Call me clueless but I didn’t appreciate that Mesa, Arizona is the third largest city in the state or even a city in its own right despite more than a dozen trips to the Phoenix – Scottsdale area over the years. Mesa has in fact been named the best city for Outdoor Lovers by Money Magazine!

What makes Mesa an awesome city for outdoors lovers like me?

Lots as I discovered over a couple of days including easy access to the Lower Salt River, four lakes within spitting distance, the world-class, unbelievably scenic Apache Trail, mountain and road biking, hiking trails with attendant bird life and wildlife in both the Superstition Mountains and Usery Mountain Regional Park (among others), goat yoga (not a typo) and skies so dark that with the right telescope you can see the rings of Saturn.

Here’s a look at some of the fun outdoor adventures you can experience when you visit Mesa.

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Horseback riders checking out the desert scenery in Mesa with Fort McDowell Adventures

Mountain bike in Usery Mountain Regional Park

Located 20 miles due east of Mesa and just 45 minutes away from downtown Phoenix, Usery Mountain Regional Park is home to roughly 20 miles of trails. Arizona Outback Adventures, with one of the biggest bike rental fleets in the country, offers custom guided tours. Their guides will teach you a lot about the desert environment every time you stop to catch your breath.

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

While it was snowing in Calgary I was mountain biking in Mesa, Arizona

The first thing I learn is that no matter how pretty the cholla cactus looks, it will feel like 100 hypodermic needles if you get a cholla ball on you. I avoid it at all costs.

Do not go near the cholla cactus

Do not go near the cholla cactus or you’ll be very sorry!

I also learn that the barrel cactus points south – a handy factoid should I ever get lost in the desert. And according to Ranger B (who I encourage you to meet if you stop in at the Visitor Centre) the 3.5 – 5 inch long grasshopper mouse is “the Charles Manson of the desert.” It celebrates its kills by throwing back its head and yelling. Unfortunately I didn’t see that mouse.

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Barrel cacti – as pictured in the foreground point south

The bottom line when it comes to mountain biking here; its fun, mostly easy and the trails are exceptionally scenic in this park. In the spring with the desert wildflowers in bloom it would be even more stunning.

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Whatever you do don’t fall off into a cholla cactus

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Easy mountain biking trails in Usery Mountain Regional Park

Kayak and float the Lower Salt River

There’s something quite wonderful about being in a kayak on a river in the Sonoran Desert – the most bio-diverse desert in the world. It affords an opportunity to see a lot of birds and vegetation you don’t see when you hike or bike.

We paddle only about four miles at a leisurely pace on the Lower Salt River. It’s almost meditative – at least most of the time. At a couple of locations where the current speeds up, some attention to keeping the kayak heading in the direction of the current is required – at least for a minute or two. Then we go back to relaxing. I look around at the people in our group and everyone is sporting a smile. It’s a feel-good activity the whole family can enjoy.

Easy kayaking on the Lower Salt River near Mesa, Arizona

What a treat to be on the water in Arizona – and kayaking in November

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

You don’t need any prior kayaking experience to have fun paddling the Lower Salt River

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Really lovely paddling on the lower Salt River with lots of bird life along the edges of the river

Try Arizona’s Goat Yoga

As they say at Arizona Goat Yoga“how can you be sad when there is a goat walking by?” 

It’s hard not to be swept up with all things goat when you arrive at Welcome Home Ranch where goat yoga is held. When I’m cuddling a three day old goat, downward dogs are the furthest thing from my mind.

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Cuddling a 3 day old goat before I start my yoga session

Goat yoga classes sell out quickly so you can expect to see 100 people in a giant circle around partners Sarah Williams of Desert Paddleboards, April Gould, owner of the goats and about a half dozen goats. When the yoga finally gets underway (it’s hard to tear yourself away from a baby goat!) we are spread out so we all have room to go through some traditional yoga moves. But after 15 minutes the goats take over and the thread of the class is lost. It doesn’t seem to bother anybody – as long as they get a photo of themselves with a goat on their back. We pile in together, as seen in the photo below so we can have the goats bound over our backs. And we make human pyramids with the goats on top. Whether goat yoga is just a craze I don’t know. But I do know that at the end of the 45 minute class I see a lot of smiling faces. Goats live up to their reputation of relieving daily stresses – unless you’re the poor guy that was peed upon.

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

100 goat yoga enthusiasts in Mesa

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

The goats are definitely a crowd pleaser

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Apparently one of the hazards of goat yoga is being peed upon – at least this guy had a great attitude

Take a boat ride on the inner waterways of the “junior Grand Canyon”

You get a taste of Grand Canyon scenery driving the Apache Trail but for a close-up experience nothing beats a 90 minute boat ride on the Dolly Steamboat. Yes, it’s a little touristy, but when you stand outside and watch millions of years of geologic history unfold and when you see a family of big-horned sheep high up in the hills you forget the other tourists and marvel at the scene before you. They also offer astronomy dinner cruises which would be pretty darned interesting given the night skies here. If you do the trip with Detour Tours, you’ll be sure to be one of the first onboard so you can nab the best seats.

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Preparing to get on the Dolly Steamboat for a 90 minute nature cruise

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Is that for real?

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Marvelous Canyon Lake scenery

Sign up for a sunset Jeep tour and Astronomy Stargazing 

One of the unexpected highlights of my trip to Mesa turned out to be the Stellar Adventures tour. Via a ride in a Hummer (a first time in one for me) we were bounced up a rutted jeep track to Hummer Point to watch the sunset. Arizona is famous for its richly coloured sunsets and this one did not disappoint.

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Beautiful desert scenery on the way up to Hummer Point

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Local photographer Kevin Kaminski in my sunset shot

From there we continued on with the skies darkening to meet up with Arizona State University astronomer Aaron Boyd for some serious stargazing. The night skies here are inky dark and his scope is massive. Over a few hours Aaron zeros in on constellations, stars and even Saturn – with its rings visible. We take turns having a look – and on the side many of us work away on our night photography.

The only advice I have is take warm clothes for the frigid, open air drive home. The minute the sun goes down in the desert, it takes the temperature with it. This is a tour I HIGHLY recommend.

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

The massive telescope used by astonomer Aaron Boyd

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Desert scene in fading light

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers - includes stargazing into the inky black skies

Watching the full moon rise

Hike to Wind Cave, Usery Mountain Regional Park

Usery Mountain Regional Park offers tremendous hiking opportunities including the 3.2 mile return hike to Wind Cave along a saguaro studded trail.  It requires a bit of huffing and puffing with an elevation gain of 850 feet but you’re rewarded with stellar views of the valley. You can actually continue to the summit on an un-maintained trail – and leave all but the hardiest behind. If there’s a birder in the group they’ll be stopping a lot to try and identify the 400 native bird species that call the Sonoran desert home. Fast hikers can knock off the trail in 90 minutes; casual strollers could take up to three hours.

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

The start of the hike to the Wind Cave

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Expansive views of the Sonoran Desert from the Wind Cave

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Wind Cave

With over 325 sunny days a year you can pretty much count on great weather when you visit Mesa. And there’s plenty more to do than what I’ve described – especially for foodies with the just launched Fresh Foodie Trail. I also spent a few hours checking out the Goldfield Ghost Town – and that included a narrated underground mine tour that wasn’t as claustrophobic as I thought it might be.

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Don’t miss a chance to go underground

I dined at Tortilla Flat, an historic stop on the Apache Trail. When you stop for a meal take note of the thousands of $US1 bills literally plastered all over the walls. Don’t leave without trying prickly pear ice cream.

• Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

Saddle up and have lunch at Tortilla Flat and admire the $1 bills plastered all over the walls

Getting to Mesa, Arizona

For those of you flying in from Calgary or Edmonton there are now direct flights via West Jet to Mesa along with direct flights to Phoenix. In the US you can fly directly into Mesa on Allegiant Air. The Phoenix Airport is about 20 minutes from Mesa.

Why Mesa, Arizona is an Awesome City for Outdoor Lovers

A huge thank you to Visit Mesa for making my two jam-packed days fun and eye opening. There’s plenty more I’d like to do in your area; cue a backpacking trip through the Superstition Mountains and glamping at Schnepf Farms on a peach farm.

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
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Join the discussion One Comment

  • Cindy says:

    So glad you discovered some of my favorite “Phoenix” attractions! (And yes, it is even more beautiful when the flowers are blooming.) However, that night tour is not one I’ve ever done – think I’ll have to add that to the list for one of my next visits! Downtown Mesa has lots of art things, which I love to add to the outdoor list. And, just as a warning for your next trip, even a dead cholla is dangerous, although not nearly as bad as a live one. At least, as far as my hiking boots could tell! I’ll be a LOT more respectful of those dead bits on the ground from now on!

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