How do I love thee, desert underdog? Let me count the ways.

10 Things I Love About Yuma

Written by Leah LeMoine Category: Travel Issue: November 2016
Group Free

If you know me at all, you know I’m a sensitive soul prone to mother-like fussing and devotion to anybody and anything I perceive to be picked on or slighted. My reservoir of comically hyperbolic empathy so overfloweth that I’ve been known to cry at commercials, hug strangers and ruin practical jokes so as to spare the target’s feelings. I even find ways to pity and explain the behavior of criminals. They probably just had bad childhoods, right?

In keeping with my undying love for the underdog, it should come as no surprise that ever since I began working full-time at PHOENIX three years ago, I’ve been pitching Yuma as a destination for this fine travel column. Yes, Yuma. We’ve all heard the snarky jokes and pejorative nicknames for this sun-drenched Arizona-California border town of 94,000, usually relegated to a bathroom break for Phoenicians en route to San Diego. No matter – these perceptions only served to further fuel my determination to prove these narrow-minded jokesters wrong. “‘Arizona’s Armpit’ no longer!” I preached in righteous indignation when people asked me why the hell I was going there on purpose. “I’m going to find what there is to love about Yuma!”

And I did – so much, in fact, that it was difficult to edit my list down to a Top 10. I can’t wait to go back and uncover even more jewels. Plus, I’ve been hardcore craving those potato tacos from Lutes Casino (see No. 6).

  •  Field to Feast tour Field
    Field to Feast tour Field
  • Yuma Territorial Prison
    Yuma Territorial Prison
  • Martha’s Gardens date farmer Nels Rogers
    Martha’s Gardens date farmer Nels Rogers
  • canoeing birders
    canoeing birders
  • artist HollyCarmen Hendrick at Main Squeeze’s “Art in the Vineyard” class
    artist HollyCarmen Hendrick at Main Squeeze’s “Art in the Vineyard” class
  • iced lattes at North End Coffeehouse
    iced lattes at North End Coffeehouse
  • Potato tacos at Lutes Casino
    Potato tacos at Lutes Casino

1. Dates
Long before Couscous Express and Sphinx Date Co. Palm & Pantry brought date shakes to the Valley, Yuma cornered the Arizona market on these ferociously sweet and earthy treats. You can get one at a number of date farms in Yuma, but I recommend Martha’s Gardens Date Farm (9747 Avenue 9-3/4 E., 928-726-8833, marthasgardens.com), a sprawling date ranch owned by semi-retired agriculture broker Nels Rogers, a wiry second-generation Yuman whose grandfather emigrated from Sweden to North Dakota to Yuma. “I sell farms to farmers,” Rogers says matter-of-factly. “I ended up with some date trees” in the ’80s and “now I have about 8,000 trees.” Like most Yuma date farms, Martha’s Gardens primarily grows Medjools, but Rogers boasts a few other varieties – most notably Barhi and Hayany dates. The former is eaten before it has fully ripened and has crisp yellow skin and juicy, honey-like flesh. The latter is such a dark crimson it’s almost black, with a more intense caramel flavor. Ask Rogers to tell you about how the Hayany dates came to him. Spoiler alert: The fascinating story involves late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

2. Foodie Experiences
Of course, dates aren’t the only thing that grows bountifully in Yuma. The self-styled “Winter Vegetable Capital of the World” grows a stunning array of produce year-round, including 90 percent of the nation’s lettuce and greens between November and March. Now that “ag,” as locals call agriculture in these parts, has gone hipster and agritourism is an actual thing, Yuma is parlaying its produce industry into tourism opportunities for foodies who want to engage with the land from which their food comes. There are three distinct events for visiting food enthusiasts: Field to Feast tours, wherein guests learn about farming practices, pick their own produce, create a meal and dine with the farmers who grew that produce; Date Night Dinners, essentially multi-course dinner parties held in the date groves under the stars (ranked by Fodor’s as one of the 20 most unique dining events in the world); and Savor Yuma, a progressive dinner with chefs who discuss how they incorporate local produce into their menus and what it means to have agriculture so close to home. For more information and to purchase tickets for these events, go to visityuma.com.

3. The Colorado River
The once-roaring Colorado River has lowered and slimmed considerably over the years, but thanks to conservation efforts from the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area and its fearless leader Charlie Flynn, Yuma’s riverfront has undergone $40 million in improvements to create Gateway Park and the east and west wetlands, havens for hikers, bikers and birders. “They said it couldn’t be done,” says Flynn’s wife Ann Walker, media relations specialist for Visit Yuma, during our morning walk in the wetlands, with a light breeze whispering through the cottonwoods. Locals and visitors are so happy it was. You can explore the riverfront on one of its winding paths or float down it with Yuma River Tubing (282 N. 12th Ave., 928-750-0247, yumarivertubing.com) at West Wetlands Park, an experience captained by a disarmingly sweet U.S. Border Patrol agent named Chad Jones who moonlights as a Yuman Huck Finn.

4. History
Peeks into the past are everywhere in Yuma, from the tragic conditions at Yuma Territorial Prison (1 Prison Hill Rd., 928-783-4771, yumaprison.org) to the Victorian finery of Sanguinetti House (240 S. Madison Ave., 928-782-1841, arizonahistoricalsociety.org/museums/yuma), the “merchant prince of Yuma” E.F. Sanguinetti’s home turned museum. “We take away all the barriers, all the ‘do not touch’ signs, so visitors can immerse themselves in history,” director Yanna Kruse says of the museum, which won the 2016 Governor’s Tourism Award for cultural and historic preservation. Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park (201 N. Fourth Ave., 928-783-0071, azstateparks.com/parks/yuqu/) is also worth a visit to explore the area the U.S. Army once used to store and distribute supplies for all of the military posts in the state.

5. Castle Dome Mines Museum
“It’s the forgotten town that was brought back,” owner Allen Armstrong says of the circa-1871 mining camp, which was a ghost town when he acquired it 20 years ago. He and his wife have been lovingly restoring the 50 buildings ever since. “So much stuff was left underground that we could fill in the blanks and find the information,” he says. Castle Dome is unique not just because it’s a ghost town you can actually explore (as opposed to a decrepit shack and some rocks abandoned to the elements, like most ghost towns), but because of Armstrong’s eccentric zeal for the place – his elaborate solar panel setup allows him to live completely “off the grid” on the property. (Off Highway 95, 928-920-3062, castledomemuseum.org)

6. Restaurants
One of the best restaurants in town to feast on local produce is River City Grill (600 W. Third St., 928-782-7988, rivercitygrillyuma.com), a globally inspired bistro with funky rotating art and a great wine list. The pistachio-crusted chicken with cheese ravioli, black beans and chipotle cream sauce was a perfect representation of the Southwest-meets-world cuisine River City Grill chef/owner Nan Bain delights in. Four Seasons alum and Yuma native chef Alex Trujillo holds court at The Patio Restaurant and Bar at The Hills (1245 W. Desert Hills Dr., 928-344-1125, patioyuma.com), a relaxed fine-dining restaurant perched on a golf course with an expansive patio and stunning views.

And while finer dining is nice, sometimes grease is the word. For that impulse, I recommend Mr. G Drive-In (501 S. Fourth Ave., 928-782-3021, bgfamilyltdpartnership.com) and its sister restaurant Chile Pepper, both beloved Mexican holes-in-the-wall where you can get burritos, tamales and tacos for cheap. My favorite bite in all of Yuma, though, was at Lutes Casino (221 S. Main St., 928-782-2192, lutescasino.com), which hasn’t been a casino in decades but has accumulated a lot of cool wear and tear and kitschy bric-a-brac since its construction in Yuma’s historic downtown in 1901. Lutes’ signature potato tacos – three corn tortillas filled with mashed potato, rolled and deep-fried, served with cabbage, mayo and cotija cheese – are so delicious I had to suppress the urge to order a dozen more. Could there be a better carb-y, greasy, creamy and cheesy snack than this? The Lutes Especial is also an exercise in guilty pleasure: A hot dog is split down the middle and wedged into a cheeseburger for a lethally yummy combination of American classics. “Not for the faint of heart,” Lutes’ menu says – literally and figuratively.

7. Hiking
Just off the interstate is Telegraph Pass (alltrails.com/trail/us/arizona/telegraph-pass), a 4.7-mile hike with beautiful wildflowers and dog-friendly paths. It’s a moderately difficult loop trail that rewards trekkers with a panoramic view of Yuma at the summit. Bonus: There’s a little sign-in book at the top, so you can prove to the wind that you made it.

8. Lodging Options
I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn (310 N. Madison Ave., 928-783-1500, yumapivotpoint.hgi.com), which was blessedly close to downtown Yuma and the Colorado. “It’s as close to the river as you can get,” Charlie Flynn of Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area says. For a more homey feel, book a stay at The Adobe House (1681 W. 10th St., 928-210-4777, theadobehouse.com), a beautifully outfitted B&B.

9. Drinking
It may not be a craft beer and wine haven like Phoenix, Flagstaff and Tucson – yet – but Yuma is trying. Its first and only brewery, Prison Hill Brewing Company (278 S. Main St., 928-276-4001, prisonhillbrewing.com), celebrated its second anniversary this summer. In an homage to Yuma’s Territorial Prison (see No. 4), all of the brews have incarceration-related monikers, like the Rykers Red RyePA and the Melon Felon IPA.

Winos like myself can while away an afternoon at Yuma’s Main Squeeze (251 S. Main St., 928-247-9338, yumasmainsqueeze.com), the city’s only winery. Owners Fred and Mary Earle don’t grow their own grapes – Yuma lacks the diurnal (read: daily) temperature variation necessary for viticulture – but they do make their own wine, like the easy-drinking Cabernet-Merlot blend Yuma Red and the citrusy Yuma Crossing Chardonnay. They also host popular “Art in the Vineyard” classes with artists Rebecca Taylor and HollyCarmen Hendrick, who walk their wine-sipping students through painting their own masterpieces.    

10. Coffee
I knew I truly loved Yuma the moment I stepped into North End Coffeehouse (202 S. First Ave., 928-750-9133, northendcoffeehouse.com). As an inveterate coffee snob, I always scout out a city’s coffee options and interrogate locals about their favorite places to go. I’m so glad the fellas in the kitchen at Lutes recommended this shop, where the owners roast their own beans and the baristas brew delicious espresso in a cute, split-level brick building full of board games and books. As I sipped my iced latte and gazed at the streets of downtown Yuma through the paned windows, I knew betting on the underdog was the right choice.