Located in Maricopa, like the City of Phoenix to the northeast, Gila Bend is on a remote stretch of highway that acts as a major corridor to San Diego and other southern California towns and cities.
The town was founded in the 1870s and was purportedly named after a particularly sharp bend in the nearby Gila River.
With less than 2,000 permanent residents, the town’s population swells in the winter, when snowbirds and RV enthusiasts swarm to the area to enjoy the wide open spaces and wonderful weather.
Like the rest of Arizona, Gila Bend has a rich history, geography, and heritage that are all worth exploring.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Gila Bend:
1. Gila Bend Visitor’s Center and Museum
Probably the best place to stop first if you’ll be in the area for a few days is the Gila Bend Visitor’s Center and Museum, located on West Pima Street in town.
During WWII, the area was the location of an internment camp, where people of Japanese descent were held under the suspicion that they may assist the Japanese war effort.
The museum highlights this interesting segment of history and has plenty on the Native American cultures that lived in the area long before it was officially settled.
There’s also an exhibit dedicated to the infamous Oatman massacre that occurred nearby.
2. Painted Rock Petroglyphs
Petroglyphs are the pictures and representations of animals and other elements of the natural world that Native Americans inscribed into rocks hundreds and thousands of years ago
Arizona is known for its abundant petroglyphs, and there are a few good examples off Rocky Point Road in Gila Bend.
The site is just a quick detour from I-8; in addition to the petroglyphs, there are English inscriptions for a battle that took place nearby in the years after the Civil War.
Though the area is rustic, there are picnic tables if you’d like to bring some grub and have a picnic.
3. September 11th Memorial Park
Located on East Pima Street in downtown Gila Bend, the 9/11 Memorial Park is an easy on-and-off from the highway, so even if you’re just stopping for some gas and a cold drink, it’s worth a quick stop to pay your respects to those killed on September 11th.
The park includes a small section of one of the World Trade Center Towers that it was given after nearly 10 years of wrangling through government bureaucracy.
The park was largely built and organized by local volunteers, who dedicated long hours to get it up and running so many years after the actual event it commemorates took place.
4. Stay at the Space Age Lodge
Typically, large expanses of Arizona desert with small towns that are few and far between aren’t associated with space-aged lodging, but that’s exactly why the Space Age Lodge on East Pima Road in Gila Bend is so unique.
It’s a great place to stop and spend the night after a long day on the road. There’s a restaurant on site that’s decked out with the same futuristic theme, though it’s known for its earthly American and Mexican fare, which is pretty tasty.
The hotel is retro-fashioned, the rooms are comfortable and modern, but they’re not exactly the cheapest in the area.
5. Sonoran Desert National Monument
With nearly 500,000 acres of public land under management, the Sonoran Desert National Monument is large even by Arizona standards.
Three different rugged mountain ranges converge in the area and the monument is a sanctuary for an incredible array of desert plants and animals that are well adapted to this dry and unforgiving environment.
There are nearly 30 miles of trails within the monument area. Horses are a favored means of seeing the sights, so consider a guided equestrian tour.
There are quite a lot of Native American petroglyphs and ruins that are fascinating and worth a look too.
6. Butterfield Stage Days
If you happen to find yourself in Gila Bend in July, make it a point to check out the town’s Butterfield Stage Days and Rodeo.
It takes place over a weekend in the middle of the month and celebrates the rich heritage of one of the oldest and most historic stagecoach routes in the American West.
The event kicks off with a parade and includes rodeo events of all kinds, a carnival, live entertainment and tons of great food – a lot of which has Native American roots.
There’s also a beer garden that’ll help you cool down after a fun day in the heat.
7. 4th of July Celebration
Gila Bend takes its annual 4th of July celebration seriously and has been doing so for decades.
There will be plenty of fireworks to honor the day our young nation gained its independence.
Lots of other great activities will be offered too, like the mud bog races in nearby Burleson Park, which is conveniently located next to the city pool.
Sandcastle building competitions and watermelon and pie eating contests will be held too, and there’ll even be some live entertainment.
It’s a great way to meet locals and an inexpensive, patriotic and family-friendly weekend that shouldn’t be missed.
8. Sonoran Desert Bird-watching
Despite the harsh, stark landscape that doesn’t look like it’d be home to many plants and animals, the Arizona desert has a remarkable array of life and is particularly abundant in birds of many different species.
There are many species that live here year-round, and others that are migratory and therefore only show up a few months out of the year.
Due to its riparian environment, the Gila Bend area is home to many wading birds, plovers, and even waterfowl.
There’s no shortage of predatory birds either, like owls ranging from the majestic Great Horned Owl to the tiny Burrowing and Elf Owls, some of which aren’t much larger than a mouse.
9. Hike the Big Horn Trail
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that with all its wide-open spaces, Gila Bend is crisscrossed with trails of all sorts.
Especially in the winter months, the area is a nature lover’s paradise. Since it’s just a stone’s throw off Interstate 8, the trails are easily accessible and convenient, even if you only plan on stopping for a few hours.
Big Horn Trail is reserved for fit and advanced hikers; it’s strewn with large boulders and covers significant changes in elevation
The trail is located in the South Maricopa County Mountain Wilderness Area. Though it’s not well marked, there are cairns along the trail that will guide you to the massive peak that’ll never be out of your sight.
10. Santa in the Park
Take it from me, it’s a unique experience spending Christmas in the desert.
When friends and family in the Midwest and Northeast are barricaded in their homes with electric blanks and fleece slippers, many Arizonans are sipping Coronas in the shade of a palm tree at the swimming pool.
Though it may take some getting used to, if you find yourself in Gila Bend in mid-December, stop by for the town’s annual Santa in the Park Festival.
The event raises money for the local volunteer fire department and collects toys for needy children, so it’s a fun way to support the community and have a great time too.
11. Town of Gila Bend Shawmut Loop Trail
If you’re a beginner or intermediate hiker or just an all-around lover of trains, you’ll want to check out Gila Bend’s Shawmut Loop Trail.
Following along the rail lines of the Southern Pacific Railroad – which has been hauling freight through Arizona since the 1870s – the railroad is an American icon.
The railway’s modern diesel locomotives no longer use steam and coal like they once did, but they still sport the recognizable emblem of the sun setting over a rail line.
The Shawmut Loop isn’t well marked, but the trailhead in town is easy to find and it’s a real must for railroad aficionados.
12. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is the Southwest’s premier natural preserve for the amazingly unique organ pipe cacti that inhabit this area of the Sonoran Desert.
In addition to its amazing human and geological history, the area is also home to a surprisingly large and diverse group of plants and animals – including cacti, of which there are hundreds of species.
Like the Saguaro, the organ pipe cacti are large, dramatic, and tower over the desert floor.
This part of the desert is particularly beautiful at sunset, so if you’re able to time your trip in the late afternoon, your rewards will be great.
Campsites are available nearby if you’d like to spend a night or two under Arizona’s naturally dark skies.
13. Margie’s Cove Trail
Another of the City of Gila Bend’s trails is Margie’s Cove Trail, which passes through the North Maricopa County Mountain Wilderness Area’s 63,000 thousand acres.
A nine-mile roundtrip, the hike may not be best for the very young or old, but remember you don’t have to go all the way; even a mile or so will get your heart rate up and give you views of some amazing washes, canyons, and cliffs.
The area is full of cactus species too, of which prickly pear, cholla, and fishhook barrels are among the most prevalent.
There’s lots of wildlife in the area too. If you want to catch a glimpse of some fascinating desert critters, remember they’re the most active in the morning and evening.
14. Oatman Massacre Site
In 1851, an Illinois family making their way through Arizona was ambushed by a band of Native Americans near what is now Gila Bend.
Though the parents were killed, two girls were taken captive and sold to the Mohave Indians.
One sister died in captivity, but the other lived and was eventually freed and returned to society, becoming a bit of a star as dramatic Indian stories were very popular in those days.
The site is reachable by a long stretch of unpaved road that’s best traveled by 4-wheel drive vehicles or ATVs, which are fun ways to see the memorial and some amazing desert scenery too.