Many people only know the name of Yuma, Arizona, from “3:10 to Yuma,” the 2007 film starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. And the movie ends before anybody actually gets to Yuma, so we never catch a glimpse of the place.
The city is in the extreme southwest of Arizona, about 300 miles south of Las Vegas, and shares borders with California and Mexico. Fewer than 100,000 people live there, but the population swells to as many as 180,000 when winter brings droves of snowbirds in motor homes and travel trailers.
Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park one is the top tourist destinations, but the area also offers opportunities to stroll the wetlands of the Colorado River, or visit a wildlife refuge or date farm.
The best place to start a Yuma visit is at the 10-acre Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park, a few minutes away from the prison and most of the city’s tourist lodging. The Army established the depot to supply its frontier posts in the 1860s. There, cargo was stored and transferred to steamboats designed to run on rivers that sometimes were so shallow, people joked that the moving boat raised a cloud of dust. Warehouses still contain historic wheeled vehicles such as Army freight wagons; you can also read a steamboat log.
The quartermaster’s house, an elegant Victorian dwelling, is filled with furnishings of the era. The grounds are beautifully maintained and there is a cozy pie shop. One room of this shop is a vault, imposing enough to be used in a big-city bank. It was used to store the firearms of the post’s soldiers.
Also on site is the Yuma Visitors Bureau. It is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily through May 31. The address for both the visitor center and the depot is 201 N. Fourth Ave.; get additional information via visityuma.com or 800-293-0071.
Your next stop should be the prison, which opened in 1876 and was home to more than 3,000 inmates over 33 years. Exhibits include photos of famous prisoners, examples of prison uniforms and a primitive machine gun once used to make prisoners reconsider plans to escape or riot. It’s only when you visit a cellblock that you realize how grim things must have been for prisoners.
The cells seem to be hewn out of solid rock and equipped with iron doors. Yet, the life of Arizona’s free citizens was so tough that some said by comparison, the state was coddling felons at what they called “a country club on the Colorado.” The prison is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through May 31. It’s at 220 N. Prison Hill Road; for further information, visit yumaprison.org or call 928-783-4771.
One of Yuma’s favorite outdoor activities is birding on the Riverfront Trail along the Colorado. Nearly 400 species of birds have been identified here, and a variety of water-loving mammals are sometimes seen. The East and West Wetland parks are both great places for this; my favorite was the East, near the prison.
The 25,768-acre Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, a two-hour drive north of Yuma, is also worth a visit. It protects the lower Colorado River habitat for about 30 miles and offers a haven for migratory birds and wildlife. The best bet here, if you are short on time, is the Painted Desert Trail, a 1.3-mile hike through colorful formations resulting from 20 million years of volcanic activity. Here also are great views of the Colorado River Valley. The visitor center is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays year-round, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends through March 31. Call 928-783-3371 or go to fws.gov/southwest.
Yuma is considered the hottest city in the United States, but that means winter and early-spring temperatures are pleasant. March usually sees daily high temperatures about 80, with lows in the 50s.
Deborah Wall is the author of “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide” and “Base Camp Las Vegas: Hiking the Southwestern States,” published by Stephens Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.