These days, the tiny town of San Luis, Arizona is considered a suburb of Yuma, which is the largest city in this remote corner of Arizona near the California border.
Home to a massive military base, Native American Reservations, and some interesting and unique historical sites, the surrounding desert is also one of the country’s produce centers – especially for watermelons and other fruits that are shipped from Arizona farms to markets all over the United States when most of the country is firmly in winter’s icy grip.
The town’s history is closely associated with the Colorado River, which was once a main transportation artery before the advent of the railroads.
Below are 12 things to do in San Luis.
1. Joe Orduno Park
Located on North Park Avenue in downtown San Luis, Joe Orduno Park is full of amenities like cultural and aquatic centers, a baseball field, playground, covered barbeque areas, and a soccer field.
Though the area is mainly used by locals, it’s gaining popularity among visitors who recognize its convenience and value and want to take advantage while they’re in town.
Some of the park’s facilities are available for private parties and there’s a calendar on their website so you can see what’s available and when.
The park has also hosted different activities in years past – like a pet show that was a big hit – so check out their website before you go.
2. U-Sell-It Swap Meet
Open Thursday to Sunday, from early in the morning to mid-afternoon, the U-Sell-It Swap meet is located on 972 East Urtuzuastegui Street in downtown San Luis.
The swap meet is open rain or shine and features used and new articles including clothing, shoes, cosmetics, jewelry and lots of other interesting things.
Parking and admission are free, and Fridays are set aside for those who want to unload their used housewares, clothes and tools, so give the house a good once-over before heading out.
You’ll be surprised how good getting rid of that old junk and making a few bucks in the process will make you feel.
Due to its proximity to Mexico and the Mexican cultural influences in the area, you may feel like you’re actually in old Mexico, so dust off that Spanish you haven’t used since your sophomore year of high school.
3. Cocopah Museum
The Cocopah Native Americans have been living in the hot and dry environment of San Luis for generations.
The Cocopah Museum and Cultural Center was built in 1996 to preserve and promote their culture, as well as educate the general public about their history and traditions.
Located on an acre and a half of Sonoran desert just a short drive from San Luis, the museum is on the Cocopah Reservation and includes a gift shop full of books and Cocopah memorabilia that make great gifts and forget-me-nots that’ll always remind you of your trip.
The museum is full of traditional Cocopah attire, musical instruments, artwork, and even weapons.
Check out their website and Facebook page for directions and hours of operation.
4. Robert J. Moody Demonstration Garden
Part of the University of Arizona, the Robert J. Moody Demonstration Garden is the place to go to see the spectacular array of plants, trees, cacti and wildflowers that call this sunbaked portion of Arizona home.
The area is primarily an educational facility for local residents and school children but is becoming increasingly popular with visitors for its convenient location and magnificent grounds.
All the displayed plants are labeled, so you’ll get an idea of what it is you’re looking at.
The park’s funding comes from the city of Yuma and its parks department, The University of Arizona, and donations from citizens and businesses.
The gardens have plenty of walking trails, and even an old tractor owned by the man after who the park was named.
5. Yuma Territorial Prison Museum
As far as I’m concerned, prisons are cool places, as long as you’re looking from the outside in.
Way back in the 1870’s, San Luis, Yuma, and the surrounding areas were tough places, where more often than not, guns were the way to settle disputes.
The first seven prisoners in the history of the Yuma Territorial Prison found themselves behind its iron bars in July 1876.
Imagine what the conditions must’ve been like back then and you’ll understand why the prison had a fearsome reputation as a place in which you didn’t want to up.
Over more than 30 years, the prison housed more than 3,000 prisoners, a few of which were women.
The museum grounds include a guard tower and cemetery full of long-dead inmates too; rumor has it it’s full of ghosts.
Check out their website for directions, hours of operation and admission fees.
6. Center of the World
Recognized by Imperial County California and the nation of France as the earth’s center, the nearby town of Felicity, California is home to a few quirky exhibits to honor its claim to fame, like an original section of stairway from the Eiffel Tower.
It’s not a bit surprising that the title of “Center of the World” is claimed by other parts of the world too, making it contentious and dubious at best.
Whatever the case though, the Frenchman who made the claim in the California desert erected a pyramid on the site, and the town built itself up around it.
The man – whose name is Jacques-Andre Istel – is the town’s mayor and most vocal advocate. Whether or not you believe his claim, you’ll enjoy seeing what he’s built.
7. Lake Martinez Recreation Area
Located on the grounds of the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Lake Martinez Recreation Area is open to the public year-round.
In addition to all the activities provided by the lake – like fishing, swimming and boating – the area is full of campsites and sites that are RV friendly too.
The main campground is right on the lake’s shore and near to where boats can be rented.
Though it’s on the Marine base, the camp and lake are in remote areas. Due to the abundance of water in the otherwise parched desert, the lake and surrounding areas attract many animals that call the desert home.
They’re more likely to be seen in the early mornings and evenings, and due to its distance from any major metropolitan areas, the area is a great place to gaze into the night sky.
You never know what you might see.
8. Yuma Proving Ground Heritage Museum
Located on the United States Army Yuma Proving Grounds, the Heritage Museum is one of those little-known gems that’s well worth the trip.
The museum is in Building #2 in the Col. George Howard area of the base. It has nearly 15,000 square feet of memorabilia, exhibits and military gear going back to World War II when the base was known as the Desert Training Center.
There’s also a theatre where you can view a half-hour film about the base’s history.
A few of the most popular exhibits are commemorative displays remembering 9/11 and the Vietnam War.
You’ll need to show your identification, vehicle registration and insurance information to get on the base, but it’ll be a small price to pay for what you’ll see.
9. Yuma Conservation Garden
In addition to its showcase of desert plants and animals, the Yuma Conservation Garden grounds have lots of cool, antique farm machinery on display too.
The land for the conservation gardens was donated to the city of Yuma by the United States Bureau of Land Management in the ‘50s and served for a time as the site for the Yuma County Fair.
The garden portion of the land was set aside in 1989 and included a duck pond that’s still there, which, in many ways, is the centerpiece of the entire garden.
These days, the gardens are mainly used for education and recreation and are home to many species of cactus, wildflowers, and even a few desert tortoises who seem to think they own the place.
10. Wild River Family Entertainment Center
Just a quick drive down the road from San Luis, the Wild River Family Entertainment Center is aptly named; it’s a place that’ll keep everyone occupied for hours.
If bowling, arcade games, and laser tag won’t keep everyone happy and busy, then nothing will.
And with all that activity will come a giant hunger, so if you plan on hanging around, you’ll be able to enjoy some of the delicious food available, which many guests say is pretty reasonably priced too.
Some brave parents even drop their teenagers off for a few hours then come back and get them a few hours later.
It’s an especially welcome place for bored kids who’ve spent the last few days looking at obscure historical sites in the middle of the desert.
11. Colorado River Historic Park
Located on North 4th Avenue in Yuma, The Colorado River Historic Park is a convenient and inexpensive place to spend a few hours learning about the area’s history, and the influence the river has had on its people and economy.
The park is full of historic buildings, exhibits and lots of other interesting tidbits of local interest.
Though the Colorado River isn’t what it once was, back in the 1860’s it was a major transportation thoroughfare; the site was an important military outpost in what was then the Arizona Territory.
The park offers great views of the river from its elevated position.
12. Cocopah Casino
Due to its large population of Native Americans and the many reservations within its borders, Arizona is home to many tribal casinos.
Located on the Cocopah Reservation, the casino and the money it brings in are vital resources for the people living within its borders.
The Cocopah Casino is a place where locals head to get their fill of live entertainment, delicious food, and the glitz and glamour that only casinos can offer.
Check online for their events, and the locals suggest heading over for their seafood and prime rib buffet.
The casino is located in nearby Somerton.