Yuma's rich historical background and sunny, subtropical climate make it an attractive destination. In winter, snowbirds double and even triple the town's year-round population of 83,330. RVs spread across the landscape, filling the many RV parks in town, along the river, and out on the desert. Boaters and anglers explore countless lakes and quiet backwaters on the Colorado River. Date palms, citrus trees, and vegetables on irrigated farmlands add a touch of green. The Mexican border towns of Algodones (8.5 miles southwest) and San Luis (25 miles south) offer colorful shopping.
The long recorded history of Yuma begins in 1540, nearly 70 years before the founding of Jamestown, Virginia. Captain Hernando de Alarcón, the first white person to visit the area, led a Spanish naval expedition along the west coast of Mexico and then a short way up the Colorado River. He hoped to meet and resupply Francisco Vásquez de Coronado's expedition to the fabled Seven Cities of Cíbola farther east, but the two groups never met.
While searching for a land route between Mexico and California, Spanish explorers discovered that the best crossing on the lower Colorado River lay just below the mouth of the Gila River. Soldiers and missionaries built a fort and missions here, across from present-day Yuma. Angry Quechan destroyed the settlements during a violent uprising in 1781, ending Spanish domination of Yuma Crossing.
Although small bands of American mountain men started drifting through in the early 1800s, little attention was paid to the area until the Mexican War. Kit Carson passed this way in 1829 with a group of trappers, returning in 1846 to guide Colonel Stephen Kearny and 100 soldiers endeavoring to secure former Mexican lands between Santa Fe and San Diego. Colonel Philip Cooke followed with the Mormon Battalion and supply wagons, blazing the first transcontinental road across the Southwest. Crowds of '49ers, seeking gold in the Sierra Nevada of California, pushed westward along Cooke's Road a few years later.
In 1851, the army built Camp Yuma atop a hill on the California side to protect Yuma Crossing from attacks by local tribes. Nearby mining successes, the coming of steamboats, and road improvements encouraged the founding of Colorado City on the Arizona shore in 1854. Residents changed the name to Arizona City in 1858, rebuilt on higher ground after a disastrous 1862 flood, and adopted the present name of Yuma in 1873. Yuma Territorial Prison, the town's first major construction project, went up in 1876. Laguna Dam ended the riverboat era in 1909, but guaranteed water for the fertile desert valleys.
Today Yuma ranks as one of Arizona's most important cities and the center of a rich agricultural area. Farmers take advantage of the year-round growing season to raise more than 100 crops. The military has a big presence, and you'll likely see aircraft speeding overhead from the Marine Corps Air Station on the southeast edge of town. The army tests combat vehicles, weapons systems, and other gear at Yuma Proving Grounds, 26 miles north.
Downtown Yuma invites exploration on foot. The Yuma Convention and Visitors Bureau makes a good starting point for a visit to shops and galleries on Main Street. Entertainment spots include Yuma Art Center and Theatre (254 S. Main), Lute's Casino (221 S. Main), and Main Street Cinemas (111 S. Main). To reach the Century House Museum, follow the row of small shops signed "224 Main Street" to Madison Avenue. A riverside park lies at the north end of Madison. To visit the Yuma Quartermaster Depot, you could follow the Riverside Trail downstream from either the prison or the riverside park; or walk west on First Street (not Avenue) from Madison past Yuma City Hall and turn right on Fourth Avenue.
Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park
The old prison (1 Prison Hill Rd., 928/783-4771, www.azstateparks.com, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, $4 adults, $2 ages 7-13) has a colorful history. Photos in the museum show the faces of men and women once imprisoned here and of those who guarded them. Stories tell of inmates, guards, riots, and escape attempts. A model shows how the prison originally looked. Outside, you can wander through the cellblocks, climb the main watchtower, and visit the prison graveyard. Staff offer a video program on request and lead winter-time walking tours. Old West re-enactors bring pistol-packing action on Sundays from October to April and in the Gathering of the Gunfighters on the second weekend of January.
Picnic tables are available on the grounds and in a small park off Prison Hill Road. A gift shop sells books and souvenirs. For additional information about the history of the prison, consult the well-illustrated Prison Centennial 1876-1976 by Cliff Trafzer and Steve George.
Take Prison Hill Road off Giss Parkway near I-8 Exit 1. You can walk Riverside Trail along the shore of the Colorado between here and Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park, 0.9 mile one way. There's a $1 discount if you visit both state parks in Yuma on the same day.
YUMA TERRITORIAL PRISON
In 1875 the Territorial Legislature was set to award $25,000 to Phoenix for construction of a major prison. But Yuma's representatives, Jose Maria Redondo and R.B. Kelly, did some fast talking and won the project for their hometown. The righteous citizens of the territory were fed up with murders, robberies, and other lawless acts on the frontier, and they wanted bad characters behind bars. The niceties of reform and rehabilitation didn't concern them. Yuma, surrounded by hostile deserts and the treacherous currents of the Colorado and Gila Rivers, seemed the ideal spot for a prison. All prisoners endured searing 120°F summer temperatures, and recalcitrant inmates faced confinement in a Dark Cell. Prisoners themselves built the stone and adobe walls, as money and labor were scarce.
Most of Yuma's convicts were locked away for acts of robbery. Other crimes of the time that could get people to Yuma included seduction, polygamy, adultery, and obstructing a railroad. No executions took place here, though some prisoners died trying to escape. Despite its notoriety today, Yuma in the late 19th century had a reputation as a model prison. It provided benefits and services unknown at other "pens" of the age; prisoners enjoyed a library, workshop, school, and hospital. Some critics even called it a "country club."
During the 33 years of prison operation, 29 women and about 3,000 men paced the yard and gazed between iron bars. The prison withstood the toughest outlaws of frontier Arizona's wildest years until it outgrew its site and closed in 1909. The remaining 40 prisoners marched in shackles down Prison Hill to a train waiting to take them to a new cage in Florence. High school students in Yuma attended classes at the prison from 1910 to 1914, and even today the Yuma High School sports teams call themselves the Yuma Criminals.
Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park
On a visit to the history-filled buildings (201 N. 4th Ave., just before the Colorado River bridge, 928/329-0471, www.azstateparks.com, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, $4 adults, $2 ages 7-13) here beside the Colorado River, you'll see how import the site was for past travelers. The army chose this spot for its Yuma Quartermaster Depot after 1865 to supply military posts in the Southwest during the Indian wars. Ships carried cargo to Port Isabel, near the mouth of the Colorado River, where dockworkers transferred goods to river steamers for the trip to Yuma. The oldest buildings have been restored to their mid-1870s appearance, when the depot was at its peak. In the years after, the railroad arrived and greatly reduced waterfront business. The supply depot closed in 1883 and the Signal Corps telegraph office shut down in 1891, but the U.S. Weather Service operated here until 1949. Except for the stone reservoir, all structures have walls of adobe, because that was the only material early builders had in abundance.
A 30-minute video in the visitor center illustrates the changes and conflicts brought by Native Americans, Spanish missions, mountain men, the '49ers, and pioneers. A 1909 Model-T Ford rests on a section of plank road once used to cross nearby sand dunes; it represents the last link of the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway that passed through here on the way to San Diego. Historic photos and documents also help to tell the story of Yuma Crossing.
You can look into the restored rooms of the Commanding Officer's Quarters, built in the late 1850s and possibly the oldest Anglo house in Arizona. Prints and maps in the 1872 quartermaster depot illustrate life in the army; the telegraph office here looks ready for business. A surviving storehouse holds a collection of wagons and steamboat relics; the 1931 Model-A truck comes from a time when dust-bowl victims passed this way hoping for a new life in California. A 1907 Southern Pacific steam locomotive and a passenger car sit outside. Over in the north end of the corral house, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Service exhibits tell of the Yuma Project and why a 1,000-foot-long siphon had to be built under the Colorado River to bring river water to the Arizona side. On weekends during winter, members of the Yuma Weavers & Spinners demonstrate their skills in another part of the corral house. Picnic tables lie around the site.
Sanguinetti House Museum
Built in the 1870s and one of Yuma's oldest buildings (240 S. Madison Ave., 928/782-1841, www.arizonahistoricalsociety.org, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Sat., $3 adult, $2 youth 12-18 and seniors 60 and up), it's the former home of influential businessman E.F. Sanguinetti. Exhibits relate the history of Yuma Crossing—the lives of Native Americans, explorers, missionaries, soldiers, miners, riverboat captains, and early settlers. Period rooms and a changing gallery provide additional perspectives. The garden out back harbors flaming bougainvillea and chattering parakeets, colorful parrots, and peacocks.
The 1873 Adobe Annex next door sells local crafts and offers an excellent selection of books on regional history, tribes, and gold mining. Farther back, the Garden Cafe serves breakfast and lunch from early October to the end of May on a patio adjacent to the museum gardens; you can browse a gourmet gift shop too. The Annex and cafe close on Monday.
Yuma Art Center
Exhibits and theater productions appear downtown (254 S. Main St., 928/373-5202 art exhibits, 928/373-5202 theater, www.yumafinearts.org). The four fine art galleries are open 1-5 p.m. Sun., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tues.-Sat., $3 adult, $2.50 seniors, students, and children 6-12.
Quechan Indian Museum (Fort Yuma)
On the hill just across the Colorado River from Yuma, the museum (760/572-0661, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat. Arizona time, $1, free for children under 12) building dates from 1855 and the days of Camp Yuma. Renamed Fort Yuma in 1861, the site now belongs to the Quechan, who established a museum and tribal offices here. Museum exhibits illustrate the arrival of the Spanish missionary Father Francisco Garces, the Quechan Revolt, history of Fort Yuma, and Quechan life. Artifacts include clay figurines, flutes, gourd rattles, headdresses, bows and arrows, and war clubs. No photos allowed.
Note that the museum may close noon-1 p.m. for lunch some days. To reach it, take the 1915 Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge across the river and turn left at the sign; alternatively, head over on I-8 or 4th Avenue to Winterhaven, turn right on S24, and follow signs for the casino. The nearby 1922 St. Thomas Mission occupies the site of Concepción Mission, where Quechan murdered Father Garces in 1781.
Dome Valley Museum
This collection (21 miles east of town, 928/785-9081, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily from November to April 15, $7 adult, $12 couple, and $4 youth 10-17) of hundreds of tractors will enchant any farmer or farmer-at-heart! You'll see many models of the well-known makes, as well as some rare and unusual machines. The streamlined tractors in one shed weren't really built for speed, but for deflecting branches in orchards. Also on display are a 1915 10-ton electric truck, steam tractors, combines and other harvesting equipment, long line-ups of pedal tractors and cars, old toys, and three period kitchens. A gift shop sells memorabilia. From Yuma, follow I-8 east and take Dome Valley Exit 21, then continue east 1.4 miles on the north frontage road to the junction with Dome Valley Road. You can also get here from US 95 by following 13 miles of zigzagging farm roads; turn east on Co 3rd St. between Mileposts 40 and 41.
Muggins Mountains Wilderness
Reportedly named after a prospector's burro, Muggins Peak (1,424 feet) towers fortress-like above a rugged landscape. Volcanic eruptions four million years ago left behind the light-colored rhyolite that now forms the jagged peaks and ridges that you see all around. Saguaro, ironwood, and other plants of the Sonoran Desert cling to the rocky slopes. Washes and unsigned trails provide easy access. The 7,640-acre wilderness, managed by the BLM's Yuma Field office (928/317-3200), lies only 25 miles east of Yuma.
From Yuma, head east on I-8 to Dome Valley Exit 21 and follow the north frontage road east 1.4 miles. Turn left on Dome Valley Road, which makes a sharp right turn after 1.1 miles and becomes Ave 20 E. You'll reach a four-way stop in another 2.7 miles, where you'll turn right (east) on Co 7th Street. Pavement gives out after a mile (ignore a "closed road" sign here!) and a dirt road continues around a waste transfer facility to the wilderness boundary in another 0.7 mile. The road then enters a corridor through the wilderness, drops steeply into Muggins Wash, and heads up the wash about two miles. Only high-clearance 4WD vehicles should venture into the wash, and rocky spots may block progress. The wash opens up at a palo verde grove, where an unmarked trail just above the main wash on your right provides easier walking than the gravelly wash. Another trail continues past road's end to a scenic panorama on the pass just east of Muggins Peak. You'll find other trails and washes to explore as well. Navigation is easy if you stay in the Muggins Wash drainage, but be sure to carry water, map, and compass if you go farther afield, such as a hike around Muggins Peak.
El Camino del Diablo
This difficult route across southern Arizona used by the earliest travelers still presents a challenge. You can venture down it with a permit, a high-clearance 4WD vehicle, and supplies for remote desert travel. See the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge section for the permit process and some of the travel precautions.
Algodones (population 20,000) in Baja California offers the most convenient shopping to Yuma. Just take I-8 west 6.5 miles into California, then turn south two miles at the Algodones Road/Andrade Exit. Park in the large lot on the right just before the border, then take a short stroll across the border; a tourist office is on the right just after you cross. Many local craftspeople work with leather; you can see them turning out belts, bags, and saddles in some shops. Other crafts come from all over Mexico—including clothing, blankets, pottery, carved onyx chess sets, glassware, and musical instruments.
U.S. citizens may visit Algodones, San Luis, El Golfo, San Felipe, and Mexicali without formalities for as long as 72 hours. Visitors from countries who need a U.S. visa can usually make a border-town visit without formalities, but check first with U.S. Immigration.
Though not typical of the Sonoran Desert, barren sand dunes lie 17 miles west of Yuma. Movie producers have used this "Great American Sahara" for films ranging from Beau Geste to Star Wars. The Yuma Convention & Visitors Bureau can tell you about recent or current filming.
Rest areas on I-8 in the middle of the dunes provide a place to stop and park, but you cannot go out onto the dunes from here. To do so, take the I-8 Gray's Well Exit (just east of the rest areas), then follow the south frontage road west into the dunes. Dune-buggy drivers like to play here; you'll see a parking area for them at the beginning of the frontage road. Continue 3.2 miles to the site of Gray's Well (you've gone too far if the pavement ends) to see a surviving segment of the plank road on the left. From 1914 to 1927, motorists crossed the dunes on a seven-mile road made of these moveable planks until engineers figured out how to build a conventional road through the dunes.
On to Yuma Practicalities
On to Yuma to Parker