sunset over chocolate mountains near yuma
Travel date February 2021

We decided to escape the predicted cold front heading to northern Arizona by heading to Yuma, the sunniest place on Earth. We spent two weeks camping with friends nearby and took the time to explore the area. During our stay, we found several fun things to do in Yuma.

What is Yuma known for?

Yuma is known for its unmatched 360 days of sunshine annually. It is known as the sunniest place on Earth. Abundant sunshine, low humidity, and irrigation from the Colorado River make Yuma great for agriculture. Yuma is responsible for 75% of the world’s lettuce production and over 7,500 acres of Medjool dates grow here.

The area is best known for lettuce and dates, however, many other crops grow here. As we drove around town, the abundance of agriculture surprised us. We saw broccoli and celery harvested by hand. The efficient process included the freshly cut food going directly into the shipping cases in the field.

Why is it named Yuma?

Founded in 1854 it was originally Colorado City, then in 1862 it was renamed to Arizona City, and finally to Yuma in 1873. Yuma’s name origin is unclear but it is believed to be a variant of humo, Spanish for smoke. The most common theory is the name refers to the local Quechan tribe’s practice of creating smoke clouds to induce rain.

How far is Yuma from the Mexican border?

Yuma is only ten miles from the Mexican border.   It is a great launching place for a day trip into Mexico.   We visited Los Algodones and would definitely go back for tacos, margaritas, or dental work.

blankets and hats in los algodones market

8 Fun Facts about Yuma

  1. Yuma has 360 annual days of sunshine and over 100 days with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Yuma Union High School’s mascot is the Criminals. It is the only US high school with Criminals as their mascots. The mascot originally started as an insult from competitors. When the high school burned down, the school temporarily relocated to the Historic Yuma Territorial Prison while a new school was built. The football team embraced the taunt and changed their mascot to the Criminals.
  3. 4th Avenue is older than Route 66.
  4. Yuma is very fertile. It is the lettuce capital of the world and grows 75% of the worldwide supply.
  5. 7,500 acres of Medjool dates grow in Yuma.
  6. Yuma was one of the most important crossings into California during the 1839 Gold Rush.
  7. Wyatt Earp dealt Faro, a French card game, in Yuma.
  8. Yuma is home to the busiest Marine Corp air station. 80% of the Corps’ air-to-ground aviation training occurs in Yuma.

Free Camping near Yuma

We joined friends already camping near Yuma. They were boondocking at the American Girl Mine BLM dispersed camping area, just across the California border from Yuma.

What is boondocking on BLM land?

Boondocking is also called dry camping but it is simply camping without electric, water, or sewer connections. Pippi, our motorhome, has solar panels and large storage tanks for fresh water and wastewater so lack of connections doesn’t affect our quality of life. We share more details about our solar modifications here.

BLM campsites are free for everyone, usually with 14 days stay limits to protect the land and prevent permanent residents from dominating the available spots. 

leaves on ocotillo after rain near yuma

What is the American Girl Mine?

American Girl Mine is a large open space that is a popular winter camping destination. Discovered in 1892, the American Girl Mine produced 30,000 tons of gold ore by 1900. In its lifetime, the mine has produced over 205k tons of gold ore valued at $1.285M. Primarily a gold mine, AGM also contains silver, copper, and galena.

Hiking and Biking the American Girl Mine

The BLM area around American Girl Mine is open to recreation including off-roading, hiking, and biking. A few friends hiked the area regularly. On my walks, I never saw much other than the beautiful mountain views over the desert.

chocolate mountains from the american girl mine blm

Kevin and I rode our bikes a little further back into the foothills of the Chocolate Mountains and found several mine shafts and interesting rock patterns in what we assume were mining dump areas.

american girl mine in winterhave california
kara biking around american girl mine

Things To Do in Yuma

Yuma is a decent-sized city with plenty to keep everyone entertained. There are many things to do while in Yuma and we hope our experiences will help with your planning. A few of our favorites are:

  • Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park
  • Ocean to Ocean Bridge
  • City of Yuma Parks
  • Historic Downtown Yuma
  • Sanguinetti House Museum and Gardens
  • Yuma Farmers Market
  • Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation Area
  • Martha’s Garden Date Farm
  • Yuma Proving Grounds
  • Blue Angels Winter Practice

Yuma Territorial Prison

The Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park sits high on a bluff looking over the Colorado River. It was the first prison in the Arizona Territory. With over 100 days per year reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit, an un-air-conditioned cell would have been torturous.

yuma territorial prison

Construction on the prison started in 1876. Many of the first inmates built their own cells. The prison remained in operation for 33 years until overcrowding forced its closure. The prisoners moved to another prison facility and many groups utilized the prison grounds, including the local high school, the railroad, and the Veterans of Foreign Affairs. During the Great Depression, homeless families sheltered in the prison’s cells.

cells at yuma territorial prison

The City of Yuma operated the Prison and Museum from the 1930s until the 1960s when it was converted to a State Park. The Museum displays artifacts from the prisoners and their individual stories including quite a few entertaining tales.

Admission is $8 for adults, $4 for kids 7-13, and FREE for kids under 7. On Saturday morning, the self-guided tour required less than two hours. The free guided tour was very crowded during our visit. The prison is a great educational stop for those traveling with kids or lifetime learners like us.

the dark cell (solitary confinement) at yuma territorial prison
The Dark Cell used for solitary confinement.
rail road tracks outside yuma territorial prison

Check out this video of our Yuma Territorial Prison visit from our friends Kristen and Jameson.

Ocean to Ocean Bridge

The Colorado River is at it’s narrowest in front of the prison. This was the least dangerous place for prospectors heading to California during the Gold Rush to cross the river. At that point they relied on a rope ferry.

In 1915, the Arizona state government, local government, and the Office of Indian Affairs all contributed funding to build the Ocean to Ocean Bridge. It was the first highway crossing the Colorado River. The bridge is entirely in Arizona even though the river banks lie in Arizona and California. In 2002, an extensive restoration project re-opened the bridge for traffic.

ocean to ocean bridge

City of Yuma Parks

Gateway Park is located below the Ocean to Ocean bridge opposite the prison. It is a nice riverside park with picnic tables, restrooms, a beach along the Colorado River, and a playground. There is also a pedestrian path leading to Pivot Point Plaza.

Pivot Point Plaza is an outdoor exhibit where the first train entered Arizona in 1877. Today there is a 1907 Baldwin steam engine locomotive sitting on the original track alignment. There are also several educational signs about Yuma’s history in the plaza.

From the prison, the views of the East Wetlands Restoration Area are beautiful. Restoration began in 2004 as a collaboration between the Heritage Area, Quechan Indian Tribe, City of Yuma, and Arizona Game and Fish Department. The success of this project is a model for wetland restoration in the desert Southwest.

east wetland restoration area

During our time in Yuma, we visited the Valley Aquatics Center multiple times. They offer lap swimming in their outdoor 25-yard competition pool. Sadly, the showers were closed due to COVID. However, we still enjoyed swimming laps in the warm winter sun enough to go back over and over.

On their website, the admission price is $5.50 for lap swimming. But we were only asked to pay $3.50 on each of our visits. Most swimmers had monthly passes and I suspect they are even less expensive. During COVID times, lap swimming hours are 6 am until noon Monday to Friday.

valley aqautics center in yuma

Visit Historic Downtown

After our morning visit to Yuma Territorial Prison, we headed to downtown Yuma for lunch at the Prison Hill Brewing Company. The beers were decent but nothing worthy of a second pint.

The Convict Cobb Salad was the most popular dish at our table. The large portion was covered with bacon and hard-boiled egg.

Downtown Yuma is quaint and very walkable. The area also boasts it’s bikeability. In hindsight, the riverwalk path from the prison and Gateway Park would have been a better choice than driving to lunch.

downtown yuma
Photo by Ken Lund on Flickr

Tour the Sanguinetti House Museum and Gardens

If you have additional time downtown, the Sanguinetti House Museum and Gardens is a top Yuma attraction. E.F. Sanguinetti was one of the first proprietors to open a general store in downtown Yuma. Tours of the “merchant prince’s” home are $6 per person. We didn’t visit so can’t speak personally about the experience.

sanguinetti house
Photo courtesy of Arizona Historical Society

Find Something Fresh at the Yuma Farmers Market

The Yuma Farmers Market is in a shopping center parking lot in front of Old Navy and had a limited number of vendors selling fresh produce. The market is open Saturday mornings and Tuesday evenings in the winter.

Despite only a few vendors selling produce, I was able to get a large selection of veggies including several bags of prepackaged salad kits. The main produce vendor was selling salad kit varieties I’ve never seen in stores. The same Taylor Farms packages sold at Walmart for $4 were only $1.50. I assume these are grown and packaged nearby.

Get Out on the Colorado River

We spent an afternoon kayaking the Colorado River with friends. The river has a nice current and we didn’t actually exert much effort paddling. Instead, we just floated down the river enjoying a picnic and watching the wildlife in the tall grass along the river banks. In February, the water was too cold to swim.

kayaking the colorado river
Maiden voyage in @rebekahandjared new kayak
kayak the colorado river in yuma

During warmer months, April through September, floating in tubes down the Colorado is a popular thing to do in Yuma.

Get Dirty at the Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation Area

We do not have a 4×4 or off-road vehicle but saw the hundreds of visitors each weekend at the Imperial Sand Dunes near our campsite in Winterhaven CA. Permits are required to use the dune area but are available for purchase at local gas stations.

From the interstate, we could see the dune buggies and OHVs driving up and down the giant sand dunes. One particular day the wind was gusting up to 30 miles per hour. It was blowing so hard that sand was covering the interstate. The dedicated riders were still out there on the dunes. I suspect they were being sandblasted on any exposed skin.

imperial sand dunes

Martha’s Garden Date Farm

Martha’s Garden Date Farm is the most popular date farm in Yuma offering tours. We didn’t visit the farm during our time in Yuma but would have likely enjoyed the one-hour tour explaining the date-growing cycle and farm history. Tours are offered at 10:30 am and 1:30 pm from Monday to Friday for $10 per person. They sell date milkshakes, fresh dates, and various other date products at the farm.

date palm

Learn about the Yuma Proving Grounds

Our campsite at American Girl Mine was on the opposite side of the Chocolate Mountains from the Yuma Proving Grounds. We often heard large artillery and constantly saw military helicopters flying maneuvers overhead. One night our neighbors even saw two helicopters flying really low with no lights on.

military fly over

For over 70 years, the Yuma Proving Grounds have been used for military desert training and weapon testing. If you are interested in military history, the Yuma Proving Ground Heritage Center is a small, free museum that offers more information. There are also several decommissioned tanks on display outside the Heritage Center.

Attend a Blue Angels Winter Practice Session

The Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels, spend January through March practicing at the Naval Air Facility in El Centro, CA. During our February visit, the Blue Angels were taking off at 8 am, noon and, 4 pm from Monday to Saturday. Their air show season begins in April but the squadron spends 10 weeks preparing in El Centro.

blue angels
blue angels in formation

They would sometimes stay near the airbase for their one-hour flight but more often than not, they flew out of sight for their practice session. We aren’t big plane or military fanatics but parking outside the airport fences at the end of the runway was one of my favorite things to do in Yuma. Technically, El Centro is an hour west of Yuma but trust me it’s worth the drive to feel your organs shake when the F18s fly directly overhead.

Summing Up Yuma

During our two-week visit to Yuma, we only scratched the surface. The city offers so many amazing things to do that you will need to prioritize your time. Hope our Yuma round-up helps in planning your next trip.

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