Soak in the Sun on Arizona’s West Coast

by Blake Herzog

Are you looking for a slice of the beach life but not in the mood for the famously frigid waters of the Pacific?

Want to get out of town, but keep the same gorgeous winter weather?

Then you should check out Arizona’s West Coast, formed by the Colorado River which separates us from California. It’s the most important river in the western U.S, supplying millions of people with water while still cutting a dramatic profile across the desert floor (not to mention the Grand Canyon).

A drive along this “coast” will take you past historic sites, green farmland, jagged rocks, palm-lined beaches and a mini-Vegas free of the headaches of driving along the Strip — its diversity matching the rest of Arizona.

A straight 2.5-hour shot down Interstate 8 from Casa Grande, Yuma might still be best-known as the halfway point to San Diego but is brimming with activity driven by its large agricultural, military and tourism sectors. As one of Arizona’s oldest cities it presents a deep history and a charming downtown, alongside a burgeoning waterfront.

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park is probably its second-biggest claim to fame. Opened on one of the most dramatic bluffs along the river in 1876, it held some of pioneer Arizona’s most infamous criminals in rock and adobe buildings. It was loathed by the inmates for its grueling heat and isolation and resented by residents as the “Country Club on the Colorado” for having forced ventilation, electricity and running water before the rest of the town.

For some insight into how more conventional residents lived their lives in the past, visit Castle Dome Mining Museum about 40 miles northeast of Yuma. It offers self-guided tours of a former mining site and the adjacent townsite, where abandoned Castle Dome City has been recreated in painstaking detail with found materials from the surrounding area.
Many first-time visitors are astonished by the size of the produce fields in the Yuma area, which grow as much as 90% of the nation’s leafy green vegetables from November to March when it’s too cold almost anywhere else in the U.S. The popular half-day Field to Feast tours held in January and February are led by local growers and provide a deep dive into the farming industry, ending with a meal prepared by local culinary students from Yuma-grown produce.

This picturesque town putting Old English architecture in a desert beach setting was built around a bridge sold and shipped from London to an enterprising developer in the mid-20th century. The lake, which forms behind Parker Dam, is renowned for fishing bass and other species as well as a mecca for all kinds of other boaters.

Today’s London Bridge, opened over the River Thames in 1831 to replace the original that inspired the nursery rhyme, was put up to auction by that city in 1967 and opened in Lake Havasu City in 1971. It’s 930 feet long and connects the riverbank to an island in the middle of the river with Arizona’s only beachfront resort, the Nautical. The Lake Havasu City Visitor Center conducts 90-minute walking tours of the bridge during which you can see proof of its past — including what was left by World War II German aircraft raids.

Lake Havasu State Park is the place you go to do anything on the water, including RV camping; it draws boaters from across the state and country, sometimes enough to clog the river during the spring break season. It has five boat ramps, 47 campsites, a special events area, picnic area, and beach area. The Mohave Sunset Trail (1.75 miles) winds its way along the shoreline and the Arroyo-Camino Interpretive Garden showcases the area’s diverse wildlife.

Just over an hour’s drive farther north and you’re at Bullhead City, where most of the people who work in the nine riverside resorts and casinos of Laughlin, Nevada live. It’s also the gateway to Lake Mohave, which delivers more rugged beauty and watersports playgrounds.

The resorts here have a combined 10,000 rooms and hundreds of thousands of casino square footage, and are a much lower-key and vastly more affordable alternative to Las Vegas, drawing many retirees. Notable destinations include the Aquarius (the newest and largest), Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort (the oldest, with a large classic car display) and the Laughlin River Lodge (the biggest casino). They’re all ted together by the Riverwalk Trail featuring spectacular views and live entertainment.

Davis Camp is a county park south of Bullhead City which provides more great chances to boat or swim in the river or walk or picnic on the shoreline, with day-use areas, RV and tent camping and vacation homes all in the mix.