Winter is the perfect time to visit America's sunniest city: you can get your hands dirty on a Field to Feast Tour, study Mexican cooking with the pros, stroll verdant gardens, or, simply, soak in the sun on the Colorado River. Writer Kate Siber points the way, with these five, can't-miss Yuma experiences. Happy travels!
1. A field-to-fork feast
Yuma has been a farm town for more than a century, but it wasn't until 2011 that just any visitor could learn the tricks of the trade. Now, during winter Field to Feast tours, aspiring agrarians can take a half-day lesson in farming at the University of Arizona research farm—a working site where ag professors seek solutions to common plant problems. Participants pick lettuce, green onions, and purple cauliflower; hear from experts about irrigation and food safety; and, finally, enjoy the fruits of their labors at a feast prepared by local culinary students. Field to Feast: $45/tour.
2. Mango margaritas
But even the country's freshest veggies aren't much use if you don't know how to prepare them. Tina Clark, Yuma's city historian and archaeologist and the proprietor of Tina's Cocina, has a solution: hands-on cooking classes. In the hacienda-style kitchen of century-old St. Paul's, Clark tutors students on tamales, ceviche, and other Sonoran specialties. At the end of the lesson, the participants sit down to enjoy the five-course meal that they helped prepare, toasting their success with homemade mango margaritas. Not that into cooking? Head to La Fonda Restaurant & Tortilla Factory, a local favorite, for some of the best Mexican food in this border town, including superb tortilla soup. Tina's Cocina: $75/class; 645 S. Second Ave. La Fonda: $$; 1095 S. Third Ave.
3. The sweetest dates around
Not only are dates one of the oldest cultivated fruits—humans have tended them for some 6,000 years—they're also quite the superfood. Rich in antioxidants, dates also boast a low glycemic index, which means that even though they're sweet, they don't cause an inevitable sugar crash. And they happen to thrive in hot, dry Yuma: The city is the world's largest producer of prized Medjools. Taste these ancient fruits on Date Night, a monthly dinner held alfresco in a date grove and starring dishes from a prominent local chef. Sweet on dates? Visit Martha's Gardens Date Farm for a history-laden tour (or for a thick, creamy date shake), or head just across the Colorado River to Imperial Date Gardens for specialties like chocolate-covered and pecan-stuffed Medjools. Date Night: $65; Feb 13. Martha's: 9747 S. Avenue 9¾ E. Imperial: 1517 York Rd., Winterhaven, CA.
4. Garden spots
Beyond the fields, Yuma has several outdoor oases that spring to life each winter. Prickly plant enthusiasts will love Yuma Conservation Garden, a park that boasts dozens of cactus species, from the towering saguaro to the rare white ocotillo. The resident 78-year-old desert tortoise, Baloo—who predates the garden itself—reigns over a shaded hole in an enclosure, while coyotes and lizards pad the garden's sandy paths. Nearby, East Wetlands beckons adventurers with a new trail that winds through 400 acres of restored marshes and willow-and-cottonwood groves along the Colorado River, while West Wetlands draws birders, with at least four species of hummingbirds. Yuma Conservation Garden: 2520 E. 32nd St. East Wetlands: 180 W. 1st St. West Wetlands: 2200 Water St.
5. Hidden treasures
Although the Colorado River feeds Yuma's culture and economy, many locals have never explored its maze of canals, channels, and ponds. With Yuma Kayaks, you can paddle up side channels to see hidden reed-ensconced lakes, huge volcanic cliffs, and mesa-studded desert landscapes. En route, you'll also spot plenty of wildlife. "The Colorado is like a migration interstate," says Sharon Tuttle, Yuma Kayaks' lead guide and owner. Egrets, pelicans, and herons abound, and with luck, you might spot a desert bighorn sheep. Want to see the river at your own pace on a DIY tubing trip? Try putting in at Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge and taking out at West Wetlands. From $45/2 hours.