Where I Went:
Attractions- Yuma Prison, Yuma Quartermaster Depot, Fort Yuma, Bridge to Nowhere
Restaurants- Mr. G’s, Lute’s Casino, Prison Hill Brewing Company
For some reason I have wanted to visit Yuma, Arizona for a long time. Perhaps it was the movie 3:10 to Yuma. Perhaps it is because the Cuban word for Caucasian is yuma. Perhaps it was the city’s remoteness and unique location. But due to LA traffic and lack of commercial air service, Yuma always seemed slightly out of reach for a weekend trip by both flying and driving. I even considered taking Amtrak, but the one train trip returning to LA left at 3:50 AM on Monday and still wouldn’t get me back to work on time. I had to figure out another way.
The idea came to me when talking to my friend Ben about Essential Air Service, a US government program to guarantee flights to small remote communities. It turns out that there is an Essential Air Service flight from LA to the town of Imperial (IATA: IPL) about an hour away. The flight was operated by an obscure airline called Mokulele that operates primarily within Hawaii. From Imperial, I could rent a car and drive to Yuma.
The main logistical hurdle was getting the rental car. My flight landed on Friday, but the car rental places are only open on Saturday mornings and not at all on Sunday. I was able to find a hotel within walking distance of the airport so I could rent a car the next day and could return it on Sunday through an after-hours drop-off slot.
The flight from LAX to IPL was a unique experience more akin to flying in a private plane. At check-in, I was weighed.
At Gate 65A, the 8 other passengers and the two pilots were taken onto a bus that drove us out to the plane at the far end of the airport. We pulled up to a 9-seater Cessna Caravan just 5 minutes before our scheduled departure. While the pilots were inspecting the plane, an airline representative gave us our seating assignments. Then we boarded the tiny plane which had just three rows.
The captain gave us a safety briefing before pulling away. Somehow we took off on time. That efficiency still blows my mind.
The flight to Imperial took just over an hour. While a jet aircraft could fly this in 30 minutes, the Caravan can only fly around 180 mph. The flight was really interesting. We flew at 5,000 ft and traveled down the coast to San Diego before cutting inland. The views at this low elevation are stunning. The entire way, the pilot was schooling the co-pilot on the plane’s systems. Eventually we landed at the barren tarmac of the Imperial County Airport. I walked through the surprisingly large terminal building and 300 feet away to the Rodeway Inn. I got screwed over by a different Rodeway Inn in Shreveport in January 2018 but this was the only realistic option. The room was $36/night and I got what I paid for. The hot water didn’t work and the room was pretty grimy. Luckily these things don’t bother me so I slept exceedingly well.
The next morning, I rented the car from the airport counter and headed off towards Yuma. Along the way, I stopped at the Center of the World, a unique tourist attraction in the town of Felicity, CA. 15 minutes from Felicity, I crossed the Colorado River and entered Yuma!
It was now just past noon. Due to Arizona’s unique daylight savings time laws, Yuma is an hour past California. A few of Yuma’s neighborhoods are actually in California, which must make it confusing for the 100,000 residents in the area. I headed over tothe local favorite Mr. G’s for a burrito. I figured that the Mexican food would be good considering the town borders Mexico to both the west and south.
My first impression of Yuma was quite positive. The buildings had mid-century charm and the streets were clean.
I then headed to Yuma’s most famous attraction: the Territorial Prison.
This landmark building opened in 1875 – well before Arizona became a state. The story how the prison got established is quite funny. The Territorial Legislature was voting where to put the capital, university and prison. In the morning, they voted on the first two items before breaking for lunch. At the lunch break, the representative from Yuma secretly scratched out Phoenix and wrote Yuma on the bill. Nobody checked and the bill was passed giving Yuma the prison.
As the territorial prison during the heyday of the Wild West, the prison got prisoners on all sorts of charges: stealing, murder, polygamy, and more. You name it, someone was guilty of it. My “favorite” prisoner was a woman named Elena Estrada. After her boyfriend cheated on her, she stabbed him, cut open his chest, pulled out the heart and threw it into his face. Somehow, she only got seven years.
Another interesting story was a guy named RL McDonald convicted of forgery. Because nobody had accounting skills, the prison authorities let him manage the prison’s books. Sometime after his release, the prison realized he walked off with $130. By that point he was long gone and could not be caught.
The prison closed in 1909 after a new prison was built in Florence, AZ. It then became the temporary home of Yuma High School for 4 years. During a 1911 football game, the fans from Phoenix mocked the Yuma students by calling them criminals. The name stuck and ever since the official high mascot of Yuma High School is the Criminal. Go Crims!
Since the 1940’s the prison has been a museum- and a really good one at that. It takes about an hour to read through all the exhibits and view the cell blocks.
One thing really struck me about the old pictures of the prison- the Colorado River. In old pictures, the river appeared to be well over a quarter-mile wide and raging. But today, it is barely a 20 yards wide. What happened?
My next stop was the Yuma Quartermaster State Park in downtown Yuma. On the way, I stopped briefly at Fort Yuma, a Butterfield stagecoach stop. The remnants of the fort are actually on an Indian reservation on the other side of the Colorado River in California- all of 50 yards from the prison. There isn’t much to see anymore except for a few dilapidated buildings and a church. Due to the time zones boundaries, I briefly traveled an hour backwards in time.
Four minutes later and back on Mountain Time, I finally reached the Yuma Quartermaster Deport State Historic Site. While Fort Yuma contained civilian buildings, the Yuma Quartermaster Depot contained buildings used by the US Army to transport goods. Ships would sail through the Gulf of California and up the Colorado River to Yuma. From Yuma, convoys would supply dozens of forts and outposts in numerous Western states. In its peak, there were 900 mules stationed here.
Yuma would remain a steamboat depot until 1905 when the US Government decided to build dams on the Colorado River. The Laguna Dam was the first dam built on the Colorado River and provided power and water to the area but seriously curtailed the water flow. The Imperial Dam built in 1933 about 5 miles upstream from the Laguna Dam diverted 90% of the river’s flow. That water created the booming farmland in the middle of the harsh desert. Yuma and the nearby Imperial Valley in California now produces 90% of America’s vegetables during the winter months. If you have had a salad in the months of January or February, the lettuce was probably grown in Yuma.
The remaining 10% of the Colorado River’s flow used to flow to the ocean. However, in 1950 the Mexican government (with help from the US) built the Morelos Dam which diverts all the remaining water to nearby farms in Mexicali, Mexico. With the river’s flow stopped, the former mouth of the Colorado has become a wasteland and the delta is now fully saltwater instead of brackish. The environmental damage done here is catastrophic and is essentially completely ignored by the media and the world.
I still had some daylight left and cruised around the more residential parts of town. It is clear that many of the residents live in poverty. The economy is based off agriculture and government work – neither of which command large salaries. Unemployment in Yuma is around 20%, the largest of any metro area in the US.
While Yuma has a year-round population of about 100,000 people, that number doubles during the winter when “snowbirds” come to visit. These snowbirds are retired people that are escaping the cold weather in the rest of America. Most snowbirds live in one of the 60 RV resorts out of town. People are drawn to Yuma for the weather (it’s the warmest and sunniest city in the US), the low cost of living and proximity to cheap healthcare in Mexico.
Now that it was dark, I headed into downtown for dinner. The main street is lively and has numerous historic buildings. One such historic establishment – and Yuma’s most famous restaurant- is Lute’s Casino. It’s tagline is “Where the Elite Meet”, but I’m not so sure based on the clientele. It is a kitschy 75-year old dive bar. I ordered the Lute’s Especial, which is a hamburger with a hot dog on top. I was advised to top it with their special salsa. Despite the unusual combination of ingredients, the end product was delicious!
Across the street was the Prison Hill Brewing Company. I really liked how they stuck to Yuma’s prison theme with beers such as Jailbait Blonde and Incrimination IPA.
Despite the older population, Yuma does have a solid nightlife scene that includes one bona fide night club. However, I decided instead to head back to El Centro with a quick pitstop in a desert hot spring.
Despite its relatively small size, Yuma has enough to do for a weekend. The history and unique demographics are fascinating. The weather is also spectacular in the winter. I understand why people choose to snowbird here.
With an extra day, I would go up to the Castle Dome Mine Museum and possibly a short trip into Mexico. Or if I had the means, maybe rent a boat and hang out on the river. I didn’t get to investigate it, but I am sure there is a strong boating culture here just like in Parker and Havasu further north. There are also some more obscure sights in the California desert.