It’s a glorious late-April day in this patch of the Sonoran Desert in Mesa, Arizona. We are hiking the Wind Cave Trail in Usery Mountain Regional Park.
The twisty-turny, gently ascending path puts us smack in the middle of a lush landscape — a palate of blooming palo verde trees and multiple cactuses that, with their soft greens and yellows, mimic an impressionistic painting.
A hiker on his way down declares, “I’m great, thanks. My front yard in South Dakota is filled with snow right now, but I’m here.”
At the top of this popular, 2.9-mile, out-and-back trail, we behold the seemingly endless Valley of the Sun. The panorama includes the homes of some half-million residents who live in Mesa, Arizona’s third-largest city. Sometimes overshadowed by neighboring Phoenix, Mesa and nearby points east nevertheless offer plenty for visitors, and lodging there provides a better bang for your buck.
Although we’ve made numerous visits to Arizona, this is our first close encounter with Mesa — its outdoors, historic and educational destinations, and the area’s thriving agritourism. Here are some of the not-to-miss destinations:
Hawes Trail System — Thanks to monetary donations and the work of many volunteers, residents and visitors alike can bicycle, hike and horseback ride through 62 miles of trails that weave through the Tonto National Forest in northeast Mesa.
Arizona Museum of Natural History — Fun for all ages but particularly for dinosaur lovers. Features numerous life-size dino skeletons and the multi-level, 75 million-year-old Dinosaur Mountain, complete with animatronic animals and powerful waterfall. Second floor: an exceptional exhibit of exquisite Native American artwork fashioned from beads, bones, yarn, leather, grasses and shells.
Downtown Mesa — Thanks to the Central Main Plan, enacted in 2012 by the Mesa City Council, Mesa’s urban core has experienced a revival. The Valley Metro Light Rail runs down the center of a well-appointed thoroughfare that includes new restaurants, shops, breweries, outdoor amphitheater, performing and arts complex, and academic center for Arizona State University students.
Organ Stop Pizza — This Mesa icon (opened 1975) features the multi-talented organist Glenn Tallar who makes seats rumble and walls vibrate when he goes full-throttle on the Mighty Wurlitzer. The largest of its kind in the world (6,000 pipes powered by four huge turbine blowers), the organ also delivers an impressive light show. Tallar’s repertoire includes pop songs, show tunes, movie scores and patriotic pomp and circumstance. Menu includes gluten-free pizza.
Agritourism — Mesa’s roots are in agriculture, and the popularity of fresh and locally sourced food has propelled the development of the area’s Fresh Foodie Trail. This includes “bougie-rustic”
Queen Creek Olive Mill — Arizona’s only working olive farm and mill. Visitors can enjoy a relaxed lunch under the covered, misted patio, then join an Olive Oil 101 class that explains the process of growing, harvesting and pressing olives, and how to discern high-quality olive oil from the mediocre. The farm has 7,000 trees on 100 acres. The market offers gourmet foods and (hooray) gelato. Multiple tables in an adjacent grove offer plenty of picnic tables.
Agritopia — Just southeast of downtown Mesa in Gilbert, nestled in the bend of the 202 Loop, is this 166-acre former homestead that has been parlayed into a planned community with space preserved for an urban farm (sells certified organic produce), restaurants, breweries, wineries and a market that sells locally handcrafted goods and foods. Wine for breakfast? Garage East has it. It’s citrusy, fizzy, refreshing. If barbecue is your thing, head for Jalapeno Bucks, immensely popular with locals who come for a fix of Bucks’ signature salsas and sauces. Fresh local citrus sold in season next door.