monuments: Hovenweep National Monument, that includes a series of stone towers built by the Ancestral Puebloan people, and remote Canyons of the Ancients National Monument on land that surrounds Hovenweep and contains the highest concentration of archaeological sites in the United States. A visit to the Canyons of the Ancients Museum near Dolores is well worth it to grasp how the area looked when the Ancestral Puebloans lived there and the unique history of the American Southwest. The whole area also is becoming known for its challenging mountain bike terrain, including the Phil’s World trail system that sits atop a southwest desert mesa approximately four miles from Cortez. Within the Cortez itself the Hawkins Preserve has 11 trails that can be combined into enjoyable loop trails.
At 6200 feet-ft., Cortez is the lowest point on the Skyway. South and west of Cortez, the terrain of the Colorado Plateau drops off to a vast area of high desert and canyons. Through this high desert area rivers have cut deep, narrow canyons and broad, sheer-walled valleys. The “land of rainbow’s end” for the Navajos surely is one of the nation’s most uniquely sculptured landscapes that also often is referred to as the “archeological center of America.” About 800 years ago, the landscape in all directions was cultivated by the Anasazi. Later the Ute Mountain Utes occupied the region south of Cortez in a domain that stretched west hundreds of miles into what today is Utah. To learn more, visit the Cortez Center/University of Colorado Museum on Market Street in downtown Cortez and also the Crow Canyon Archeological Center off Hwy 491 north of town.