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The Best Things to do in Mesa, AZ range from candlelit dinners in the desert to kayaking below sheer bronze-tinged cliffs and cacti. Here’s what you should know about one of Arizona’s most underrated cities.
I visited Arizona for the first time a couple of years ago for a short trip, hitting all the usual spots like Phoenix, Sedona, and the Grand Canyon.
So, when I was invited by Visit Mesa to explore more of Arizona this fall, I jumped at the chance to see other parts of what the state had on offer for adventure and outdoor enthusiasts (hint: there’s a lot).
I felt this with my first visit, and I’ll write it down here: Arizona is one of the most beautiful US states. Its red rocks, desert vibes, and versatile landscape are all a traveler’s (and photographer’s) dream come true. I can see why so many people choose to retire there these days.
But even though I already knew that Arizona as a whole was a treat on the eyes, I knew little to nothing about Mesa, where I started my Arizona trip this time around.
I knew that Mesa meant ‘table’ in Spanish and that the name probably reflected the landscape in some way, but that was pretty much it.
Sometimes it’s great going to a place without knowing much about it, because it’s easier to take things in from what I call a ‘child perspective’, where everything is new and you don’t have many preconceived ideas about what you’re experiencing.
That is how I felt when I arrived in Mesa. I soaked up my time with a hint of wonder at the stunning desert landscape, and how easy it was to get away from it all while still being so close to the big city.
If you’re wondering if there’s actually anything to do in Mesa, I have a whole list-full of activities to keep you busy and feeling like you’re truly part of the Wild West.
These are the best things to do in Mesa, AZ – whether you just have a weekend in town or more!
How Far is Mesa from Phoenix?
It’s surprising that not that many people know about Mesa, because it’s sometimes considered a suburb of Phoenix with how close it is to Arizona’s main city.
Driving from Mesa to Phoenix only takes about 25 minutes.
If you’re looking for a mix of city and nature experiences in southern Arizona, Mesa is an ideal place because it’s situated between Phoenix and the Tonto National Forest.
Just make sure to have access to a car during your stay because it’s necessary in order to experience all the fun things to do around Mesa, AZ.
Where to Stay in Mesa, AZ
If you’re looking for a unique accommodation experience that is in the midst of the national forest, I would highly recommend Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch.
I stayed at the ranch for two nights and loved waking up to the Bulldog Cliffs at sunrise, eating fresh and delicious food made by the on-site chef, and horseback riding and kayaking nearby (both activities that were organized for me by the ranch).
Plus, the manager Dale is seriously the nicest person ever. Everyone at the ranch took hospitality to another level. I felt so welcome throughout the duration of my stay.
You can find out more about the property and book a room here.
Best Things to do in Mesa, AZ
Fresh Foodie Trail
The farm-to-table movement has come in hot to Mesa, so if you love good food at all, the Fresh Foodie trail is something you should look into doing throughout your trip.
There are a list of restaurants and businesses that are a part of the trail that you can stop in at. You can find the full list here.
Otherwise, if you don’t want to try and find the best downtown Mesa restaurants on your own via the Foodie Trail, DETOURS American West tour company has started running tours that highlight some of the best stops on the trail. You can book their Fresh Foodie Trail tour here.
Kayak at Butcher Jones Beach
One of the most fun things to do in Mesa is kayaking at Butcher Jones Beach. If you’re staying at Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch, they can set-up a kayak tour for you, or you can rent kayaks from one of the local kayak companies in Mesa.
Butcher Jones Beach is the perfect calm spot to take off and explore more of Saguaro Lake. Even in November, the sun was shining brightly and we enjoyed the scenery of the steep cliff faces and cacti looking down at us from above.
It was easily one of the most impressive areas I explored in Mesa.
Horseback Riding with Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch
Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch has their own stable below the ranch, so if you stay on the property (or even if you don’t), horseback riding is a must in Mesa. This is another Arizona experience that is quintessential to visiting the state.
I hadn’t been horseback riding since I was a preteen, so I was a tad anxious when I first got on my horse. However, I know that horses have a gift of sensing human emotions well, so I tried to quell my nerves and just have fun with the tour and my friendly horse, Cheyanne.
And it was easy to do that with the humor and professionalism of our guides – Caleb, Ron, and Lindsay. You could tell that they knew exactly what they were doing, and loved what they did being outside all day with the horses and the Arizona landscape.
One of the guides, Caleb was behind me for the whole ride, telling great dad jokes and in general just having a grand ol’ time. Ron, the stable owner, ran the whole show and was knowledgable about any questions that were thrown his way.
We did one of the beginner horseback riding trails and it was just as stunning as the kayaking at Butcher Jones Beach. Even though I was in Arizona for almost a week, the pop of colors around the desert never failed to surprise me, and this ride was no different.
Hiking in Mesa, AZ
The Sonoran Desert, where Mesa is located, is worth getting out in nature to explore. Out of the 25 deserts in the world it’s the most biodiverse.
To give you an idea of just how diverse it is, there are 2500 different native plants, 70 different mammals, 100 different reptiles, 30 different native desert fish (yes, it’s a thing), and 20 different species of amphibians.
Yeah, it’s not just cacti out there. Although there are a lot of different cacti too (300 native types to be exact)!
Not to mention the ancient people have lived in this desert for 12,000 years, so there is a ton of history to be discovered around the desert and through hiking it.
Ursery Regional Park is the place to go hiking in Mesa AZ, so those are the desert trails I would recommend starting with if you only have a couple of days in town. Plus, the trails are very well maintained.
There’s also a good variety of short and long hikes, so even if you only have a few hours to go hiking, you can find a trail that will take you to some beautiful spots, and cacti.
These are a couple of the hikes I’d recommend tackling in Ursery Regional Park:
1.5 miles roundtrip | 1-1.5 hours | Easy to Moderate
The most popular hike in Ursery and a good option if you’re short on time, this hike is pretty much a straight up and down, but the view from the top is well worth the effort to get up there. You can see for miles once you get to the top.
Just make sure to bring a lot of sunscreen and water since there isn’t a ton of shade on this trail.
7.5 mile loop | 3-4 hours | Moderate to Difficult
A personal favorite of Ranger Brennan who works at Ursery Regional Park. Pass Mountain is a good option if you’re interested in more of a challenging, less popular hike and have a good half day to complete it.
This is another hike that rises quite a bit in elevation, 1200 ft to be exact, but the views of the Salt River valley and the Superstition Mountains are unparalleled.
3 miles roundtrip | 1.5-2 hours | Moderate
If you have more time and want to go a bit further out, the best hiking near Mesa, AZ is further into the Tonto National Forest, especially around the Superstition Wilderness area.
The Wave Cave is a popular trail that offers great views over the valley, and even features wild flowers during the spring/early summer.
Regardless of which trail you choose, hiking is one of the best free things to do in Mesa, AZ, without a doubt.
Museums in Mesa, AZ
If you enjoy mixing culture with outdoorsy activities, you’ll be happy to know that Mesa has a few good museums to visit while you’re in town.
The Mesa museum to visit is the Arizona Museum of Natural History. If you’re into dinosaurs and prehistoric history, this is a great museum to stop in at, especially if you’re traveling Mesa with kids.
It actually has the largest dinosaur exhibit west of the Mississippi, and goes into local Native American history in the area as well.
Other notable museums that are worth a visit in town include i.d.e.a. Museum (for kids) and the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum at the Mesa Arts Center (there are also a lot of cultural Mesa events that happen here on a regular basis, so check their online schedule).
Cloth & Flame Dinner Experience
One of the most magical experiences I had in Mesa was going to a Cloth & Flame dinner.
The dinner was out in the desert amongst the Superstition Wilderness, with family-style seating at a huge table, and a delicious meal (and cocktails) at sunset.
It was something out of a glossy travel magazine or Pinterest feed, aka it gave me all the feels of the magic that attention to detail and a good eye for design can bring.
Their farm-to-table community dinners are always in different locations, but always in the wilderness to stress the importance of having more of a connection to the land and nature (and the need to preserve it).
It’s a relatively new company but their dinners have become so popular that they book out months in advance now. So, if you are thinking of doing a Cloth & Flame dinner while you’re in Mesa, try and book ASAP. It’s worth the price and planning.
You can find more about how to book and what they do here.
Other Things to Do Around Mesa County
Goldfield Ghost Town
30 minute drive from downtown Mesa or Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch
If you want a true feel for the Wild West, especially if you’ve never experienced a ghost town before, Goldfield should be your first stop just outside of Mesa.
The first goldstrike around this area happened in 1892, and the Goldfield township was created soon after. Although its heyday was in the 1890s, the town had residents until 1926 before becoming a ghost town.
Today, they’ve reconstructed Goldfield to look like it did in the late 1800s. You can walk down Main Street to explore its historic shops, museum, pan for gold, watch daily gunfights, and go on underground mine tours. There’s even a zipline for the more adventurous traveler.
Canyon Lake Vista Lookout
15 minute drive from Goldfield, 50 minute drive from downtown Mesa or Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch
If you’re planning on stopping in at Tortilla Flat from Goldfield, you will have to make a quick stop at Canyon Lake Vista for stunning views over the lake.
The juxtaposition of the blues from the lake with the dusty bronze rocks and desert landscape are a sight to see, and a great place to stretch your legs.
15 minute drive from Canyon Vista Lookout, 1 hour drive from downtown Mesa or Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch
This part of Arizona is all about those western vibes, so it only makes sense to visit a couple of places that embody that Wild West feel.
Tortilla Flat is a little further into the Tonto National Forest from Goldfield, and another small Arizona town (or more specifically, small unincorporated community) that has kept its historic feel.
Although, this one isn’t a ghost town – there are still 6 residents who live here, so, really, it’s a bustling community.
From its beginnings, the town has always been an important stop along the Apache Trail, first starting out as a stagecoach stop in 1904. In fact, it’s the last surviving stagecoach stop on the Apache Trail to this day.
You can sit atop saddles at a bar and drink sarsaparilla (or whisky like a true cowboy), and eat a big bowl of chili while admiring the dollar bill wallpaper. Just don’t forget to grab a prickly pear ice cream before you leave, it’s an Arizona delicacy!
Tell me – Have you been to Mesa, AZ before? What would you be most interested in seeing in Arizona?
Note: I was a guest of Visit Mesa during my trip to Arizona but all opinions, as always, are my own.
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