Many think that driving west on I-8 is boring, but I find it to be a Zen ride: all that yawning desertscape. Most motorists are continuing on to San Diego, but I’m exiting to Yuma for the first time. I’ve heard there’s a lot for a foodie to love here.
Located in the southwestern corner of the state, Yuma is the sunniest city in the United States, with 350 days of it a year. As a result, the town’s population swells to nearly twice its size during the mild winter months when snowbirds return. The climate also translates to a long growing season and an agricultural industry that tops $3 billion annually, ranking as the third largest in the United States.
In recent years, agriculture has spawned agritourism. Fields flank both sides of my car; a farmer in a John Deere yields to local traffic with an almost imperceptible lift of the index finger. I roll down the windows and inhale the smell of fertile earth. The soil is especially rich thanks to the sediments deposited by the Colorado River. Some 200 vegetables are grown here, including broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, and 90 percent of the nation’s leafy winter vegetables.
Yuma is the world’s largest producer of medjool dates and you can taste the sticky, rich fruit at Martha’s Gardens (9747 S. Avenue 9 3/4 E), a family-run business that traces its towering trees to Moroccan transplants. Once reserved for royalty, these jumbo beauties flourish in Yuma’s triple-digit heat. There are 8,000 date palms on 100 acres; all are painstakingly hand-pollinated before 800,000 pounds are hand-harvested and shipped around the world. A cool and creamy date shake is a must, but pick up a box of dark chocolate-covered dates, too.
Yuma’s Historic Riverfront District is quaint and compact and boasts a number of attractions. If you’ve seen the movie “3:10 to Yuma,” you know about the Old West legacy of the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park (1 Prison Hill Road). Even on a sunny day, it’s downright spooky to walk through the imposing cellblock where more than 3,000 incorrigibles—including women and polygamists—hacked out their own cells from granite. Take a self-guided tour of the 10-acre Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park (201 N. Fourth Ave.), which supplied military posts in the Arizona Territory and beyond before the advent of the railroad. Some of the state’s best-preserved buildings are here, along with the Back in Time Pie Shoppe, which serves fresh-baked slices (the marionberry is delicious) and tea.
Enjoy a leisurely lunch amid lemon trees and birdsong on the shaded patio at the Garden Café (250 S. Madison Ave.). The daily special, a turkey, strawberry, and coconut salad served with coffee cake, is a Yuman favorite. Then stop into the Desert Olive Farms (224 S. Main St., No. 106) to sample the organic olive oils grown just over the border in Brawley, California. I especially liked the Mexican lime.
All 230,000 acres of Yuma’s agricultural land are irrigated from the Colorado River, so it is an important part of the town’s identity. The Pivot Point Interpretive Plaza (North Madison Avenue) is a fine place to appreciate the life-sustaining river. A multiuse, paved, and lighted trail runs seven miles from the West Wetlands Park to the Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge, a marshy desert oasis some have dubbed the Everglades of Arizona. At twilight, I rented an inner tube for $10 from Yuma River Tubing and took a relaxing hour-long float down the river, communing with herons as the sun set peachy-gold over the rippling water.
“Wine is for responsible drinkers,” says bartender RJ Robuck at Yuma’s Main Squeeze (251 S. Main St.); he recently made the transition from water (river guide) to wine. I’m sitting at the beautiful circa 1920s tigerwood oak bar sipping a Super Tuscan, but on balmy nights there’s also sidewalk seating. Beer aficionados will want to check out Prison Hill Brewing Company (278 S. Main St.), which pours Jailbait Blonde and Rykers Red RyePA. Meat lovers, don’t miss the platter of Kammann sausage, brisket, and pulled pork, enough for two.
The city’s best dinner is in a neighborhood I predict will be gentrified in five years. At the Asian-accented River City Grill (600 W. Third St.), waitress Jenna improvised my request for a refreshing cocktail, creating an off-menu concoction with vodka, cucumber, and cilantro served in a generous martini glass. They offer gluten-free and vegan options, but I recommend the mustard-crusted halibut with ravioli and olive tapenade.
Once you’ve tasted Yuma, you’ll be hungry for more.
The popular Field to Feast Tours (November through early March) include hands-on produce harvesting and a tasty lunch prepared by Arizona Western College culinary students, while Savor Yuma offers guests a progressive dinner at three restaurants (January through April). Multicourse gourmet dinners called Date Nights (held January-March) take place in a lush date grove just 15 minutes from downtown; they sell out, so book ahead.
A number of special culinary events, including the Rio de Cerveza Brewfest (Nov. 19), the Somerton Tamale Festival (Dec. 17) and the Yuma Medjool Date Festival (Jan. 28) also fill the winter calendar. I’ll be making that drive west again. ✜
Suzanne Wright is a frequent contributor to Edible Baja Arizona, along with regional and national publications including AAA Highroads Arizona, Go Escape, Hispanic Living, Modern Woman, and