Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Winter Blahs Prescription: Sunshine in the Desert. Travel Diary - Yuma, Arizona

Top tourist attraction in Yuma: the old prison
 Late in 2015, while perusing my daily fare alert emails - (check out my favorite, from The Flight Deal) - I found a fantastic fare of less than $200 to Phoenix, Arizona, in January. I snapped that right up! I had recently seen online that Yuma, Arizona is the sunniest city in the United States, and Phoenix is the closest big airport to Yuma, so I made my plans for a post-holiday getaway.

I definitely suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder with the long, drab, gray winters in the Chicago area. I don't get sad, but I get grumpy and lazy, and the only thing I want to do is shuffle around in my pajamas for the first four months of the year. So thinking Arizona was just the ticket, I made a plan for 5 nights in the desert. I spent three days in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area (post on that part of my trip to come), and two days exploring Yuma, (the largest city outside the metropolitan areas of Phoenix and Tucson) about 4 hours drive southwest of Phoenix.
Driving to Yuma as the sun sets
Once I got my rental car, I headed onto Highway 8 for the long drive to Yuma. I drove mostly in the dark of the early evening, (which for this city girl who's used to all the light pollution of an urban area, was a little spooky). It was very, very dark and I had to use my high-beam lights for most of the way there, and there was very little other traffic. I have to say, I did not much enjoy the drive, and when I made the return trip, I was glad I did it in daylight. The smoke trees lining the highway loomed like floating ghosts about to cross my path, as the light from the rental car made them glow a silvery grey. And then there was the smell! I'm sure residents are used to it, but because the way to Yuma is lined with cattle ranches, I kept getting the strong stink of cow manure wafting into the car, and having to tightly close the windows. Kinda gross!
Sun setting over Highway 8
But luckily, the city of Yuma did not smell! It is a sprawling city, with a large population of retirees wintering in their mobile homes. It was a diverse scene. There is a quaint downtown area with vintage buildings, and cute shops. There are neighborhoods of humble housing for year-round residents, and there are several trailer parks that cater to "winter visitors." Highways 8 and 95 dissect it and are banked with chain hotels. The Colorado River skirts it on its way to Mexico.
Funky roadside signage, Arizona
I found a decent price and stayed at the Radisson hotel in Yuma. They had an indoor pool in a light-filled room with big windows on two sides and skylights. It was too cold to swim outside in the morning or evening, being in the 40s, but I enjoyed this indoor pool and was the only one using it! On my first day in Yuma, I took Fodor's advice and visited the old Yuma prison from the 1800s. This is a really cool site for history buffs, and it is set beside the river, with a little park area for a nice easy hike.
The "Yard" of the old Yuma Prison

A park area, by the prison, on the banks of the Colorado River.

Man, the sunlight in Yuma is just amazing. I couldn't get enough of it. I wanted to absorb it all into my body so that when I got back to Illinois, I could make it through the winter. The light is just different in a desert area than it is in the Midwest. The colors of everything look so vibrant, it's like you are using an Instagram filter on your eyeballs.

An old prison cell. Wooden beds were replaced by metal ones to discourage bed bugs.

The Dark Cell, where prisoners were sent for punishment, was like a cave.

At the Yuma prison, its stark adobe-style architecture stood in sharp relief against the vibrant blue, cloudless sky. I enjoyed the little museum that told the stories of some of the inmates, and had artifacts from their history. There was also a little gift shop; I purchased an Arizona magnet, cactus print placemat, and an authentic antique Indian arrowhead for my nephew. Outside, as you approached the old prison cells, a recording came on to tell about life in the prison from the perspective of the inmates. This tourist attraction was both visually and intellectually interesting and I'm really glad I saw it.
Even with the beautiful sunlight, this would have been a bleak existence.

After I left the prison, I had lunch at a Mexican restaurant recommended in the Fodor's guide book, called La Fonda. The restaurant was in a kind of bleak-looking part of town, but I went anyway. The interior was kitchy Mexican style, with lots of color and Mexican knick knacks, and Mexican music playing in the background. The free chips and salsa were really good, and I ordered the tortilla soup, sonoran rolled tacos, and sopapillos to take with me for dessert. Everything was very fresh tasting and flavorful. The price was also very good.
La Fonda Mexican Restaurant in Yuma
After lunch, I made my way to the old part of town. This was a section of maybe four blocks square, with the older picturesque buildings of Yuma, and marked by an archway announcing it to be Historic Downtown Yuma. On the day I was there, the main street was blocked off to cars for a market of produce and handicrafts for sale. There was also live music in the form of a guitarist playing country music. This was on a Tuesday, not the weekend, so I'm not sure if it's like this all the time or only on certain days. I walked around and looked at all the buildings, bought a few things in the independently owned shops and had a delicious date milkshake from a store with miscellaneous gift items, and incongruously, dates.
A friendly stranger at the door of a beautiful old building, now housing an agriculture company.

A really cool old hotel, now abandoned. I hope someone restores it!
Here is an old postcard of the hotel that I found online!

Also in the downtown area is the Sanguinetti House Museum. This house belonged to a prominent Yuma entrepreneur from the 1800s and features the first swimming pool in Yuma (which unfortunately is now paved over the top for a dance floor for weddings). It's a cool old house, furnished with period furniture, and our docent suggested that many thought it was haunted. There is a small gift shop attached, as well as a cafe under an awning, which apparently has good lunches and breakfasts, although I did not try it.
A gorgeous original light fixture in the Sanguinetti House, with a garnet red glass shade.
After the museum tour, I headed over to walk the path in Smucker's Park. This was a narrow strip of a park with grass, trees, cacti, a playground and two paved walking paths near the high school. It was a pleasant place to just soak up some sunlight before night fell, because it faced west, and had a great view of the mountains in the distance. There were a lot of families there with their children, and a lot of people walking or jogging on the path. Seemed like a nice place to stop after work/school.
A cold beer under the tent at River City Grill.

Finally it was time for dinner, and I headed over to another spot recommended by the Fodor's travel guide, River City Grill. This cozy spot had indoor seating and outdoor under a canopy. I chose outdoor, and with my sweater on, it was perfect. The place was packed on this Tuesday night, mostly, it seemed, with groups of people, and the conversations I overheard indicated it was a popular place to go with work associates. I tried a Lucky Buddha Lager for the first time, which was quite good, and enjoyed the romantic fairy lights everywhere in this garden patio setting. I got a salad and a chicken curry entree, which were both quite good. I would definitely recommend this restaurant, as well.
Traveling Hwy. 95 north to the Imperial National Wilderness Preserve
On Wednesday, I swam again in the morning, took advantage of the complimentary hotel breakfast buffet, and set out to do some more hiking in the desert. After a little research, I decided to drive to the Imperial National Wilderness Refuge, about an hour's drive north of Yuma. The drive was scenic: towering palm trees dotted the flat sandy landscape. I drove through the Army Proving Ground (wondered what it was they were trying to prove!), and happened to catch about two dozen soldiers practicing jumping from a helicopter. It was so cool to see the sky "raining" with men in parachutes. I pulled over to the side of the road to catch a photo, but they were fast and I only got one in the picture!
Army Paratroopers taking practice jumps!
I stopped at the visitor's center in the wilderness refuge, and picked up a couple of trail maps, used the restroom, and then headed right outside the door to the first trail, Meers Point Trail, which was a very easy flat path, but still pretty and worth doing. Though situated in the Sonoran Desert, the refuge protects the wetlands around the Colorado River. Apparently, it is very mosquito-ey through much of the year, but late January was a perfect time to go, because the temperature was very pleasant and there were no mosquitoes that I encountered.
Meers Point Trail
It was a very peaceful hike. There were no sounds around except bird calls and the rushing wind. I saw lots of tiny lizards crossing my path - so so fast - like little streaks of black lightening. I drank sips of water constantly but my lips still felt dry. The air seemed to pull the moisture out of me. A lot of short stumpy trees looked dead - like skeletons with their grey, thorny branches, and stringy, dry bark sloughing off in rough and ragged ribbons. They scratched at my skin as I brushed past them, like the knobby, dry fingers of very old men.
Meers Point Trail
After that first trail, I drove down the road from the visitor's center, to a trailer park with a little convenience store and a grill-type restaurant. I got a quick hot dog lunch, some more bottled water, and then headed back in the car to go to the next trail, The Painted Desert Trail.
Fisher's Landing Grill at the trailer park
The drive to the trail head was loooong, and on very rough dirt roads, with steep inclines and a width barely wide enough for two cars. I worried for the health of my cheap-o rental car! The Painted Desert Trail was amazing, though a little more challenging than I was comfortable with. There were some really steep parts, and parts of the trail were not well marked, so I worried a bit about getting lost.
The Painted Desert Trail

I have to climb up there!!
But the views were stunning, as well as the many colors of rock and sand. I was the only hiker on the trail, and that gave me pause, because this trail was very remote. I saw no animals, except the little lizards. It was very quiet and serene.

Look at this wacky rock formation!
I would totally recommend this trail, but I would classify it as moderate, not easy. I finished late afternoon, and set off back to the hotel. I felt too dusty and tired to go out, so I got room service. Tomorrow would be a very early day; I had to get up at 4 am to make it to Scottsdale for my 10 am spa appointment. I know, rough life! ha ha
Red rocks, gorgeous sky!
Stay tuned for my next post where I compare and contrast 4 Phoenix/Scottsdale area destination spas!