This article about Yuma and Parker was originally published in the December 2018 issue of MotorHome magazine.
Yuma and Parker: A Tale of Two Arizona Cities
Pleasant temperatures, plenty of sunshine, outdoor recreation, tasty food, musical entertainment, local history, and natural and man-made wonders make Yuma and Parker, Arizona, popular destinations for winter visitors. Just be aware that one visit may not be enough. Almost everyone we met there during our stay has been coming back for years.
After my husband, Jim, and I settled in at the Westwind RV and Golf Resort in Yuma, we perused their activities schedule and circled several options. Then we went to the Yuma Visitor Information Center to find out what else to do during our eight-day stay. The women there made so many suggestions, we wondered if we’d have enough time to do it all.
Because Yuma is located near the confluence of the Gila and Colorado rivers, it’s no surprise that Yuma County’s top industry is agriculture. Yuma grows more than 90 percent of the country’s leafy vegetables from November through March. There are several factors contributing to Yuma having the nation’s longest growing season. According to currentresults.com, Yuma “is the only place on earth confirmed to bask in more than 4,000 hours of sunshine a year. Altogether 90 percent of the daylight in Yuma is sunny.” The area also has fertile soil from sediments deposited by the Colorado River over millions of years.
Agritourism allows visitors to see farms and sample the foods. Since Yuma is one of the world’s top producers of gourmet Medjool dates, we took a tour at Martha’s Gardens. In 1990, Nels and Martha Rogers purchased a parcel of previously unused desert, cleared the land, drilled wells and installed a drip irrigation system. The original planting of 300 Medjool date palm off-shoots thrived. Today the farm has around 8,000 palm trees. Only 250 of the trees are males since it’s the females that produce the fruit. The labor-intensive process of date farming includes hand pollination of female trees with pollen from male trees. After the tour ended, we returned to the farm store to taste a delicious date milkshake. Of course, we simply had to purchase a box of jumbo dates. (If you want some recipes for dates, try some of my favorites: Pear Date Salad, Devils on Horseback, and Date Nut Muffins.)
Spicy Food and Troublesome History
At the Sanguinetti House Museum and Gardens, we attended “A Taste of Times Past,” a cooking presentation by local culinary enthusiast and world-traveler, Mark Gallaga. His cooking expertise came from his grandparents, who raised him in New Mexico, and from street vendors around the world. In Peru, the Philippines, Japan and Europe, he watched them make their specialties, then replicated the dishes at home. Mark demonstrated how to make pork chili verde, starting with grilling the Anaheim chilies and hand-grinding the spices with a mortar and pestle. I took good notes since I intended to use his techniques at our family’s annual chili cook-off.
After the cooking presentation, Yanna Kruse, the Rio Colorado division director of the Arizona Historical Society, showed us around the Sanguinetti House Museum. It was once the home of E. F. Sanguinetti, also known as the Merchant Prince of Yuma. In addition to the permanent collection, a seasonal exhibit changes every year so that there’s always something new for winter visitors.
The 2018 exhibit was entitled River Lore, with tales about the steamboats that navigated the Colorado River from 1852 to 1916. At the start of the tour, Yanna gave us name tags — The Troublesome Physician for Jim and The Memory Weaver for me — and promised to tell us more about our characters as we explored the house. It turns out that physician was indeed troublesome; Dr. Taggart prescribed cigarettes for asthma, heroin for diarrhea, and cocaine for teething babies. The Memory Weaver made a lovely mourning wreath from hair of a deceased family member. Tours by storytellers are hosted hourly from 10:15 to 2:15.
Visit Yuma, the local visitor center, offers four specialty tours for the farm-to-table experience. A local grower leads Field to Feast Tours at the University of Arizona research farm. Participants are given a list of ingredients needed for lunch and sent out into the field to pick them. Culinary students from Arizona Western College then use these fresh veggies to make lunch.
Other popular foodie tours include Date Night Dinners served in a date grove where every course from appetizer to dessert features the “fruit of kings”; Savor Yuma, a progressive dinner that stops at three local restaurants; and the Farmer’s Wife Dinners, which celebrate fresh produce and farming traditions. I called right away to get reservations. Alas, they were booked solid during our visit. If you want to go, book it early.
Tributes to Johnny Cash, Elvis and More
Music fans will be impressed with the many high-quality entertainment options. In eight days, we went to four performances. We especially enjoyed the Spotlight on a Country Star dinner show at the Golden Roadrunner Ballroom. “Country Gentleman” Jack Jackson sings the songs and tells the stories of country music’s most beloved legends. During the winter months, the Canadian performer does eight shows, two each of Marty Robbins, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and George Jones. We saw the Johnny Cash show and enjoyed our meal at a table with six diehard fans. Not only had they seen most of Jackson’s performances, they also attend his Cowboy Church Service at the Caravan Oasis RV Resort on Sunday mornings.
The Sunday edition of the “Yuma Sun” lists events that are open to the public in more than 35 RV parks. In addition to bingo, craft fairs, yoga, dances, and karaoke, there are tribute shows to musical greats like Elvis, ABBA, and the Eagles. “Homeward Bound,” a Simon & Garfunkel tribute, was playing at Westwind RV Park during our stay. They sang some familiar favorites, as well as some I hadn’t heard in decades. The evening reminded me of why I was a fan back in the day.
Concerts and Classic Cars
Howling at the Moon is a free concert in the desert every full moon from October to April. The music starts at 3 p.m and stops about an hour after moonrise. It’s not widely advertised; we heard about it from friends, then found details on their Facebook page. Concert goers bring their own chairs, food and drinks. When we arrived around 4:00, the party was in full swing. The regulars were easy to identify, wearing t-shirts with Howling at the Moon logos. When the moon came up over the mountains, everyone stopped dancing and howled.
Midnight at the Oasis is an annual 4-day event featuring classic cars during the day and concerts at night. It starts on a Thursday night with a car rally on Main Street in downtown Yuma. More than 1,000 classic cars were on display from Friday through Sunday at the Ray Kroc Sports Complex. On Friday and Saturday, eight bands entertained the masses. In 2018, attendees rocked out to Fleetwood Mac, U2, and Stevie Ray Vaughn tribute bands, just to name a few.
On the Castle Dome Mine Tour, we discovered both natural and man-made wonders. (The last 8 miles to the Castle Dome City Museum are on a gravel road; driving your tow car is recommended.) Modern prospectors found silver in the 1860s. By 1878, more people lived in Castle Dome City than in Yuma. The last mine closed in 1979. Allen and Stephanie Armstrong bought the abandoned Castle Dome City in 1993 and opened the museum five years later. That same year, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages the nearby 665,400-acre Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, announced plans to remove all mining remnants. Armstrong was granted permission to salvage all the buildings and artifacts he could. The result is more than 50 buildings in the ghost town filled with furniture, tools, and paraphernalia from that era.
The museum was fun to see, but the tour of the Hull Mine was even more amazing. The highlight was the recently discovered fluorescent mineral wall, a true natural wonder. Under ultraviolet lights, the walls glow with eleven vivid colors, including reds, blues, greens and purples. In a different part of the mine, we explored a desperado’s hideout, with a Wells Fargo Stagecoach strong box safe from the 1880s and a newspaper from 1919. If you have any qualms about going into a mine, you may be comforted to know the OSHA inspector called it “the safest mine I’ve ever been in.”
What’s in a Name?
The Valley of Names is a man-made wonder in nearby Winterhaven, California, with an interesting history. During World War II, soldiers who trained in the area spelled out their names with rocks on what was then called Graffiti Mesa. Since then, thousands of others have left their marks across nearly 1,200 acres of public land. What amazed me was the durability of these designs. While most of the “signatures” we saw weren’t dated, several were from the 1980s and ’90s.
Knowing we would want to add our initials to the landscape, we picked up some dark rocks alongside a road before we arrived. Desert etiquette requires that we bring our own rocks rather than raiding existing signatures. Our simple “M + J” paled in comparison to some of the elaborate designs. We took lots of photos, and, for the first time ever, I wished I had a camera drone to capture an aerial view. We used these GPS coordinates from VisitYuma.com to get there in a 4-wheel drive vehicle: 32.8732685, -114.6844447.
Our time in Yuma flew by, and soon we moved to Parker, 120 miles to the north. More than a dozen RV parks line the shores on both sides of the river, including Pirate’s Den Resort in Parker, which offers private beachside cabanas for some riverfront RV sites. We stayed at Emerald Cove Resort, a membership campground, across the river in Earp, California. We had signed up for a free two-night stay in exchange for attending a 90-minute tour of the facilities. It didn’t fit our mode of travel (we move around too much, seldom returning to the same place twice), but we talked to plenty of members who were thrilled with their resort-membership purchases.
One advantage — some might call it a hazard — of staying on the California side is the herds of wild burros roaming free in the desert and on the roads. We watched a herd of burros munching on desert plants while a young one darted around like a playful puppy. It wasn’t as much fun to come around a blind corner on the Parker Dam Road and find them smack-dab in the middle of the road.
Rock Art Mosaics
At a visitor center, we met Teri and Tim Kral who offered to lead us to some little-known rock art mosaics in the desert. From Parker Dam Road, we entered the Copper Basin Dune Off Highway Vehicle Area. You will need a 4-wheel drive to get there (GPS coordinates 34.265626, -114.180534). A Canadian couple, Vicky and Gary, from Penticton, British Columbia, started this project in 2010. They carried in 5-gallon buckets of rock and dirt to create the art. I counted about 25 circular stone mosaics with images of a butterfly, scorpion, hot air balloon, burro, eagle, flower, and other items. They built the last one in 2014. Since then, other people have helped maintain this man-made wonder.
Food, Beer, and Golf Balls
Parker’s number one attraction on TripAdvisor is only open from noon to 6:00 on Saturdays and Sundays from October through April. The Desert Bar and Nellie E Saloon is located about 10 miles northeast of Parker. It’s a popular place. When we arrived around 1 p.m., the parking lot was nearly full. We had to wait in one line to get a beer, and another to get our meal. We enjoyed listening to the band, chatting with other visitors, and watching people on the dance floor while we waited.
The Emerald Canyon Golf Course looked like a fun course, so I called to get a tee time for the next day. The nice reservation agent told me most tee times were booked weeks in advance. She managed to find an opening for nine holes at 7:00 a.m., which was one minute before sunrise. That’s no big deal for people like my husband, but for me that was a huge effort. I’m happy to report it was well worth giving up an hour of sleep. The 18-hole championship course was even more beautiful close up than it appeared from a distance, with greens and fairways in great condition.
In this tale of two cites, it was simply the best of times.