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Durango to Cortez

US 160

North of Durango in the Animas Valley there are some of the earliest known Basketmaker sites. The town of Durango is also built atop many ruins of the Basketmaker III and Pueblo I periods, especially on the river terraces at the south side of the city. By 900 A. D. the Anasazi had abandoned this area, but large populations occupied Montezuma County to the west. Navajo occupation of this area is known from the 1500s.

This is a pleasant drive, but I don't have a lot to say about the geology: the trip is almost entirely in rocks of the Cretaceous, especially Mancos Shale, which is 2300 feet thick in places.


Leave Durango on US 160 west.

Milepost 81. Twin Peaks on the right are capped by Point Lookout Sandstone.

As the road proceeds up the canyon of Lightner Creek, Menefee Formation appears in the road cuts. Coal has been mined locally from the Menefee.

Milepost 77. Lewis Shale can be seen over rocks of the Mesaverde Group in the roadcut on the right.

The road ascends out of the Animas Valley.

Milepost 73. Intersection with CO 140 at Hesperus. Continue on US 160. Cross the La Plata River, which flows south to join the San Juan.

The road to Mayday, sitting at the foot of the La Plata Mountains, is on the right.

Hesperus is latin for "evening star." A settlement begun here in 1882 was named by the railroad for a coal mine on Hesperus Mountain, the highest peak in the La Platas at 13,232 feet. [Yes, I know "the La Platas" is redundant - the the silvers --, but it sounds awkward with out the English "the".]
Mt. Hesperus is the northern sacred mountain of the Navajo, one of four mountains that marked the boundaries of Dinetah, their homeland. In the La Platas near Silverton is Island Lake, where an island in the center of the water is surrounded by mountains in each of the four directions. The Navajo believe this is the place of their emergence into this world.

South of here is the second home of Fort Lewis, which was first located at Pagosa Springs. The fort was abandoned in 1891, but reopened the next year as an Indian school. Angry students burned most of the buildings a short time later. It reopened in 1911 to provide free education to Indian youths and became a community college, moving to Durango as Fort Lewis College in 1957.

La Plata Mountains. New Mexicans were not supposed to travel into Ute Territory, at least after 1712, but after a Ute brought a small silver ingot to Abiquiu, the governor in 1765 sent Juan Maria Antonio Rivera to explore the country looking for mines and a crossing of the Colorado River. Rivera found evidence of mining on the Los Pinos River and later met with some Utes living near present day Montezuma Creek, Utah. He was told that the Ute who had taken the silver ingot to Abiquiu lived on the La Plata River. Summer heat drove him back to Santa Fe, but he returned in the fall of the same year and found the Colorado River crossing near Moab. His expedition did not lead to any mining, however. An unofficial expedition was made by three men in 1775, and one of them, Andres Muniz, who may have been with Rivera in 1765, served as a guide for the Domínguez and Escalante Expedition in 1776. On August 9, while the padres were camped near the site of Hesperus, Muniz told them of "metallic" ores in the mountains, which already bore the name "La Plata", meaning "silver" in Spanish. Because Fr. Domínguez was ill, they did not go see the mineral veins. There was undoubtedly Spanish, and possibly French, mining here before the Anglo period, but no records have survived.

In 1873, prospectors found placer gold in La Plata River and located some veins of ore in the mountains. La Plata County was created in 1874, and Parrot City, named for a San Francisco banker, was founded. The name was later changed to Mayday. In 1880 Parrot City, the La Plata county seat, boasted more than forty houses, and a weekly newspaper. A wagon road was built about 1884 to the head of La Plata River, and a new settlement, La Plata City, was started, but it dwindled away. Six mines supplied the majority of the gold and silver in the district, but the overall return has always been disappointing.

Milepost 72. Ski Hesperus on left. The road for a short distance here between Hesperus and Mancos follows, or parallels, the route of the Old Spanish Trail between Santa Fe and Los Angeles.

Point Lookout Sandstone caps the surrounding mesas. The National King Coal Mine is a few miles south of here. It extracts very high grade coal from the Menefee Formation and sells it to industries in New Mexico, Arizona and Japan. Author Louis L'Amour owned a ranch near here.

Milepost 66. Cross Montezuma/ La Plata County line.

Cross bridge over the Mancos River. The river drains the San Juan Mountains to the north as well as Mesa Verde to the south. It joins the San Juan River northeast of Teec Nos Pos, Arizona.

Mancos in Spanish means "crippled" or "one-handed." This was a nickname applied to the river by the men traveling with Domínguez and Escalante after one of their number fell off his horse crossing the river and injured his hand. Father Escalante named it differently, but the nickname stuck. The town was named for the river, probably with no thought to the meaning of the name. The first settlers arrived here in 1875 and built cabins in the following year, the same year that Colorado became a state. In the 1890s and early 1900s Mancos was a supply center serving the trading posts and Mormon settlements in southeast Utah.

The high point at the front of Mesa Verde is Point Lookout, where, you guessed it: Point Lookout Sandstone overlies Mancos Shale.

Pass entrance to Mesa Verde.

Mesa Verde

This is a must see destination in the Southwest. The mesa is an erosional remnant of Mancos Shale overlain by the Mesaverde Group: Point Lookout Sandstone, Menefee Formation, and Cliff House Sandstone. The first two were laid down in near-shore conditions as the Cretaceous sea retreated eastward. The last was deposited as the sea advanced again. The mesa's surface slopes gently toward the south as a result of the uplift of the La Plata Mountains.

Humans have occupied Mesa Verde for 3000 years. The first to dwell there were Indians of the Paleo-period. The entire Anasazi sequence from Basketmaker to Pueblo until about 1300 A. D. is represented on top and in the caves along the mesa's rim. Land was withdrawn from the Ute reservation to create the national park in 1906.

 The Wetherill family had a ranch near Mancos, and Richard Wetherill became fascinated with the Anasazi ruins, which he and his brothers explored and named. They gave tours to visitors and performed amateur excavations. Richard spent the rest of his life as a "cowboy archaeologist." His controversial career generated much enmity, and when the local newspapers announced the creation of the National Park, the name of the man who did the most to bring the mesa to the attention of the world was not mentioned.

The region around Cortez and Mesa Verde was a center of population during Anasazi times. More people lived at sites such as Yellow Jacket, Sand Canyon, and Lowry Pueblo than on Mesa Verde, itself, but none built such spectacular pueblos as the cliff dwelling on the mesa. Lowry is open to the public; Sand Canyon is open but the BLM controls access.

Ute Mountain Tribal Park is located on the southern fingers of Mesa Verde. It is open only to parties that hire a guide. There are dirt roads and a few trails, but the ruins are much as they were in Mesa Verde National Park before excavation, thus a visit gives a chance to see almost untouched sites. The first photograph of a Mesa Verdean cliff dwelling was taken in 1874 by William Henry Jackson, a member of the Hayden Expedition. The pueblo he called "Two Story Cliff Dwelling" is in Ute Mountain Tribal Park.

Montezuma County Fairgrounds on left.

Junction with CO 145 to Dolores. The Anasazi Heritage Center ten miles north of Cortez was built to preserve the results of the survey and archaeological salvage operations prior to the building of the McPhee Dam on the Dolores River. It is the only museum maintained by the BLM. The building is sited near the Domínguez and Escalante Ruins, where archaeologists found evidence of links to Chaco Canyon. The several hands-on exhibits make it a worthwhile stop.

Cortez was named for Hernan Cortez, who conquered the Aztec empire, probably because of the early belief that the Anasazi ruins in the Southwest had been built by a northern branch of the Aztecs. The town was founded in 1886 as a ranching center. Now it also serves the tourists who come to see Mesa Verde and the other sites in the area. West and northwest of Cortez is the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument which covers 164,000 acres surrounding parts of Hovenweep National Monument and incorporating Lowry Pueblo, the Sand Canyon archaeological sites and two BLM wilderness study areas. Concern about protecting the more than 20,000 archaeological sites in the area was first raised in 1894, but no action was taken until President Clinton proclaimed it a monument in 2000. Information about visiting the monument is available at the Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores.

Going on: US 491 [formerly 666] goes south to Shiprock and Gallup, New Mexico. On this route you pass the west side of Mesa Verde. Beyond that are many buttes and mesas composed of the same rock as the larger mesa. Traveling north to Monticello, Utah the road crosses the Sage Plain.

Major References

Crampton, C. Gregory and Steven K. Madsen. In search of the Spanish Trail; Santa Fe to Los Angeles, 1829 - 1848. Gibbs-Smith Publisher, 1994.

Linford, Laurance D. Navajo Places; history, legend, landscape. University of Utah Press, 2000.

New Mexico Geological Society. Mesozoic geology and paleontology of the Four Corners region. 1997.

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