Bordertown Beauties: 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 might 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 & Golf Resort (a Good Sam Park with a 10/10*/10 rating) in Yuma, we perused its 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 them all.

Because Yuma is located near the confluence of the Gila and Colorado rivers in the southwest corner of the state, 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 why the area has the nation’s longest growing season. According to www.currentresults.com, Yuma is “the only place on Earth confirmed to bask in more than 4,000 hours of sunshine a year.” The area also has fertile soil from sediment deposited by the Colorado River over millions of years.

The Emerald Canyon Golf Course in Parker is an 18-hole championship course with greens and fairways in great condition.
The Emerald Canyon Golf Course in Parker is an 18-hole championship course with greens and fairways in great condition.
Photos by Mary and Jim Zalmanek

Sweet and Spicy

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 bought 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 offshoots thrived. Today the farm has around 8,000 palms. 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 for a delicious date milkshake, and we simply had to purchase a box of jumbo dates.

Yuma is located approximately 185 miles west of Phoenix. From Phoenix, take Interstate 10 west for about 31 miles, then take the right ramp at Exit 112 for Arizona State Highway 85 toward San Diego/Yuma. After nearly 35 miles, keep straight onto Interstate 8 west for approximately 111 miles. Turn left on Arizona State Highway 280 south and follow the signs to Yuma.
Getting There: Yuma is located approximately 185 miles west of Phoenix. From Phoenix, take Interstate 10 west for about 31 miles, then take the right ramp at Exit 112 for Arizona State Highway 85 toward San Diego/Yuma. After nearly 35 miles, keep straight onto Interstate 8 west for approximately 111 miles. Turn left on Arizona State Highway 280 south and follow the signs to Yuma.

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. Gallaga demonstrated how to make pork chili verde, starting with grilling the Anaheim chilies and hand-grinding the spices.

After the cooking presentation, Yanna Kruse, the Rio Colorado division director of the Arizona Historical Society, showed us around the Sanguinetti House Museum, which 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 exhibit we saw was titled River Lore, with tales about the steamboats that navigated the Colorado River from 1852 to 1916. At the start of the tour, Kruse 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 the 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 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. By the time you read this, the featured exhibit is scheduled to be Clues: History Mysteries of Yuma.

Visit Yuma, the local visitor center, offers four specialty tours for a 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 features the “fruit of kings;” Savor Yuma, a progressive dinner that stops at three local restaurants; and the Farmer’s Wife Dinners, which celebrates fresh produce and farming traditions. I called to make reservations but they were booked during our visit. If you want to go, book early.

“Signatures” in the Valley of the Names on 1,200 acres of public land range from simple initials or names to more complex designs. Remember to BYOR (bring your own rocks) if you plan to leave your personal mark.
“Signatures” in the Valley of the Names on 1,200 acres of public land range from simple initials or names to more complex designs. Remember to BYOR (bring your own rocks) if you plan to leave your personal mark.

Concerts and Classic Cars

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 that was playing during our stay. “Country Gentleman” Jack Jackson sang and shared stories of country music’s most beloved legends. 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 shows, they also attend his Cowboy Church Service at Caravan Oasis RV Resort Sunday mornings. For upcoming events, visit https://goldenroadrunner events.com.

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 Resort during our stay.

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.
Concertgoers bring their own chairs, food and drinks. When we arrived around 4 p.m., 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 four-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. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, more than 1,000 classic cars are on display at the Ray Kroc Sports Complex (2019 dates are March 1-3). On Friday and Saturday, eight bands entertain the masses.

Wild burros roaming free in the desert and on the roads are frequent sights across the river from Parker near Earp, California.
Wild burros roaming free in the desert and on the roads are frequent sights across the river from Parker near Earp, California.

Hard Rock

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 dinghy vehicle 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 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages the nearby Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, announced plans to remove all mining remnants.
Allen 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. Under ultraviolet lights, the walls glow with 11 vivid colors. 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 that one OSHA inspector called it “the safest mine I’ve ever been in.”

The Valley of the Names is a man-made wonder in nearby Winterhaven, California, with an interesting history. During War World 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 mark 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. Desert etiquette requires that you bring our own rocks rather than raiding existing signatures, so we picked up some dark rocks prior to our arrival and created a simple “M + J” for our initials. 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 the following GPS coordinates to get there in a 4WD vehicle: 32.8732685, -114.6844447.

Castle Dome Mine Museum has more than 50 buildings in the ghost town filled with furniture, tools, clothing, dishes and bottles.
Castle Dome Mine Museum has more than 50 buildings in the ghost town filled with furniture, tools, clothing, dishes and bottles.

Parker Bound

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 Colorado River. We chose to stay 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. While we were there, we met lots of RVers who were thrilled with their resort-membership purchase.

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 came around a blind corner on the Parker Dam Road and found them smack-dab in the middle of the highway.
At a visitor center, we met Teri and Tim Kral, who offered to lead us to some little-known rock art mosaics. From Parker Dam Road, we entered Copper Basin Dune Off Highway Vehicle Area. You’ll need a 4WD vehicle to get there (GPS coordinates 34.265626, -114.180534). Tim told me this was started in 2010 by a Canadian couple, Vicky and Gary, from Penticton, British Columbia. 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 and other items. They built the last one in 2014. Since then, other people have helped maintain this man-made wonder.

Parker’s number one attraction on TripAdvisor is only open from noon to 6 p.m. 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. This was all part of the fun since we listened to the band, chatted with other visitors and watched 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, but she managed to find an opening for nine holes at 7 a.m., which was one minute before sunrise. That’s no big deal for some people, 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.

Agritourism allows visitors to see farms like Martha’s Gardens, which has around 8,000 palm trees producing gourmet Medjool dates.
Agritourism allows visitors to see farms like Martha’s Gardens, which has around 8,000 palm trees producing gourmet Medjool dates.

For More Information

Castle Dome Mine Tour | 928-920-3062

Desert Bar and Nellie E Saloon

Emerald Cove Resort | 866-217-8111

Martha’s Gardens | 928-726-8831

Sanguinetti House Museum and Gardens | 928-782-1841

Westwind RV & Golf Resort | 866-440-2992

Yuma Visitors Bureau | 800-293-0071


 

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