Tucked into the southwest corner of Arizona, Yuma has often been looked upon as a small, hot, dusty little burg that’s home to an onslaught of ‘snow birds’ each winter. While it’s true that many retirees flock to the southern U.S. to escape the ravages of winter, they are only a small part of the increasingly diverse group of visitors that come to Yuma in search of old west history, world-class recreation and delectable cuisine. What have they discovered about this not-so-sleepy city? What makes Yuma so ‘cool’?
It’s filled with fascinating history:
Spanish explorers discovered early Native American cultures near the Colorado River as far back as 1540 when the river was wide and wild. Two granite outcroppings offered safety and shelter from annual flooding, making it the most accessible spot to cross the Colorado. This later became known as ‘Yuma Crossing’.
Missionaries and settlers of ‘New Spain’ followed. Juan Batista de Anza was commissioned to forge a trail from Sonora to Northern California, a route used by over 2000 people, leading to the establishment of San Francisco. Wagon routes crossed here, as did 60,000 fortune seekers who followed the Gila Trail during the Gold rush of 1849. Fort Yuma supplied the U.S. Military and its chain of forts throughout the southwest. Stagecoaches stopped here en route from San Diego to San Antonio, and by the 1870’s the Colorado was filled with steamships and barges laden with people and goods. Yuma was a bustling port filled with all the characters, crime and excitement of the wild, wild west.
In 1871, a city plan was established and the railroad barreled into town, but life really changed when the ‘Yuma Project’ began in 1904. This monumental irrigation project included construction of Laguna Dam, the first on the Colorado, and the ‘Yuma Siphon’, a concrete tunnel, 14 feet in diameter, that ran underneath the river to deliver water to the burgeoning agricultural fields.
The first ‘modern motel’ in the state, the Coronado Motor Hotel, opened in 1936. Owned and operated by John and Yvonne Peach, the hotel has always been in John’s family and the original home is now a museum. Created by Yvonne, when she found her mother-in-law’s treasure trove of memorabilia, it’s a fabulous collection of Americana and will bring back a bevy of memories and smiles for anyone who ever took a family road trip.
The hotel is still very much in operation, with a new wing built across the street from the original structures. All the rooms are thoroughly modern but done in such a way that they retain the charm of days gone by. Full, hot breakfast at the Yuma Landing Restaurant is included – another example of the Peach’s fantastic hospitality.
A few other not-to-be-missed spots:
Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park – Built in the 1870’s this was the supply hub for all the forts and outposts of the US military.
Pivot Point Plaza National Historic Landmark – The first railroad crossing in 1817 is commemorated with a locomotive engine on the exact alignment of the original swing-span rail bridge and the interpretive plaza brings history to life.
Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park – Set in the most visited State Park in Arizona, the prison opened in 1876 and was built by the very prisoners sentenced to this harsh and crowded institution. In operation for 33 years, the facility is now run by local volunteers who treasure this unique and important piece of Yuma’s history. Take a tour with one of the docents for fascinating, behind-the-scenes tales.
Sanguinetti House Museum & Gardens – One of the few adobe structures left in Yuma, this was once home to E.F. Sanguinetti, an Italian immigrant who became one of the most prominent businessmen in the area.
Parks & Recreation:
Float or paddle your way down the river, take an off-road adventure in the nearby Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation area, or hike through a deserted mining town at Castle Dome.
West Wetlands Park – Wander the trails through the Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden, check out the Solar Demonstration Garden or enjoy the riverfront access and boat launch. This popular local hangout has a wonderful children’s playground and pond.
Yuma East Wetlands – The Colorado was a source of industry and prosperity for the Yuma area, but all the steamboat traffic and neglect took its toll on the local ecosystem. Since 2002, the East Wetlands Reclamation project has removed invasive vegetation and replanted the area with indigenous species including 200,000 trees, plants and shrubs, re-instating two miles of river channel to its original condition. Now, wildlife is returning; the bird population has doubled and diversity species are up over 75%. Those involved expect over 330 species of bird and wildlife will soon call this area home. Cool off under the native cottonwood trees, ride your bike past the fragrant mesquite and majestic willows, or stand below the newly re-opened ‘Ocean to Ocean’ bridge, the first highway crossing over the Colorado.
Experience Great food from Field to Fork:
Did you know that the fields surrounding Yuma are responsible for 90% of all the leafy greens Americans enjoy between November and March? Yuma produces 175 different agricultural crops: a vast array of vegetables, fruit and citrus, gourmet dates, nuts and grains. The sunny skies, low humidity and irrigation from the Colorado River have made Yuma not only the North American Winter Vegetable Capital, but also an agricultural research and education hub.
Martha’s Gardens Medjool Date Farm – A date shake is a ‘must try’, especially tasty enjoyed on the patio in the shade of the palms.
Urias Farms – Stop at another outstanding grower of these plump delicious dates, located in Somerton.
The Peanut Patch has been satisfying Yuma’s sweet-tooth for decades with homemade fudge, dried fruits and peanut brittle. Take a tour of their kitchen.
Dining and Drinking:
The historic ‘North End’ is now ‘the place’ to stroll, shop, sip and savor the many flavors and sights this charming area can cook up. Small boutiques and specialty stores line Main Street. Stop in at Desert Olive Farms for a selection of creative oils made from their own olives. Bare Naked Soap Company handcrafts every fragrant bar from natural ingredients. The Art Deco Yuma Theatre is just across the street and wine lovers should check out Old Town Wine Cellar.
Shopping and strolling is thirsty work. Pop into Prison Hill Brewing for a flight of their locally brewed beers, including ‘Jailbait Date’.
Trendy locals can be found at Yuma’s Main Squeeze. The city’s only urban winery imports juice from some of the most sought after wine regions of the world, then ferments and creates a tasty array of wines for their loyal and appreciative clientele.
Blend a little history with your beverage at Yuma Landing Bar & Grill. “The Hanger Martini” – created to celebrate the first landing of an airplane in Yuma, right at this location, is perfectly suited to the aeronautic memorabilia that decorates the cozy Captain’s Lounge. Wine Wednesday’s are fun, too!
Yuma’s dining scene is diverse, reflecting a multi-cultural influence.
Take a trip to Bavaria at Das Bratwurst Haus where authentic, German cuisine, is based on the owner’s family recipes. Tables are snugged up to shelves laden with ceramic steins and wood-carvings from the Black Forest. Only open from September to April 15th each year, this is a popular local spot and the beer is amazing!
In summer, enjoy the Mediterranean/Pacific Rim/Caribbean influenced dishes of the River City Grill inside the cool and cheerful restaurant. In ‘winter,’ everyone moves out to the inviting and expansive patio to savor dishes that are healthy, fresh and rich in flavor.
The Foodie Festivals Never End:
Lettuce Days (February) celebrate the bounty of the desert and people that grow it, with entertaining and informative cooking demonstration by top chefs. Meet local vendors, taste and be inspired.
Savor Yuma (December – April) focuses on “Field to Feast.” Guests visit the University of Arizona Research Farm to harvest produce, talk to growers and meet with local culinary students to create a delicious lunch with fresh ingredients.
Rio de Cerveza (River of Beer) is on tap each October, the Medjool Dates Fest is in January and why not celebrate ‘Tunes & Tacos” in April?
Yuma is a city of surprises, graced with dedicated, involved citizens working to preserve their heritage and share it with the world.
If You Go:
Yuma Visitors Bureau www.visityuma.com
Historic Coronado Motor Hotel www.CoronadoMotorHotel.com
The author was a guest of Visit Yuma but the observations and opinions are strictly her own.