In the dusty valleys of the Sonoran Desert awaits the “sunniest city on Earth,” aka Yuma, Arizona. This desert city sits on the shoreline of the Colorado River, an oasis that has invited people to live here for hundreds of years.
Visitors to Yuma come to the city for many different reasons. For some, it’s the fact that this city has sunshine 91% of the year. For others, Yuma’s historical connections and culture pull them in. No matter what originally brings you to this sunny city, you’ll soon find there are tons of unique things to do in Yuma, AZ.
Ready to learn more? Here are 16 things to do in Yuma AZ that you and your crew are going to adore!
YUMA TERRITORIAL PRISON STATE HISTORIC PARK
If you want to experience the dark side of Yuma’s past, a visit to the Yuma Territorial Prison is in order. Here, the ghosts of the Old West haunt this centuries-old site. The prison first opened in 1876, and some folks say not all the prisoners have left this impressive site.
The Yuma Territorial Prison has had an intriguing life. After its closure as a prison in 1909, it served as a high school, during which the Yuma Union athletics team became known as The Criminals – a moniker the school has kept ever since. It was not until 1939 that actions to preserve the prison as a landmark occurred.
Today, the Yuma Territorial Prison offers a scenic walking space where visitors can stroll through the city’s history. There’s also a picnic area that overlooks California territory, and a gift shop. In January, the site hosts the Gathering of the Gunfighters, a festival where gunfighters and Wild West enthusiasts descend on Yuma for historical reenactments and fun.
If you need a family-friendly spot to relax, enjoy a picnic, and perhaps cool off from the Arizona heat, visit Yuma’s Gateway Park. This quaint city park sits off the shore of the Colorado River, shaded by the freeway bridge that connects the river’s two shores for cars.
Gateway Park is within walking distance from Downtown Yuma. It has a playground, picnic areas, and BBQs, making it perfect for a family visit. If you bring your swimming gear, you can hop into the cool waters of the river or build a sand castle on the sandy river shore. Don’t worry about getting messy in the river – the park has a showering area for visitors to clean off after a day of fun in the sun!
A visit here is one of the best things to do in Yuma AZ!
YUMA CROSSING NATIONAL HERITAGE AREA
Back in the age of the pioneers, Yuma was known as “The Gateway to the Southwest,” with the shallows of the Colorado River offering a natural travel point for westward-bound travelers.
Today, the areas around those essential crossing points span seven square miles, known as the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. The Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area sets out to preserve the history and culturally significant lands of the Yuma Crossing.
Within the boundaries of the heritage area is the previously-mentioned Yuma Territorial Prison, as well as 400 acres of wetlands, the Yuma Crossing National Landmark, West Wetlands Park, and the Colorado River State Park. The area is perfect for nature lovers who want to explore the wildlife of the region, and families looking to play at one of the many riverfront parks.
The waters of the Colorado River have given Yuma a remarkable capacity for growing plants and vegetables. In fact, Yuma County produces almost 90% of the United States’ leafy green vegetables. But at Martha’s Gardens, you won’t find lettuce – instead, you’ll find a delicious fruit native to the desert: dates!
If you have a craving for sweet fruit or want to learn more about farming in a desert, Martha’s Gardens host tours from November through March. Guests get to sample Medjool dates and learn about the growing process of the date tree.
IMPERIAL SAND DUNES RECREATION AREA
Just a short road trip from Yuma awaits dramatic scenery straight out of Star Wars! (In fact, George Lucas used the site for Return of the Jedi.) The Imperial Sand Dunes of California create a sea of sand, with dunes reaching as tall as 300 feet above the desert floor. Impressive and imposing, these towering dunes have become a popular escape for enthusiasts of off-roading, hiking, and camping.
The Imperial Sand Dunes Recreational Area offers the perfect place for ATVs and motocross bikes to launch into an adrenaline-inducing adventure. The 42 miles of dunes also provide a quiet retreat for individuals looking to connect with nature – it’s a popular site for yogis, campers, and stargazers.
If you’re visiting the Imperial Sand Dunes, make sure you pack accordingly. Take a lot of water, a full tank of gas, and sunscreen to keep yourself safe during your visit.
TRY A DATE SHAKE
Visitors in Yuma may find themselves scratching their heads at signs urging them to try a “date shake.” At first glance, you may assume the signs refer to sharing a shake with a date, as folks did back in the 1950s at the soda fountain. However, that’s not what the signs refer to.
No, in Yuma and other parts of Arizona, locals indulge in shakes made from dates. Yuma alone has a handful of date ranches (including Martha’s, as we mentioned earlier) that provide delicious desert fruits to vendors for the beverage. Date shakes are just like your typical strawberry shake, but obviously, dates sub in for the berries. You can pick one up at local restaurants or at one of Yuma’s date farms.
IMPERIAL NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Spanning 30 miles and 25,768 acres, the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge is one of Arizona’s greatest wilderness gems. The refuge protects the natural habitat that exists along the lower Colorado River, while providing an outdoor recreation space for nature enthusiasts.
The Imperial National Wildlife Refuge is part of the Southwest Arizona National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which also contains the Cibola and Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. The waters of the Colorado River run through the refuge, providing shelter and sustenance to the hundreds of animal species that call this area home.
Visitors to the refuge who want to see wildlife should consider scheduling their visit for dawn or dusk, when animals will start venturing out from their homes. There are several hiking trails, fishing areas, and picnicking spots to round out your visit.
COLORADO RIVER STATE HISTORIC PARK
Though technically part of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, the Colorado River State Historic Park and the Yuma Quartermaster Depot that resides in the park, are unique enough to deserve their own visit. In the 1870s, the Colorado River and the neighboring fort kept the Southwest Territories alive by storing and shipping materials to other forts, while keeping an emergency supply always on hand.
The Colorado River State Historic Park details the historical importance of the river to Yuma and the surrounding area. Be sure to stop by the Visitors Center with your questions and an introduction to the star of the Colorado River State Historic Park: the Yuma Quartermaster Depot.
THE YUMA QUARTERMASTER DEPOT
Once upon a time, the Yuma Quartermaster Depot supplied forts in the U.S.’s Southwest Territories with vital supplies. Today, the depot has five buildings left on the grounds. Four of the buildings now house exhibits, including the commanding officers’ residences, the storehouse, and the corral house.
The depot grounds also house an encampment of wagons and a stone reservoir. The park has picnic tables and shelters, in case you want to enjoy a picnic lunch while gazing at Yuma’s historical landmark.
Pivot Point is one of Yuma’s most prized outdoor locations. It marks the site where the first railroad train entered Arizona way back in 1877. Located in Downtown Yuma near Gateway Park, Pivot Point Plaza is part of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area.
The plaza offers more than just a scenic space to take in the quiet hum of Yuma’s downtown district. Lining the plaza are educational panels that discuss important landmarks related to Pivot Point, from the Ocean to Ocean Bridge that connects the highway across the Colorado River, to artifacts from Arizona’s first rail line.
YUMA CONSERVATION GARDEN
At the Yuma Conservation Garden, the beauty and peacefulness of the Sonoran Desert come to you…without having to leave the city. The gardens seek to educate visitors about natural resources, while encouraging responsibility when visiting nature’s wonders.
The Yuma Conservation Gardens sprawl out along 1.5 miles of scenic walking trails. Inside the garden, Sonoran plants thrive – prickly pear cacti, desert marigolds, and mesquite trees are just a few of the plants you’ll find here. The garden also has a scenic duck pond, complete with quacking residents and a desert turtle living on the grounds.
CASTLE DOME GHOST TOWN
Arizona is full of ghost towns, and Yuma has one pretty close by. The Castle Dome Ghost Town was once the site of a mining community in the Castle Dome mountains. Miners lived here from around 1869 until 1978, when the town officially became abandoned.
Visitors to the ghost town will find themselves at what is now the Castle Dome Mines Museum. Buildings from Castle Dome still stand, from the creaking walls of the saloons, to the church, whose bell still rings when an errant wind pulls at it.
If you want to dive deeper into mining life, check out the Hull Mine tour. Visitors explore an abandoned mine shaft that glows with fluorescent minerals. Or, just take a stroll through the ghost town’s 50 buildings, and try to imagine what life was like back in 1869.
YUMA PROVING GROUND HERITAGE CENTER
Veterans and military enthusiasts will definitely want to check out the Yuma Proving Ground Heritage Center. Since 1943, the Yuma Proving Ground served as the testing site for the U.S. Army, in which soldiers “proved” they were ready to serve their country.
The test center still operates today, but visitors can still take free self-guided tours. In addition, the center’s exhibits and theater walk visitors through over 75 years of U.S. Army history, detailing the training and efforts soldiers put in before representing their country in the armed forces.
SANGUINETTI HOUSE MUSEUM AND GARDENS
Eugene Sanguinetti was known as the “Merchant of Yuma” in his heyday. He resided in a 9th century adobe house while managing many Yuma businesses in his portfolio. Today, the adobe house is considered “The Jewel of Historic Yuma.”
Visitors to the Sanguinetti House Museum and Gardens can enjoy a relaxing stroll through rooms filled with historical artifacts. Chocolate lovers will want to stop at the Chocolate Shoppe for a sweet treat, before heading out to the real jewel in Sanguinetti’s crown – his traditional rose gardens.
YUMA RIVER TUBING
Yuma gets sunshine 91% of the year, and the city can see temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. So, it’s no wonder that locals and visitors alike enjoy a visit to Yuma River Tubing to cool off!
Yuma River Tubing makes the most out of the city’s proximity to the Colorado River. Guests rent an inner tube from a designated launch point and lazily float down the river to their end destination. The river flows gently, so you don’t have to be a master swimmer to indulge in a float down the river.
THE CENTER OF THE WORLD
If you’d like to bring out your inner world traveler and take a 20 minute road trip from Yuma, consider visiting The Center of the World. No, it’s not actually the center of Earth, but this California site hosts a bizarre collection of buildings meant to designate it as the center of the world by creator Jacques-André Istel.
Istel built the town called Felicity in 1986 – it had two residents, himself and his wife, Felicia. Within its borders is “The Center of the World,” as declared by the Imperial County Board of Supervisors and the country of France. It sounds a little bonkers, but trust me, it’s an amazing sight. Istel built it as a place of remembrance, and around the town, you’ll find statues and granite structures carved with moments from human history.
Visitors to the site will probably notice one structure before any others: the pyramid. The pink granite pyramid marks the Center of the World, a spot chosen by Istel himself. Surrounding the fantastical building are other unique structures, including a sculpture of God’s arm, a 25-ft tall spiral staircase salvaged from the Eiffel Tower, and a church.
Visitors receive a certificate for standing at the Center of the World. Now, how many folks can say they have that on their fridge?
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO ARIZONA
- TEMPE: 10 Great Things to Do in Tempe AZ
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- FLAGSTAFF: 15 Amazing Things To Do In Flagstaff For Year-Round Fun
- PHOENIX: 21 Amazing Things To Do In Phoenix You’ll Love
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