Cortez sits in the Montezuma Valley of southwest Colorado at the lofty elevation of 6,200 feet. The Montezuma Valley is a beautiful area of farmland, surrounded by mountains and diverse scenery. Just west of Cortez the land drops abruptly into Hartman Canyon, a 200-feet deep canyon that has cut its way into the valley. To the southwest, beyond Hartman Canyon, rises Sleeping Ute Mountain, so named because it looks like a sleeping Indian. It is easy to recognize by the prominent peak, Ute Peak, at the north end of the mountain, which reaches 9,979 feet in elevation.
To the south of Cortez is a line of cliffs topped by a plateau known as Mesa Verde. Its angular shapes contrast the rounded, forested slopes of Sleeping Ute Mountains, although many trees cling to the upper slopes. The name means green mesa, and compared to many other mesas to the south and west, it is very green. Mesa Verde is famous for its Indian ruins built in ancient times, and much of it is part of Mesa Verde National Park.
In the distance to the east are the La Plata Mountains, which reach to elevations above 13,000 feet. These mountains are usually snow-capped, and rise above the tree line. Montezuma Valley extends eastward to these mountains, and northward for many miles. To the northwest, numerous canyon cut into the valley like Hartman Canyon. Heading southward from Cortez, passing between Sleeping Ute Mountain and Mesa Verde, the elevation drops and the climate changes to a barren desert.
Cortez was founded in 1886 by the Montezuma Valley Water Supply Company, which constructed an irrigation system to bring water from the Dolores River to the Montezuma Valley. The city was platted by M.J. Mack on land owned by J.W. Hanna, the president of the company. Their efforts converted the barren soil of the valley to the verdant farmland it is today, and provided the means for the people of the area to support themselves today.
Cortez has a population of 8,482, as of the 2010 census. It is at the junction of U.S. Highways 160 and 491. U.S. Highway 491 heads northwest towards Dove Creek and then into Utah. U.S. Highway 160 heads eastward towards Durango. They join in Cortez and head southward until they separate about twenty miles to the south. Colorado Highway 145 begins at Cortez and heads to Dolores, a small town to the north