The outdoors in Mesa wait year-round for discovery. While the Sonoran Desert delivers the opportunity for hiking mountain tops, there are also views from above in a hot air balloon and plenty of occasions for exploring by bicycle or horseback. You might not expect two hidden gems: rich waters for kayaking and boating, plus a scenic drive along the Apache Trail.
Invited by Visit Mesa to explore the abundance of outdoor activities on a hosted trip, I spent three days hiking Usery Mountain, kayaking the Salt River with the Superstition Mountains as a backdrop, a spectacular drive along the Apache Trail, and ended with a steamboat ride on Canyon Lake in the Tonto National Forest. To say it was stunning is an understatement. I expected the desert views and scenic mountains but was unprepared for the breathtaking beauty of the waterways.
Here are seven excellent outdoor activities in Mesa, Arizona.
1. Hike At Usery Mountain Regional Park
There are 29 trails — ranging from 0.2 miles to over 7 miles — at Usery Mountain Regional Park, offering hikes for various fitness levels. On my visit, we chose the Vista Trail, which involved a fairly rugged uphill climb in the beginning, but once up-top, the hike was easier with views of the Superstition Mountains and the valley below. The downward hike was a little tricky, with loose sand and rocks to finagle on the way down. Once down on flat land again, the longest part of the hike — or so it seemed because the sun had come out on our morning hike and temps were near 90 degrees — is a wide, easy path looping back around the mountain.
Another popular trail is the Wind Cave Trail that climbs to 2,840 feet and visits Wind Cave.
Usery Mountain is the best place to see desert flora in the area. The majestic saguaro cactus blooms were starting, and the delicate beauty of the flowers was a stark contrast to the rustic massiveness of the cactus. We saw plenty of barrel cactus, known as an emergency source for drinking water, and also the jumping cholla cactus that seems to “jump” onto you if you get too close. My guide said many people carry combs to help detach the spiny segments once they attach to skin or clothing. Stay on the trail and you won’t encounter them.
There were plenty of wildlife sightings as well, mostly small chipmunks and lizards. Stop at the nature center to see some of the indigenous critters of the area.
Pro Tip: In addition to hiking, the park is popular for mountain biking and horseback riding.
2. Tour An Olive Farm And Mill
The Queen Creek Olive Mill is a destination in and of itself. Part of the Fresh Foodie Trail, this family-owned business has gardens for their restaurant, olive trees for milling, a restaurant, event space, and store that sells olive oil, vinegars, baked goods, specialty products, and skincare products made with olive oil. The area is known for its fertile soil. The combination of warm days and cool desert nights creates an optimal growing condition for the olive trees. Take a Olive Oil 101 tour and learn about the growing, harvesting, and milling process. You’ll get an education on what makes extra virgin olive oil unique and sample some flavor combinations. After, dine outside in the olive grove — there are misters to combat the dry heat — and sample the Tuscan-inspired menu. We tasted several starters including the Antipasto Board, three types of Bruschetta, and the Arancini, delicious balls of risotto stuffed with mozzarella, grana Padano, and fresh basil, then coated in bread crumbs and fried.
3. Visit A Residential And Agricultural Community
Agritopia is home to community gardens, cutting-edge businesses, and homes designed as an urban farm. You can purchase that’s day’s harvest at The Farm Stand, taste the day’s bounty in a meal at Joe’s Farm Grill and The Coffee Shop, sample local wine at Garage-East, U-Pick whatever is in season, take a farm tour, or visit Barnone, a maker’s market space. All of the farms follow USDA organic protocol. At Garage-East, enjoy a wine tasting, a private wine dinner, get your wine to go (they will can any wine on tap for you), listen to live music outdoors, and if they’re not too busy, get a custom blend created just for your palate and interests.
4. Kayak On The Salt River
If ever there was an ideal setting for a float on a river, it’s the Salt River with its gentle current and views of the Sonoran Desert and the Superstition Mountains. The river winds through the Tonto National Forest and delivers a relaxing day on the water.
Set off on a self-guided kayak or inner tube journey on the Lower Salt River from Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch. Once on the water, we paddled upstream a bit to gauge how comfortable we were in the kayaks. Then it was downstream for breathtaking scenery, slight rapids (that sounded scarier than they were), and magnificent views of wild horses.
They have cottages for rent if you want to spend a few days at Saguaro Lake Ranch hiking, kayaking, and horseback riding.
Read about the Casa Grande National Monument and other ancient ruins in National Parks.
5. Drive The Apache Trail
The historic Apache Trail travels through the Superstition Mountains and into the foothills of the Tonto National Forest. The entire trail is 120 miles and is named after the Native Americans who originally used the trail to migrate through the mountains. This mountain drive has twists and turns and spectacular views that had me gasping at every turn as I was immersed in such natural beauty.
There are three stops to visit along the route. The first is the Superstition Mountain Museum. There, you can tour a small museum, then walk outdoors to see a mining town and film sets, including the chapel where Elvis Presley filmed Charro!
Read more about the Apache Trail and other scenic drives in Arizona.
6. Visit A Ghost Town
The next stop along the Apache Trail is Goldfield Ghost Town. This tourist destination is a former town called Goldfield that’s heyday was during the first gold strike in 1892. Walk through town and see gunfights, shop the souvenir and artisan shops, enjoy some ice cream, or stop for live music and dinner with a prickly pear margarita at Mammoth Steakhouse and Saloon. After dinner, try ziplining, a train ride, or tour the underground mine.
7. Take A Steamboat Cruise On Canyon Lake
About 13 miles further — and 20-some more minutes of breathtaking views on the Apache Trail — you’ll arrive at Tortilla Flat, an authentic Old West town located near Canyon Lake. The town was originally a stagecoach stop in 1904 and consists of a row of businesses along a boardwalk. Step inside the Superstition Saloon and Restaurant for some of their infamous, and incredibly spicy, chili and a mug of sarsaparilla. The barstools are made from real saddles and there are dollar bills pasted on nearly every wall and shelf throughout the saloon. After, grab a scoop of prickly pear gelato at the Country Store.
Just a couple minute’s drive from Tortilla Flat is Canyon Lake. At an elevation of 1,660 feet, this man-made lake sits in the middle of nature. With no homes along the lake, it feels as if you’ve stepped back into time and found a natural setting untainted by time. There are more than 28 miles of shoreline, sheer rock faces and formations, natural caves, coves, and plenty of bird sightings. Also be on the lookout for Big Horn Sheep, deer, and javelina.
Rent a boat, bring your own, or take a nature cruise on the Dolly Steamboat. The 90-minute cruise takes you around the lake as the captain points out land formations, birds, and tells the area’s history.
Pro Tip: If you’re still wanting to explore more of the outdoors, consider viewing the Sonoran Desert from above in a hot air balloon or staying on-ground with a horseback riding tour.
Ready for more? Read how to spend a day in Mesa, Arizona.