Reconnecting a Desert Town with Its River: Improved Tourist Attractions at Arizona’s Yuma Crossing

Bridge over the restored wetlands in Yuma, Arizona. Courtesy of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area.
The sun sets over the restored sally port at the Yuma Territorial Prison. Photo courtesy of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area.

The sun sets over the restored sally port at the Yuma Territorial Prison. Photo courtesy of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area.

Situated in the corner of the Southwest where Arizona, California, and Mexico converge, the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area (YCNHA) has literally been shaped by the Colorado River. Two granite outcroppings narrowed the river at Yuma, allowing safe passage on what was once a wild and uncontrollable waterway. Some 60,000 people passed through Yuma during the California Gold Rush of 1849, and later, the first rail and car bridge across the Colorado River was built here.

The 20th century was the era of dam building, and local citizens celebrated the opening of the Laguna Dam just north of Yuma in 1909. The new structure provided flood control, a secure and steady water source, and hydropower. But the diminished flows also brought unintended consequences: a riverfront choked with non-native vegetation. Yuma was a desert community literally cut off from its river.

Community leaders saw a national heritage area designation as the best way Yuma could reconnect with its river, bringing together environmental restoration, trails, parks, riverfront commercial redevelopment, and historic preservation of Old Town Yuma’s adobe structures. In 2000, Congress approved the creation of the YCNHA, one of the first national heritage areas west of the Mississippi River. Early management of the YCNHA focused on three riverfront districts and four downtown historic districts—all of which are closely related to the Colorado River.

People here were hungry—or I should say thirsty—to access and enjoy the river. For its first decade, the primary focus for the heritage area was to help reconnect the community to a restored riverfront environment, and this transformation has been nothing short of amazing.

The improvements include:

  • Restoring the 350-acre Yuma East Wetlands, replacing salt cedars and other non-native vegetation with more than 200,000 native cottonwood, willow, and mesquite trees. The restoration has attracted hundreds of bird species and migratory waterfowl—and, along with it, an eco-tourism boom.
  • Transforming the Yuma West Wetlands from a city dump to a beautiful 110-acre riverfront park, including a gigantic creative playground, lake, picnic areas, boat ramp, and beach.
  • Creating Gateway Park, a 40-acre downtown riverfront recreation area. Gateway has become the city’s most popular park, with beaches, picnic areas, a playground, and trails. The park also includes Pivot Point Interpretive Plaza, which tells the story of the Yuma Crossing and features a restored 1907 Baldwin Locomotive.
  • Designing and building the Hilton Garden Inn and Conference Center, a riverfront hotel in keeping with its location within a National Historic Landmark. The hotel’s interior features photographs and artifacts of Yuma’s history on the river.

The YCNHA also includes two state historic parks that serve as key tourist attractions and are pivotal to the area’s tourism economy. YCNHA began managing these parks in 2010 when budget shortfalls threatened to close them; since then, the heritage area has invested more than $500,000 in the museums and facilities, revitalizing the parks and increasing visitation.

Visiting Yuma for the first time? Be sure to put both of these parks on your to-do list.

  • The Yuma Territorial Prison (featured in the movie, 3:10 to Yuma) was one of the toughest prisons of the Old West. After the prison closed, it briefly became the town’s high school, spawning many jokes and barbs. However, Yuma wore it as a badge of honor and to this day the Yuma High School mascot and team name remain the Criminals! You can learn more about this unique icon of the West at www.yumaprison.org.
  • The Yuma Quartermaster Depot tells the story of the past, present, and future of the Colorado River. It also hosts an annual Lettuce Days and Harvest Dinner, which celebrates the role of irrigated agriculture in the community and draws more than 15,000 visitors each year.

Learn more about YCNHA and all of its attractions by visiting www.yumaheritage.com.

This story is part of our monthly series on national heritage areas, the large lived-in landscapes managed through innovative partnerships to tell America’s cultural history. See more stories in this series.

About the Author

Charles Flynn is executive director of Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area.