Paddle your own canoe (or kayak) in Yuma, Arizona

Urban riverfront gets a needed facelift
Nora Burba Trulsson

Our boats slip quietly down the Colorado River, beneath the shadows of Yuma, Arizona's old Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Bridge, its name spelled out in lightbulbs along the girders. We pass a lone white egret parading through the reedy banks, as well as pedestrians, picnickers, and wading kids waving wildly from the water's edge.

Such a peaceful urban paddle wasn't possible here a few years ago, when downtown Yuma was overlooked in favor of suburban development and a big chunk of the riverfront was used as the city dump. In 2000, though, Congress designated 22 square miles a National Heritage Area, and this stretch of the Colorado has since been transformed.

To celebrate the riverfront's revamped look, we've signed up for a guided canoe trip organized by Yuma's Department of Parks and Recreation.

The 4- to 5-mile expeditions begin at the confluence of the Colorado and Gila Rivers east of downtown, then wind past beaches and bird-watchers. They end at the boat ramp in the newly created West Wetlands Park, where mile-wide mounds of trash have been replaced with willows, walking paths, and ospreys. Steps away is Yuma Crossing State Historic Park, a 19th-century military quartermaster depot where paddle-wheel steamboats docked. A trail leads to a beach perfect for picnicking.

As we glide into West Wetlands Park, our 2½-hour trip at its end, we consider heading a few miles north to Martinez Lake, an inlet on the Colorado River, to explore ― by jet boat ― the petroglyph sites of the Imperial Wildlife Refuge.

Waterlogged, we opt instead for margaritas, which are flowing at Chretin's Mexican Foods downtown ― and raise our salted glasses to a great day on the river.