If you’re heading to any major city in Arizona from southern California (Carlsbad or further south), you’ll be driving on a route that takes you through Yuma, the southwest gateway of Arizona. A lot of people start their trips planning to blast through to points beyond. But this would be a mistake. Yuma has historically been the place to stop.
Because the Colorado River flows through Yuma, it has always been a gathering place…for Indians, Spaniards, the military, immigrants and pioneers, gold-seekers, and agricultural workers. Here, steamboats, locomotives, stagecoaches and pioneer wagons also converged. The Colorado River is at its narrowest here — only 1000 feet wide, so it became the best place to cross the river. It was the only lower Colorado crossing point for a thousand miles. Yuma Crossing is now a National Heritage site. I guess it should be, since it kind of brought everyone together!
Today, the current population in Yuma is about 200,000, but in the winter months, the population swells to 285,000 as “snowbirds” from northern US and Canada make Yuma home. Yuma has many claims to fame:
- Sunniest place on earth (90% of the time from sunrise to sunset)
- Winter Vegetable Capital of the World
- Best golf courses
- The longest infantry march in U.S. history came through Yuma
- Arizona’s most-visited state historic park: the Yuma Territorial Prison
- The first plane to land in Arizona touched down here
- The first highway crossing of the Colorado River
- The plane “City of Yuma” set the record of 1124 hours aloft — that’s 47 days!– in 1949
What Else About Yuma?
Yuma is at the very southwestern corner of Arizona…or the southeastern corner of California — however you want to look at it. It’s also right on the Mexican border. Like only yards away in some places! As you drive into Yuma from the west, you’ll cross over the San Diego County and Imperial County boundary line several times. You’ll also pass through the most interesting rocky terrain — almost otherworldly.
And then you hit the desert. One straight line all the way through El Centro to Yuma with not much more than the sand, tumbleweeds and a little shrubbery. And all the winter vegetables — lettuce, especially! — growing in fields everywhere. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a brightly colored crop duster dip its wings and make another pass across the fields. There are also several hundred acres of sheep. Yes, sheep! I wouldn’t want to have to count them. And you’ll pass by the Imperial Sand Dunes. On the weekends, you’ll see lots of dune buggies traversing the dunes. The Imperial Sand Dunes was the film site for Star Wars’ The Return of the Jedi — cool, huh?
In the distance, you can begin to see a long low line of dark craggy mountains east of Yuma, which are the Fortuna Foothills and the Gila Mountains beyond. They lie in stark contrast to the desert plains, and they are very striking! When they are backed by a deep blue sky (as is common), this view is stunning, and it is part of what makes Yuma so unique.
What brought me to Yuma?
We’ve been going to Yuma at least once a year for probably 20 years now. My husband’s brother moved there with his family when our children were still young. The first time we went, we thought it would be a great idea to visit on Labor Day weekend. It was NOT a good idea. It was about 114 degrees and all we could do was sit in the Colorado River (which was as warm as a bathtub) and visit the air-conditioned McDonald’s playland with the kids! We learned to make our visits to Yuma between November and April.
When the children were young, we took them to see the Territorial Prison. They were fascinated with the museum and stories of the rough characters who had been imprisoned there. Then they got to explore some of the cells and imagine what it might have been like to endure a Yuma prison without air conditioning in the summer. Pretty good incentive to stay on the good side of the law!
We enjoyed taking the family to Algodones (just across the border in Mexico). At that time, passports were not required, and it was an easy walk from the California side parking lot. It was fun to browse the vendor stands and watch the people who created paintings with spray paint.
We took the kids to local parks and had Easter egg hunts, looked for owls in the palm trees, and even went where we could jump into the Colorado River! We were also introduced to “date shakes” at a date palm farm (very scrumptious, by the way!). But after a few years, my brother-in-law’s family relocated to Utah, and we thought that was the end of our Yuma visits.
That’s when my aunt and uncle became “snowbirds” and started spending their winters in Yuma; my husband’s aunt also moved there permanently.
Exploring More of Yuma
Now we were visiting Yuma with teenagers! What could we do that would keep them interested? Well, first of all, our kids loved the RV park where my aunt and uncle lived. There was a swimming pool, shuffleboard courts, and a restaurant, too. Our kids really enjoyed learning how to play shuffleboard; it doesn’t have to be just for the “ol folks”!
When we’d visit, sometimes we’d camp out on the deck of my aunt and uncle’s home, but usually we’d stay at a hotel where my husband had points from business travel. That’s when we discovered an awesome 24-hour diner our kids fell in love with, called Penny’s Diner. Reminiscent of a 50’s diner, with checkerboard floor tiles and bar stools, they have the best biscuits & gravy and homemade pie!
As a family, we enjoyed playing cards and board games with our aunts and uncle too. Once, we all went to the Arizona Market Place, which is a HUGE flea market and swap meet with all kinds of things for sale. A lot of vendors cater to RV owners, and you can buy absolutely anything you might ever need if you’re living in an RV. But there’s also lots of food vendors, dollar stores, and unique items for sale — like swords or jewelry, yard art, crafts, or antiques.
My husband’s aunt introduced us to Old Town Yuma and an inexpensive Mexican restaurant. It was fun to stroll around and browse the shops, too.
Seeing Yuma through new eyes
After our kids left home and we found ourselves empty nesters, we started exploring more of the area in and around Yuma. On one of our visits, my uncle suggested we might want to check out Quartzite. It’s a small town that has become a rockhound’s paradise. In January and February, thousands of RV’s camp out in the surrounding desert and support one of the world’s largest gem and mineral shows. So we went, and we loved exploring hundreds of vendor booths and gemstone displays. (Read my post about Quartzite here.)
The next time we went, we stopped in Felicity, CA (just 20 minutes west of Yuma). Felicity’s claim is that it’s the center of the universe, and there’s even a plaque in the middle of a pyramid to prove it! A huge granite memorial to the history of the world is being carved and expanded. There’s a tiny post office, a French-style church, a large gift shop, and even a section of stairs from the Eiffel Tower! It’s quirky, but worth the time to see.
On our most recent trip (just last weekend), we visited the West Wetlands Park and the Quartermaster Depot. East and West Wetlands Parks are relatively new. They weren’t there when we use to visit with our kids. The West Wetlands park has a fishing/toy boat sailing pond, gazebos, an amazing playground that resembles a castle, a boat launch on the Colorado river, and a Mormon Battalion historic marker.
The Quartermaster Depot is where the military use to receive and store all supplies needed for military forts and facilities throughout the southwest United States.
What’s left to explore?
I’ve made a list of all the other Yuma sites I’d like to see someday, so I’ve plenty of reason to return!
- Sanguinetti House Museum 240 South Madison
- Casa de Coronado Museum 235 South 4th Avenue
- Yuma Art Center 254 S Main St
- Camel Farm, 15672 S Avenue 1 East
- Gateway Park
- Quechan Indian Museum, Quechan Indian Reservation
- St. Thomas Indian Museum, Winterhaven, CA
- Old Plank Road, 17 miles west of Yuma, north of I-8
- Castle Dome Mine Museum
- Dobson Museum and Western Town, 40305 East County 7th Street, Tacna, AZ
- Bard Cloud Museum, 1398 York Road, Bard, CA Phone: 760-572-0188.
- Old Tumco Ghost Town and Gold Mine, 22 miles northeast of Yuma, near Gold Rock Ranch
If you’re interested in another perspective on Yuma, Alexa Meisler of 52PerfectDays has written about her visit with her teenaged son, and you can read it here.
Another Yuma bonus!
GPSmyCity has chosen this article about Yuma to convert to a GPS-embedded guide you can purchase for a nominal fee here. If you do, I’ll receive a few cents commission, and you won’t get lost as you re-trace my steps!
Have you been to Yuma? Or did you just pass through? If you’ve been, what did you enjoy doing?