The Art of Adventure in Mesa, Arizona
Paddle, Hike and Horseback Ride on a Desert Holiday
Dreamscapes, Winter 2021/22
My son and I glide soundlessly in a kayak across Saguaro Lake in Arizona. Our only companions is the great blue heron fishing for breakfast in the shallows along the shore, and the stately saguaros reflected on the reservoir’s glassy surface. Their arms seem to beckon us deeper into the canyon, where water from the Salt River courses in shadow.
The previous day, cacti in Tonto National Forest had dripped with rain during a downpour on a trail ride at nearby Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch. Drenched from the squall yesterday, and splashed by water with every dip of my paddle today, I can’t help but think we’re surrounded by an awful lot of water in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. It’s one of the many surprises we discover in Mesa, the state’s third largest city located just east of Phoenix.
From the solitude of our peaceful watercraft, you’d never guess that a metropolis of half a million people is just a 30-minute drive away, where the red quartzite rocks of the desert give way to a uniform of terracotta suburbs. That wilderness-city juxtaposition, combined with 300 days of annual sunshine and average winter temperatures of about 20C, makes Mesa an ideal destination for outdoor adventures. On this trip with my son, we check off as many activities as possible.
Saguaro Lake is part of a system of lakes and rivers that make up the Lower Salt River Recreation Area inside Tonto National Forest, just on the edge of the city. Getting out on the water is not only a good workout, but a great way to see the dramatic desert landscape as you drift past it.
Saguaro Lake is the closest recreational body of water to Mesa, and kayak tours and rentals are available through the Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch. You can even go tubing on the Salt River from the main lodge! For paddling right in Mesa, No Snow SUP, owned by Canadian expats, rents paddle boards and a few kayaks. With advance notice they can deliver them to a put-in on the Salt River and provide lessons, if needed.
Usery Mountain Regional Park is a favourite spot to hike, with 51 kms of trails that range from a short interpretive loop with signage to help hikers learn about the park’s plants, animals and geology, to the steep Wind Cave Trail, a popular trek to the top of Pass Mountain. We opt for the intermediate Vista Trail, with rewarding views of the Superstition Mountains on the horizon, and an arid wilderness of saguaros, mesquite bushes and palo verde trees in between.
Right in Mesa is the Hawes Loop Trail, a 3.2-km hike with red-rock views, cacti for miles, and wildflowers in the spring. Slightly farther afield but worth the effort to get there is the 2.4-km one-way Hieroglyphic Trail in the Superstition Mountains. It leads through a scenic canyon where seasonal pools of water belie the desert landscape. The trail ends at the sight of ancient petroglyph rock art that was etched onto the weathered stone centuries ago.
About 500 wild horses roam the land between the Lower Salt River, Saguaro Lake and adjacent Tonto National Forest. You’d think getting out on the backs of domestic horses would increase our chances of spying these symbols of freedom, but no. “We do see coyotes,” says our guide from the Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch as he leads our steeds up a rocky trail into the Goldfield Mountains that abut Mesa. He adds, “I saw one down by the river the other day.”
But instead of the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote or even a roadrunner, we admire yellow palo verde flowers and imposing ironwood trees that stand out in a cactus-dominated landscape. Our horses cover more steep and uneven ground on a two-hour trail ride than we could ever hope to on foot, and we get to feel like wild west cowpokes for a morning.
With more than 64 kms of bike lanes paired with access to numerous desert mountain biking trails, Mesa was named one of the top 10 American cities for pedal heads by Forbes magazine. Road warriors can pedal past rows of saguaro cacti on the popular Ellsworth Road path toward Usery Mountain Regional Park, while single-track mountain bikers whoop it up on the maze of trails in the Superstition Wilderness.
For a shorter ride right in town, the new Rio Salado Pathway parallels the Salt River and connects Mesa’s two MLB baseball stadiums including Mesa Riverview Park, with a huge playground and public fishing ponds. Along the route you’ll notice numerous public art installations that add colour and interest to the ride. Rent two wheels from Archer’s Bikes and it’s less than a five-kilometre pedal to the paved path.
When we aren’t on a trail or on the water, my son and I enjoy wandering compact downtown Mesa. We walk between Pioneer Park, the Arizona Museum of Natural History, and the i.d.e.a. Museum, which is a children’s museum with a focus on art and interactive exhibits. Along the way, we pass whimsical sculptures like a giant pig, as well as numerous colourful murals that reflect Mesa’s southwestern heritage and culture. It’s fair to say this dose of culture helps us perfect the “art” of adventure in Mesa.
When we return to Canada my son can’t decide what he liked best about our time in the desert city—ironically, it’s a toss up between horseback riding in the rain and paddling on the water.
Located on the Salt River in the shadow of the sheer Bulldog Cliffs, the Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch has 20 rustic cabins and offers a range of activities, from horseback riding to kayaking. saguarolakeranch.com
For something different, try glamping in a restored airstream trailer at Schnepf Farms near the hiking trails of San Tan Mountain Regional Park. schnepffarms.com
For a taste of the southwest (and the best margaritas in Mesa), Rancho de Tia Rosa is a local favourite for the food and the decor—you’ll think you’re dining inside an authentic Mexican pueblo house. ranchodetiarosa.com
Sam & Luca Rustic Kitchen serves artistically-plated, simple Italian fare in an open, modern space. samandlucaaz.com
For Mesa travel information see visitmesa.com