US Travel

Midnight at the Oasis Classic Car Show & Nostalgia Festival

The Ys of Yuma

Story & photos by Barbara L. Steinberg

When I first began planning my trip to the California desert, I had no idea where the adventure was leading. Surprisingly, and quite happily, it led me to Yuma, Arizona. More than one person asked, their tone clearly mocking, "Why Yuma?"

I hadn't planned on Yuma, but turns out it was the best place to stay while exploring the Imperial Valley and a visit to Felicity, California – "the center of the world." Upon further examination, I discovered that Yuma has more than its share of attractions and an unexpected bonus on this desert trek. In response to, "Why Yuma?" I would tell the inquisitive, I'll know soon enough…and so will you."

Yuma is the land of snowbirds. From October to the end of March (more or less) the population of this desert community swells with seasonal visitors escaping colder climates. From Canada to Maine, they come to soak up the warmth of Yuma's winter sun and near perfect temperatures. Most come hauling their personal belongings in RVs and 5th-wheels, or have second homes in the Yuma foothills. The winter population is more than three times that of the year-round residents. Although it may add to the congestion of life in this small-town community bordering California and Mexico, it also brings much needed economics. With soaring summer temperatures, the snowbirds head home and the locals are left to enjoy the peace, quiet, and heat of Yuma.

I love the historic heart of any small town and so it was easy to embrace Old Yuma. The downtown district is not unlike many others in that it has seen some decline. But an economic infusion is having an influence and the historic district is coming into its own. Attractive new streetscape and fountains have clearly had the desired effect. Small shops and cafes down the colorful 221-B Shops alley draw a crowd, especially on the weekends. And though there are still a number of empty storefronts, change is definitely in the wind.

The Lee Hotel – a National Trust landmark – has been in continuous operation on Main Street since 1917. A mixed use residential and traditional hotel, it offers comfortable lodging with reasonable rates. Some rooms are European-style and others are en suite – ask for the latter. Lee Hotel is friendly and convenient; that's what's most important. And if you're at all curious about ghostly goings-on, then definitely check in. I bunked quite nicely in rose-infused Room 12, despite reports that young Sarah (a ghostly guest) is supposedly a regular visitor. Sadly, I never had the pleasure. During the night, I wondered about the raucous that seemed to be going on above me on the third floor. Note to self: Ask them to show me around up there.

The topic of ghosts is a popular one thanks to the Yuma Spirit Hunters who conduct tours of Old Yuma October – March. Mostly they try to dispel the myths, but in doing so provide some great history about people and places in the city. In conversation with Lee Hotel resident Albert, he asked, "Did they tell you about the mysterious foot-steps on the non-existent third floor?" I blinked, once. And then I blinked again. "There's no third floor?" I responded! I told him about the noise above my room the night before. Okay, now you're really freaking me out!!! I swear this is true.

If you prefer chain hotels and extended stay offerings, there are plenty of affordable options. A big plus of the Lee Hotel, however, is its pedestrian-friendly access to the evolving attractions of Old Yuma including live entertainment at the historic Old Yuma Theater and revolving exhibits at the Yuma Art Center. The glorious Art Deco features of the theater are all original. Independent films are on-board once a month and six weeks of entertainment, "Summer 6-Pack" includes film and live theater. Come for the show, but be sure to inspect the stunning murals, and the Bas Relief in the foyer.

Each year at the Yuma Art Center, the two-month "Artists of Yuma" show allows local artists a chance to exhibit at the gallery. The Yuma Symposium – more than 30 years old – is a juried event the last weekend in February. A nationwide event, it features a wide-range of art forms and includes workshops and lectures. The space is breathtaking and wonderfully meditative. Rotating exhibits throughout the Center's four galleries feature the works of visiting and student artists. Back to the question of, "Why Yuma?" The answers are being revealed.

Adjacent to the Art Center, is the marvelous Historic Yuma Theatre. Built in 1912 as the Zeller Theater, the current structure has survived more than one owner, fire, and redesigns but has been in operation almost continuously since 1936. In 2004, the exterior was restored to its 1912 Art Deco splendor and the interior remains almost unchanged since its redesign in 1936. At that time, a fabulous bas-relief cast plaster mural was installed in the lobby. The bas relief is the only remaining one of two depicting the agricultural influence in the Yuma and Imperial Valleys. The other was in a theatre in El Centro that has now been destroyed. The theatre hosts year-round events including original film screenings, community theater productions, Saturday children's matinees, Arizona Historical Society tours and film series, jazz festivals, education workshops, graduation ceremonies, choir concerts, and special events.

The wonderfully entertaining Lutes Casino has nothing to do with gambling, but has been a familiar sight on Main Street since 1901. Built as a general store, it's been a pool hall since 1920…Arizona's oldest. Locals and visitors (young and old, families and friends) dine, dance, play pool, laugh, and simply enjoy the eclectic décor and chaos of this long-time dining and drinking establishment. I was lucky to arrive on an evening when live music was on the schedule. Seniors playing dominos were undisturbed by the cacophony off the Saturday night crowd or my prying. I happily through my leg up and around a barstool and settled in to watch the action. Perusing the menu – not for the weight conscious or cholesterol concerned – I asked my server for a recommendation.

"Well, the 'especial' is the hot dog-hamburger," he quickly said. I gave it a momentary consideration. I was tempted because as they say, "When in Rome…or Yuma…" For lunch I had indulged in a spicy dog — so temptation aside, I opted for a second recommendation of the Philly-style" tri-tip sandwich, crisp order of fires, and a cold beer. It was heaven and I'll worry about the expanding waistline later. I just want to make it clear that When in Yuma…" do as the Yumans do.

In 2000, Congress designated Yuma Crossing as the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. The $80 million project is intended to preserve and interpret a long-list of incredible assets. Signs of progress are everywhere. Hundreds of acres along the Colorado Riverfront have been reclaimed as open space in the form of amazing public parks. The West Wetlands Park, once the city's landfill, now boasts a fantastic humming bird garden, burrowing owl habitat, boat launch, armadas, solar garden, and hiking trails. The park is also officially certified as a Wildlife Habitat by the U.S. National Wildlife Federation. Just a short walk away, Gateway Park offers numerous ramadas and picnic areas, and a show-stopper of a kid's playground…designed by Yuma children and built by the community. It's a masterpiece! So appealing that even parents will rediscover their inner-child and climb on up.

The massive East Wetlands project along the Colorado River is heroic by anyone's standard. The complete restoration of hundreds of acres devoured by invasive non-native species, in particular Salt Cedars. When finished, it will be a model for the Nation. It will provide the community and visitors access to an incredible natural resource including hiking, fishing, boating and wildlife viewing. The project wasn't nearly complete when I visited but we spotted more than 16 species on our hike. The annual Yuma Birding & Nature Festival will have a new playground to explore.

Along with all this open space, Old Yuma is has enjoyed newer, much needed hotel space. Along the waterfront adjoining the West Wetlands and near Gateway Park, a new Hilton Garden Inn Yuma & Riverfront Conference Center at Pivot Point (whew, that's a mouthful) is a 150-room hotel  and   conference center. It  has a full restaurant and bar, plus access to all of Old Yuma's best attractions and a perfect location to park and walk. Don't miss the relocated and restored 1907 Baldwin locomotive which will be part of an interpretive plaza.

Another must-see for history, movie, and ghost-hunting fanatics is the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park – the most notorious prisoners called this literal Hell-hole home. The western classic, 3:10 to Yuma – 1957 and 2007 – features the prison and is the story of the last ride for Billy the Kid…who sadly never makes it to Yuma. The prison and graveyard are haunted – so they say – by the tortured souls who died while incarcerated in Yuma.

So to everyone who asked "Why Yuma?" get over that mocking tone; check it out for yourself. There is so much more to this desert community sandwiched at the borders of California and Mexico…I simply couldn't see it all. The bonus definitely paid off…lucky me. Yuma is an easy drive from San Diego or enjoy some of that great weather flying into Yuma International Airport.

BTW – about the third-floor noise above my room at the Lee Hotel…there is no third floor. As explained to me by one of the long-term residents…another ghost story in the making.

 Gateway Park Yuma, AZ

Ocean to Ocean Bridge at Gateway Park – Built in 1915, was the first vehicle bridge across the Colorado River. Prior to the construction of the bridge, cars were ferried across the Colorado River to and from California. This was the last barrier for cars to drive from coast-to-coast – hence the Ocean to Ocean name.

Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park – An army supply depot built in the 1860s to help protect the river crossing is today part of the Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park. Original adobe buildings hold old maps, telegraph equipment and antique trucks, while a 1907 steam locomotive and passenger car sit outside. (Arizona Visitors Guide)

Roxaboxen Park – This unique Park memorializes the beloved and internationally known children's story entitled Roxaboxen" by author Alice McLerran (now published in 7 languages). This true story is based on the adventures of the author's mother and fellow Roxaboxenites as they grew up in Yuma in the early part of the last century. These children created the make-believe town of Roxaboxen" from rocks, boxes, and lots of imagination. Even today, you can find neighborhood children making little rock and box houses with imagination as their only mortar. (City of Yuma)

Endurance Flight – Yuma is said to have the Best Flying Weather as witnessed by the Endurance Flight of 1948. A 640-acre field was the site of the Yuma Army Air Base during World War II. Here pilots were trained on AT-6 single engines, T-17 multi-engines and the B-17 Flying Fortress. After the war ended the base was closed. In 1949, in an effort to persuade government officials to re-open the air base, Bob Woodhouse & Woody Jongeward set the world record Endurance Flight. The duo flew a 1948 Aeronca Sedan, named the City of Yuma, continuously for 1,124 hours from Aug. 24 to Oct. 10. The purpose of the record-setting flight was to draw attention to how good the flying weather is in Yuma, and to persuade government officials to reopen the air base. The base re-opened the base was reopened in 1950 as Yuma Air Base and later renamed Vincent Air Force Base in memory of Brig. Gen. Clinton D. Vincent. In 1959 it became the newly designated Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Station, as it remains today.

Midnight at the Oasis – Premier Classic Car Show and Nostalgia Festival, features 900 of the finest classic cars – everything from Model Ts to Muscle Cars, pre-1972. Lots of regional food, carnival rides, and parade of classic cars.

Yuma Birding & Nature Festival – Celebrates the diversity of the Lower Colorado River with field trips and educational seminars. Explore the new East Wetlands restoration project.

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