Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area

Towns with Passion

By: Roger Naylor

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March 5, 2017

Be inspired by these five Arizona communities.

About the author

Roger Naylor

Roger Naylor

Roger Naylor is a travel writer who hates to travel. At least anywhere beyond his beloved Arizona. He specializes in lonely hiking trails, twisting back roads, diners with fresh burgers sizzling on the grill, small towns, ghost towns and pie. His work appears weekly in the Arizona Republic. He has contributed to Arizona Highways, USA Today, Western Art & Architecture, Go Escape, Route 66 Magazine and dozens more. He is the author of Boots & Burgers: An Arizona Handbook for Hungry Hikers and Arizona Kicks on Route 66. He lives in Cottonwood, Arizona and can be reached through his website, www.rogernaylor.com.

People who live in small towns understand what it’s like to be connected to the community. They know that even a handful of folks with a common goal can improve the quality of life for everyone. Here are a few small burgs with passion; towns where residents are making a difference.

Benson

The story of Benson unfolds one colorful wall at a time. More than 25 large-scale murals are spread through the town with each conveying a chapter of local history. The program was initiated by the Benson Clean and Beautiful committee in 2013.

Artist Doug Quarles moved from Tucumcari, New Mexico, to Benson, Arizona, to sling the paint. Working from old photos, Quarles created vivid and detailed murals depicting different eras from Benson’s past when it served as a stagecoach stop, mining center, cattle town and railroad hub. Look carefully and you’ll spot an unusual hidden element in each mural, such as a penguin in one and boy carrying a skateboard in another.

Yuma

Yuma’s Heritage Area was established to reconnect the community to the Colorado River. Just a few years ago, the river was cluttered with trash dumps and hobo camps. Today, the East Wetlands has been restored to a natural balance with forests of cottonwoods and grassy marshes. The West Wetlands has been transformed into a park with a lake, picnic areas, beaches and a spectacular kid-designed playground.

The sections of riverfront are anchored by two revitalized state parks. Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park once served as a supply point for all military posts in the Southwest. And Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park was the Old West’s most notorious hoosegow.

The area also includes Gateway Park and a network of biking and walking trails, which connect all of the parks. The result is an inspiring testament to what communities – in this case, the city of Yuma and the neighboring Quechan Indian Tribe – can accomplish when they work together.

Willcox

While protective of its Old West past, Cochise County is rooted squarely in the present. Cattle still graze the sweeping grasslands – but they do so at the edge of new vineyards. This is the center of one of Arizona’s burgeoning wine regions. The Willcox area produces 74% of the state’s wine grapes. Tasting rooms are open in downtown Willcox and at the wineries, where visitors can relax while overlooking rows of vines framed by mountain slopes.

Yet the spirit of the West lives on. Historic buildings have been preserved throughout downtown, including an 1890s adobe structure, which now houses the Rex Allen Arizona Cowboy Museum and Willcox Cowboy Hall of Fame. Born in Willcox, Rex Allen went on to become the last great singing cowboy. He’s also honored during the annual Rex Allen Days held the first weekend in October.

Bisbee

The rest of the country recently learned what Arizona residents already knew – that Bisbee is something special. In 2016, Bisbee was named best historic small town by USA Today.

Nestled in the Mule Mountains in Southern Arizona, the picturesque mining camp boomed right from the start. When the mines finally closed in the 1970s – after producing $6.1 billion in minerals – creative free spirits moved in, attracted by the spectacular setting and Old World architectural flourishes. They opened shops and galleries and restored Victorian homes. Murals splashed across walls and sculptures sprang up in tiny yards. That artistic energy and laidback vibe continues to define Bisbee today.

Sierra Vista

With an ideal climate and terrain for bicycling already in place, Sierra Vista always looks for ways to enhance its recreation amenities. The town has added more bike paths and launched new initiatives. Its Bike-Friendly Business program, the first of its kind in Arizona, identifies businesses that provide perks to bicyclists, like free water refills, Wi-Fi or bike repair tools.

Road cyclists will appreciate miles of shared-use paths throughout the city, with more slated for construction. The Cochise Vista Trail is a popular 20-mile loop. Long winding rural roads that branch off from Sierra Vista offer additional long-distance options.

Mountain bikers can tackle the network of single-track trails that crisscross the rising bulk of the Huachuca Mountains. Trails are suitable for novice and expert alike.

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