Locals will admit that Yuma is too often a quick stop on Interstate 8 for fuel and snacks on the way to the beaches of San Diego. That's a shame because the self-proclaimed "Sunniest City in the World" is a destination on its own.
A Quick History Lesson
Yuma is located on the banks of the Colorado River in the extreme southwestern corner of Arizona, sharing a border with California and Mexico. It was first settled in 1540 by Spanish explorers who encountered Yuman Indians, ancestors of the present-day Quechan and Cocopah tribes.
Following the 1849 Gold Rush, Yuma became a strategic military site for the U.S. Army, supplying posts in Arizona Territory and beyond. After the Gadsden Purchase, Yuma became a part of the United States. Today, the year-round population of Yuma is around 93,000, although winter visitors swell the ranks another 80,000 or so.
The military and the Colorado River still figure prominently in the city's identity, but agriculture also defines Yuma. You won't drive the roads very long before you inhale the loam of farmland or meet a John Deere. Yuma famously grows the majority of the nation's winter lettuces, among 200 vegetables including squash, zucchini, and cauliflower, along with medjool dates—all crops that love the Mediterranean climate.
Alcatraz of the Desert
The Yuma Territorial Prison State Park, located on the historic downtown riverfront, is the town's best-known attraction. Dating from 1876, the massive granite and iron behemoth, much like its notorious San Francisco counterpart, is surrounded by the Colorado and Gila rivers and the Sonoran Desert. Prisoners hacked out their own cells, adding to its reputation as an unforgiving place. During its 33 years of operation, more than 3,000 prisoners, including women and children, were confined.
It's also fascinating to walk along the grassy grounds of the nearby Quartermaster Depot and take in the well-preserved buildings that supplied the old frontier when steamboats plied the Colorado before it was dammed.
From here you can rent a bicycle and pedal 7 miles of lovely wetlands along the river, a favorite place to spot migratory and resident birds. Or do as the locals do and rent an inner tube from the Yuma River Tubing Company, and enjoy a lazy sunset float on the Colorado from Centennial Beach.