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Snowbirds’ Mecca

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

IT DOESN’T TAKE MUCH TO DISCOVER what snowbirds have known all along — what brings them
back to Yuma. The city basks in sunshine 340 days a year and offers pleasures and amenities
that appeal to all ages. No wonder many former snowbirds now call Yuma their year-round
home. Yuma has not always been the peaceful mecca it now portrays. It was “discovered” in
1540 by Hernando de Alarcon, a Spanish explorer who was the first European to come to this
area, which was then part of Mexico. A Catholic priest, Father Kino, was the first to
recognize the importance of Yuma as the gateway to California. Another priest used the
crossing to enter California and, in 1779, this priest, Father Garces, founded two missions
at the crossing. He was killed during a 1781 uprising of the Yuma Indians. You can visit
the St. Thomas Mission, which was built on the grounds of the original Concepcion Mission
founded by Father Garces. The mission, which is on the California side of the river, is a
monument to the Jesuit priests who came here from Mexico. Masses are held on Saturdays at
4:30 p.m. and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. Arrangements must be made for guided tours; call (760)
572-0283. You also can visit the Fort Yuma-Quechan Museum, which is located just west of
St. Thomas Mission. Fort Yuma, established in 1849, served as a military post to protect
the crucial river crossing as gold-seekers headed west. Today the museum, established by
the Quechan tribe, depicts the history of the natives, the military and the early Spanish
explorers. It is open weekdays, excluding major holidays; (760) 572-0661. In the early
1800s, Indians operated a river crossing at Yuma. Then, Yuma Crossing was a prize envied by
many, and a struggle for control of the river ensued. Several crossings shared the river,
and the site became an active seaport, busy with steamboats that linked the Gulf of
California with other ports upriver. During the 1850s, Yuma became the major river crossing
for California gold-seekers. In its early years, the settlement was known by several names,
including Colorado City and Arizona City, before it was finally named Yuma, after the
original inhabitants, who were a mix of the Quechans, Cocopahs and Mohaves. The area was
owned by Spain and then Mexico until the Gadsden Purchase in 1863 made it part of the
United States. At the crossing, the U.S. Army Quartermaster Depot was built in the 1860s as
a main supply point for numerous outposts throughout Arizona Territory. Supplies heading
for various forts arrived here either by steamboat or by wagon. You can visit Yuma Crossing
State Historical Park, which features the quartermaster depot and the commanding officers’
quarters, daily from November through April, or Thursday through Sunday the rest of the
year. A 30-minute video tells of the conflicts caused by changes in Yuma’s economy and
population during the late 1800s. The officers’ quarters may be the oldest Anglo dwelling
in Arizona. The rooms have been restored to their original 1864 appearance. Also exhibited
on the property are six restored buildings, mule wagons, a steam locomotive and passenger
car, a historic adobe, a corral and stagecoaches. The park salutes five centuries of
transportation across the Colorado River. Picnic tables are available. The park is open
daily except on Christmas; (520) 627-2553. An excursion train leaves from behind the
crossing on Saturdays and Sundays. Call (520) 783-3456 for tour information and
reservations. Nearby is the Yuma Landing Restaurant, on the site where the first airplane
landed in Yuma in 1911 when this was a ballpark. You can browse amid a pictorial display of
some of the city’s most colorful history — and have a delicious meal as well. But of all
the historical attractions in Yuma, none has received as much attention as the old
territorial prison. It has been called a brutal pit, a hellhole, “super Alcatraz.” The
prison sits on a chalky bluff high above the meander of the Colorado River. On July 1,
1876, the first seven inmates were locked into the new cells they had been forced to build
themselves in the sweltering sun. As the reputation of the prison grew, one writer compared
it to the fictional Hades in Dante’s Inferno and warned, “All hope abandon, ye who enter
here.” Popular pulp fiction and B movies sullied what was actually a humane administration.
Indeed, some commentators thought the prison offered a far too easy life for hardened
felons and called it “The Country Club.” The earthen cells, gate and guard tower have
endured as grim reminders of frontier justice. You can visit the Yuma Territorial Prison
State Park daily, except Christmas. Call (520) 783-4771 for information. You can climb to
the lookout built on the water tower that was the site of the main guard tower overlooking
both the Gila and Colorado rivers. Here, you also can see the old McPhaul Bridge — the
Bridge to Nowhere. Once bridging the river, the structure now spans only the sifting sands.
(This engineering feat, completed in 1929, spurred the design of the Golden Gate Bridge in
San Francisco.) It was named for Harry McPhaul, a prison guard turned miner. Old Yuma
centers around Main Street, where you will find Lute’s Casino, the Gandolfo Theatre and the
Navajo Center. Lute’s Casino is the oldest pool hall still in operation in the state of
Arizona. A domino marathon has been ongoing here every morning since the early 1920s. Do
try the potato tacos and join in the camaraderie of both locals and tourists who gather
here daily. Play a game of pool and view the eclectic collection of memorabilia that lines
the walls. The Navajo Center and a number of other shops and restaurants offer visitors a
taste of Yuma’s yesteryear. A farmers market is held on Main Street Plaza every Tuesday
during the winter. Here you can buy lettuce for 50 cents a head and a variety of craft
items sold by local vendors. The Gandolfo Theatre on the corner of Second Street and First
Avenue was used from 1917 to 1950 as the USO headquarters and housed traveling circuit
dramas. The Century House, on Madison Avenue, is a regional museum of the Arizona
Historical Society. Once the home of pioneer merchant E.F. Sanguinetti, it now houses
exhibits of artifacts from prehistory to the early 1900s. The museum and gift shop are open
Tuesday through Saturday, year-round. Colorful turn-of-the-century gardens, complete with
aviaries filled with exotic birds, surround the home. For information, call (520) 782-1841.
In 1962, the Marine Corps Air Station was founded. For tour information, call (520)
341-2275. The Yuma Proving Grounds, just north on State Route 95, encompasses a million
acres and allows testing of U.S. Army prototype vehicles, artillery and other developmental
testing for all branches of the armed services. Group tours can be arranged by calling
(520) 328-3394. North of Yuma, you will find Fisher’s Landing, Martinez Lake and the
Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses 25,125 acres along the Colorado River.
On the Colorado King I paddleboat, you can enjoy a relaxing ride on Martinez Lake and up
the river to the wildlife refuge. If you take a luncheon or dinner cruise on these peaceful
waters, you probably will see Canada geese, ducks, egrets and eagles. You’ll find the
paddleboat behind Olsen’s Store at Fisher’s Landing, but the office is located on Fourth
Avenue in Yuma. For information, call (520) 782-2412. The wildlife refuge visitor center is
open daily; for directions, call (520) 783-3371. With the abundance of fertile soil and
sunshine-filled days, the Yuma area abounds with citrus orchards, so don’t be surprised by
the many packing plants. One such plant, Rancho Del Sol, offers fresh grapefruit, oranges,
tangelos and lemons, as well as citrus candy, pecans and honey. A tasting room on East
County 16th is open daily November through May; (520) 726-0592. Another must-stop is the
Peanut Patch for fresh peanuts, peanut brittle, fudge and other delicacies. You’ll find it
on East County 13th; (520) 726-6292. Yuma is host to a number of outdoor events, in
addition to being the home of the Yuma Bullfrogs baseball team. Hunting season brings a
flood of sporting enthusiasts for the season, which opens Labor Day weekend. Rockhounds
will find exciting discoveries in the rugged mountains around Yuma. Take a guided
excursion, or go on your own. Fossils, geodes, quartz, agates, jasper, onyx and apache
tears are in abundance in an area that stretches all the way to Quartzsite and beyond.
Certain areas are restricted, however, so be sure to check with the Bureau of Land
Management, (520) 317-3200, before you begin. An active lifestyle is a given with the
numerous day-to-day activities and annual programs available to people who live here or who
visit this lovely city at the crossroads. Golfers will find 13 manicured golf courses at
their disposal. You might also try horseback riding; birding at the four wildlife
locations; or hiking through Picacho or the Castle Dome Mountains. Visit the Center of the
World in Felicity, near Pilot Knob, just eight miles west of town. Go to Gray’s Well to see
the Imperial Sand Dunes covered with sand verbena in the spring. At Gray’s Well, you also
can see a preserved section of the Impossible Road, a plank roadway that once stretched
across these shifting sands. Visit a ghost town and a gold mine at Old Tumco off Ogilby
Road. Try an authentic chuck-wagon dinner at Britain Farms and enjoy western entertainment
at its finest. You might find that exploring the Yuma area warrants several visits, or
maybe, just maybe, you might join the former snowbirds who live here year-round.

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