Prickly cacti, rocky cliff sides, hot air balloon rides and refreshing lakes can all be found just 30 minutes outside of the capital city of Phoenix in Mesa, Arizona. A scenic retreat from the cosmopolitan metropolis of Phoenix, Mesa is Arizona’s third largest city and is for all of us that seek a small dose of adrenaline with our holiday. And with so many things to do in Mesa, Arizona, you really get to explore the West at its best.
Whether you came to bask in the wide open horizons or live out your 3:10 to Yuma fantasy, there are loads of adventures that take you anywhere from the tippity top of the morning glory clouds to the deep depths of a carved canyon. But beyond the call of the wild thrill, Mesa is also home to a rich cultural history full of clever canal engineering for an agricultural oasis.
Here are some of the best ways to soak in all the natural beauty Mesa provides.
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A (Short) History of Mesa, Arizona
Mesa should be considered an engineering marvel, because nothing would be standing today without the dedication and clever construction of the canal system by the Hohokam people. This canal system led to the ability to irrigate which then led to a thriving agriculture scene. And with that agriculture came the ability to trade.
Around the city, you can still hear some of the names of the native people that called the area home, such as Maricopa, Apache and Pima. But according to the Mesa Historical Museum the area wasn’t a permanent settlement. Kinda like summering in the Hamptons, but way more budget-friendly.
Nothing permanent stood until the US Army set up Fort McDowell. And as a real Field of Dreams moment “if you build it they will come.” And boy did they come – the Mormons that is.
“The Mesa Company” was made up of traveling Mormons. And as it turns out, the name Mesa actually came from Mormon settlers establishing themselves in the area.
Mesa is nestled on a flat plateau above the valley, kinda like a dining room table. And coined by the first Spanish explorers through the southwest, they often called these beauties “tables” or more accurately in their native Spanish language – Mesa!
So this native american land has a Spanish name from a Mormon settlement….yeah.
Best time to visit Mesa, Arizona
Fall is the most ideal time to visit Mesa. In early fall, September averages can still carry over some summer temps with around 98 degrees for any leftover summer splash activities and the snowbirds haven’t quite arrived yet.
From there the weather just continues to cool, and by the time November rolls around, the season closes out around 74 degrees – which is basically a balmy midwest summer.
But summer might be one of the worst times to visit. In summer, it can feel as though you are literally touching the sun with its dry heat, and temperatures can soar up to 106 F. However, if you are planning a summer trip you can still find plenty of things to do.
I also came in the summer (learned the hard way) but found certain activities not so bad when I scheduled them very early in the day when the air was a little cooler. Also, make sure you plan something indoors around noon when it’s towards the hottest part of the day.
Things to do in Mesa, Arizona
While outdoor activities are in abundance in Mesa, there are plenty of culturally rich interests as well. Curated museums, sightseeing tours, and guided adventures are all available to plan yourself the perfect mix of fun and history. Here are the best things to do in Mesa, Arizona.
Things to do in Mesa, Arizona By Air
With wide open skies and colorfully painted horizons, Mesa is one of the most beautiful places in the world to soak in the rays and glow in the sunset golden hour. Here are some of the best activities to get a view from above in Mesa.
Take a Hot Air Balloon Ride
Here in Kentucky hot air balloons have a very special place in my heart. Every year leading up to Derby week, Louisville hosts a hot air balloon glow the night before the annual Great Balloon Race.
So actually being able to ride in the woven basket was on my bucket list for years!
Seeing the city from above was probably one of the biggest highlights of the trip. The ride was incredibly smooth as you stop to take in the completely unobstructed view all around you of the first rays of the morning sun over the desert landscape.
And boy let me tell you, the bird’s eye view is breathtaking (almost) literally. Up in the sky felt meditative. The air was crisp and cold, but because we were floating with the wind, the sound was quiet and serene. Definitely made up for the extremely early start time, waking up before sunrise is not exactly ya girl’s strong point.
Explore the Arizona Commemorative Air Force Museum
History museum and working aircraft hangar, Arizona Commemorative Air force Museum is an up-close look at authentic aircrafts from WWI and beyond.
I don’t really have any ties to the military in my family, however I do enjoy learning history. My husband on the other hand is a huge aviation nerd. Anytime we fly, he’s trying to talk to commercial pilots about engines and navigation, and I’m just like how do you remember all those letters and numbers?!?
Well this museum is full of aviation treasures. Mint condition aircrafts you can get up-close and personal with, and a few you can even check out from the inside. Your Instagram is gonna look like an audition portfolio for a USO Tour.
The most impressive part of the museum is definitely the opportunity to fly. Although a pretty hefty splurge, the museum offers regular flights in their iconic planes. And if you’re like my husband you might squeal to know you can take flight in a B-17G, B-25J, or other combat-style planes. To which again I ask the question – HOW DO YOU REMEMBER ALL THOSE LETTERS AND NUMBERS?!?!?!
But don’t fear if you’re a nervous flier, there’s plenty of other things to enjoy within the museum. Historical memorabilia, first-hand stories from veteran pilots, and a look at just how tight quarters the cockpit really is.
The Air Force Museum is open from 10am to 4pm and is closed Monday and Tuesday. And check out their calendar for air shows and special events.
Brave the Superstition Zipline
Anytime I come across a zipline while on vacation, I’ve gotta do it. The rushing speed, bird’s eye view and unique terrain view are like my version of a theme park rollercoaster.
But I’m gonna shoot it straight with you, Superstition Zipline is a teensy bit hokey, but I don’t mind because the view from up top is beautiful. The zipline is located within Goldfield Ghost Town, which is a perfect destination if you’re looking for a family-friendly activity.
Unlike a traditional cable-tight zipline, here you are treated to a two-seater chair, kinda like a ski lift. So it’s a more leisurely ride across, which gives you a moment to take a video or picture for your Insta reel. Sure it might feel a bit touristy, but it’s a quick activity and doesn’t require a reservation ahead of time, so if you’re in the area I say “Go for it!”
However if you are looking for a family-friendly activity I would definitely suggest sticking around to check out the mine tour, gold panning, and gunfighter show also inside the Goldfield Ghost Town. This place definitely serves kitschy roadside attraction realness!
Things to do in Mesa, Arizona By water
Flowing water is not often associated with the Grand Canyon state, but reservoirs like Saguaro Lake, Canyon Lake and Salt River are an oasis of fun. A great way to cool down from blistering temperatures. Here are some of the best ways to enjoy Mesa by water.
Hop Aboard the Dolly Steamboat
Maybe I have an unnatural fascination with steamboats (I mean I do live next to the historic Belle of Louisville), OR maybe there’s just something universally enchanting about the wrap-around decks and giant paddlewheel that make me feel like I’m in a murder mystery about to be solved by detective Hercule Poirot.
What clues would Poirot find? Perhaps he noted the exact time of day by calculating the sun’s shadow as we sailed through the Superstition Mountains. Or maybe he discovered while everyone was busy admiring the thirsty bighorn sheep along the cruise route, the captain had a suspicious motive. Am I getting carried away? Of course I am, but it’s a curse of being a lifelong theatre kid.
In all seriousness though, the Dolly Steamboat cruise is such a special way to absorb the sights of the Superstition Mountains and Canyon Lake. Daytime Scenic Nature cruises take sail multiple times throughout the day. The route winds through the mountains revealing native wildlife like desert mule deers, bighorn sheep, and the national bald eagle himself. The journey feels a bit majestic and peaceful as you sail through the timeworn canyons.
And if you’re looking to increase your enchantment up a notch (aren’t we always?) the Twilight Dinner Cruise is anything but a sparkly vampire. As the sky sets in brushed strokes of pink, orange and purple above the tip of the mountain ridges, you can soak it all in from the top deck for the golden hour to end all golden hours.
It is recommended that you make reservations in advance as the cruises can fill up. It’s also recommended that you arrive 30 minutes early because the boat waits for no one and if you are late your reservation can be given to someone else.
Go Tubing Down a (Somewhat) Lazy River
I’m from the midwest, so any kind of water sport is usually contained to a hoaky-themed water park. And I do use the term “water sport” very loosely as my favorite is of course the Lazy River. So when I discovered Salt River Tubing, it was as they say in the biz – a done deal!
Gracefully gliding down river lanes between deep canyons and cacti forests, sightseeing is just an added bonus. The inflatable lounge rings are the best seat in the house for views of the volcanic mountain ranges. Did I mention the river is also a popular watering hole for local horses? Amazing sights are just a part of the fun.
It doesn’t actually cost anything to tube on Salt River if you provide your own tubes and coordinate your own transportation from the end of the route. However, Salt River Tubing provides tube rentals and an ongoing shuttle for a very reasonable rate when considering how many hours of fun and relaxation you can spend on the water course.
Just remember to wear water shoes for entering and exiting the river, and to pack extra sunscreen to reapply during the journey.
It should also be noted that unlike a slow water park lazy river, Salt River has a bit more of a natural motor to the flow. Not quite a rapid speed, but definitely too rugged for very small children or those who have trouble standing.
Tubing is a seasonal activity that opens each year around April or May depending on the climate, so check the website for the open season.
Things to do in Mesa, Arizona By Land
Arizona landscape is iconic. Dusty roads, cacti vegetation, and boulder cliff sides decorate this topography to be one of a kind. Here are some of the best ways to appreciate every inch of this beautiful dust bowl.
If a loungeable lazy river tube is one end of the gamut, then Stellar Adventures has got to be on the opposite end. Guided tours lead on off-roading vehicles like single-driver ATVs, 4-seater all-terrain UTVs, and military-style H1 Hummers take you through the majestic dust bowl in probably the most fun way possible.
Rough, rugged and bumpy trails with wild views through the Sonoran Desert are adrenaline-inducing and captivating both during the daylight or on the nighttime star gazing tour.
But what’s the real awe-inspiring off-roading experience? The off-roading tasting tours. Options for craft-brewed beer, crisply chilled wine, flights of tequila or whiskey tasting – and you know this Kentucky girl loves her whiskey – are the perfect reward after a long journey through the sun-baked wilderness.
Stellar Adventures is definitely a bit of a splurge and I would recommend booking in advance, but if you can swing it the combination of sights and thrills is unlike any other desert tour.
Explore the Desert on Horseback
Something about the hot dry air and barren dust-covered grounds makes me want to fully commit to the cowboy western fantasy. Whether you identify as a cowboy, cowgirl, or cowperson, we can all agree fringe and wide brims look great on everyone.
Arizona Horseback Adventures makes exploring the New Frontier by horseshoe an experience like no other, offering lots of trail options from one-hour to half-day rides with no previous experience required.
However, the best option has to be the Sunset Trail. You don’t really know golden hour until you’ve experienced it trotting across the Sonoran Desert. The warm orange skies will definitely make you feel like you’re at the end of a super romantic movie riding off into the sunset to live happily ever after, but just remember to fight the urge and stick with your guide.
It should also be noted that while horseback riding is open to all levels of experience, there are weight maximums for safety, so be sure to check out the FAQs before booking!
Hike Some Desert Trails
You could easily venture to Arizona for the hikes alone! Rigged rock towers of red and bronze, burrowed caves, and ineffable views are some of the best rewards when you reach the end of your journey.
Probably the most popular for visitors is the Wind Cave Trail. The almost 3-mile route is located in Usery Mountain Regional Park and is a moderately challenging two-hour trail with incredible views of the rolling desert landscape from the open wind cave.
The regional park is packed with sights of curved cave arches, panoramic open plains, prickly cacti, and sprouting flower beds. So if you opt for an easier trail like the Blevins Trail or the Merkle Trail, you won’t be missing out.
The park does have a small entrance fee, but the option to choose between 38 different trails is well worth it.
Explore The Mesa Grande Cultural Park
Mesa Grande Cultural Park is an absolute must for all you history buffs out there. It’s the most fascinating mound of ancient dirt you’ll ever see. This baby dates all the way back to 1100 AD.
With walls as high as 27 feet, this six-acre archaeological site is a glimpse of the local Hohokam history, who were ancient farming peoples of the southern deserts of Arizona. In its heyday, the site was a focal point for ceremonies and public living, and the Mesa Grande Culutral Park today contains a replica of a ballcourt the Hohokam people would have used to play a ballgame with a ball made from a local plant, so it’s a real Indiana Jones and the Salt River Valley experience.
And if by the end of your time you just can’t convince yourself to hang up the fedora and lasso for the day, you can even get a combined ticket for Mesa Grande and the Arizona Museum of Natural History, which holds about 58,000 objects that help to tell the story of the culture of Arizonas peoples and archeology.
Mesa Grande Cultural Park is only open from mid-October to mid-May since it’s outside and very hot in the summer and it’s outdoors!
Get Campy at the Superstition Mountain Museum
A hodgepodge of local history and part western fandom shrine, Superstition Mountain Museum is a good time for all cowboys and girls – even the lone stars.
Part of the Goldfield Ghost Town, the entire 12-acre property almost feels like you’re on a live movie set – in fact there are even occasional gunfight reenactment scenes from time to time.
Walking the grounds you can imagine a Harrison Ford saga in the mining exhibit with all the replica buildings, tools and equipment, or a Jeff Bridges thriller in the village exhibit surrounded by the rebuilt brush dome Apache homes and seasonal living display.
Ah heck, maybe you could even picture a stop-motion musical on the beautiful 400-square-foot train model. And did I mention there’s also an Elvis Chapel? I don’t know who would be in that movie – probably Sam Elliot, because like does that guy even age?!?!
So check it out for a bit of local history, movie history, and just some good ole fashioned fun. Hours and days can fluctuate each season, so check out times on their website.
Where to eat in Mesa, Arizona
With all this adventuring you’re definitely going to need some good Arizonian food to fill you up! Here are a couple of the best places in Mesa:
Jalapeño Bucks is the tin roof shack that serves up Arizona-style Barbeque. Sure the smoky south gets all the credit for pork butts with notes of hickory and cedar, but don’t write off this roadside shed because these burritos and Barbeque are worth the wait! Did I mention there’s a wait? Welp that’s what happens when a good thing is good, but trust me you won’t regret it!
Now I’ve heard nothing but great things about their green chili burritos, but for me, it’s all about their brisket. Sliced with fire-roasted edging and center marbling you can taste the skill of the pitmaster. This brisket is like your favorite R&B ballad bridge – tender and generously portioned. And I would definitely say the Arizona barbeque sauce is one of a kind, with a bit of a salsa influence.
But you can’t go wrong with any of the fire-roasted meats, however if you really want to make your meal memorable I double dog dare you to order the PB&J Brisket sandwich. Yes, you read that right. It’s surprisingly good, but oh so indulgent so just be sure to plan a nap directly after.
Jalapeño Bucks is closed on Sundays and Mondays and though it’s all outdoor seating, no pets are allowed. For quicker service, you can also call in your order ahead of time.
After a long day of daring journeys, the real call of the wild starts howling…in my stomach. Whether I’ve been hiking, horseback riding, or ATVing, I can WORK up an appetite.
Open for dinner and late nights, the Tipsy Chicken is a well-deserved reward for all that hard work. Korean fried chicken with an Asian flair, need I say more? The answer is no, but I will anyways.
Options of sweet & spicy, soy & garlic, and original recipe, these wings are sweetly battered for that extra crunch. But these delicious flats and drums are far from the best part. Pork belly corn cheese with a table side torching for extra crispiness is the performance garnish of culinary dreams.
Curious about what the “tipsy” in Tipsy Chicken is? Pair this Asian delight with a glass from their selection of flavored Sojus. This Korean liquor comes in lychee, mango, and other sweet fruit flavors that pair perfectly with these party fowls.
Tipsy Chicken is open for dinner Monday – Thursday, and for lunch Friday – Sunday.
Where to stay in Mesa, Arizona
Whether you want to go native in a cowboy fever dream or live it up in style, the Mesa area has some of the most unique stays around. So here’s where to stay when you’re in town!
Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch
Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch is like a giant sleepaway camp for adults and families. The property is tucked along the Bulldog Cliffs, which is a pretty extraordinary sight unto itself. There are 20 separate ranchette cottages and family cabins with a loungeable main lodge building.
The guest ranch also hosts seasonal activities like tubing, kayaking, paddle boarding, horseback riding, and fishing. This is the perfect place to stay if you are looking for a no-tech simple outdoor adventure vacation, and a chance to sit around a campfire unironically belting all the lyrics to Home on the Range.
The Cozy Peach at Schnepf Farms
About 35 minutes away from Mesa Center in Queen Creek (but still within the Maricopa County line), The Cozy Peach is a vintage glamping moment that is unquestionably worth the extra commute.
Nine uniquely renovated Airstreams and vintage trailers will delightfully make you one happy camper. The polished aluminum-shined RVs are updated to include kitchenettes, bathrooms, and living room nooks. There are even multi-bed options in the larger Airstream trailer rentals.
Also included in the Schnepf Farms property is a charming country store, a classic lawn game spread, and a seasonal U-Pick vegetable garden. This place is glamping at its finest, and once your booking is confirmed you’ll be asking yourself – RV there yet?
Hotel Valley Ho
Calling all you Mid Centra-philes, Hotel Valley Ho is going to be your ultimate mid-century dream come to life. Rooms and suites adorned from top to bottom with sleek lines, mod curves and sophisticated furniture for the real Eames fantasy.
Hotel Valley Ho is located in Scottsdale which is just 20 minutes from downtown Mesa (but still within Maricopa County), and even though it is not in Mesa proper, this Hotel is often just as close to many of the outdoor excursions located at the edges of the city.
And hey, maybe planning ahead isn’t your style, or maybe your time in Arizona is a last-minute booking – but either way, if you’ve arrived without an itinerary this is where you need to stay because it has everything!
Lounging by one of the two pools in a private cabana with a tropical cocktail. Scallops at the swanky ZuZu restaurant, and hot stone massages at the spa, Hotel Valley Ho will make you feel like you’re likely to run into Sinatra, Elvis, or even Miss Monroe herself.
What to Pack for Mesa, Arizona
Although all those rays of bright sunshine may tempt you to pack all your bare-shoulder strappy dresses and daisy duke shorts, keep in mind, desert skies are very tricky. Sure it’s gonna be hot, but desert life also means very little to no shade, which can make things feel even hotter while also providing no protection at all. But as the local residents would remind me every time I would complain – at least it’s a dry heat.
- Sunscreen: Either way, sun protection should be top of mind, even if your activities are not outdoor based. Light fabrics that can provide some arm and leg protection are ideal in combination with sunscreen. And let’s say it together three times- sunscreen, Sunscreen, SUNSCREEN.
- Car Sunshade: Whether you are road-tripping toward historic Route 66 or you plan on a rental when you land, you’re gonna want to invest in a car sunshade. We know they can be tacky and make you feel like you’re following in the footsteps of your ridiculous great-uncle Larry. But trust me, it will save your butt- quite literally. And if you have leather seats, it’s an absolute must! Quick tip! When parking your car, don’t park where the shade currently is, but rather try and estimate how much time you’ll be gone and where the shade is going to be when you come back. Learned this trick from a local, and it was a game-changer!
- Quick Drying Shorts (His & Hers): We’re obsessed with the Zion line from prAna, which is what our favorite hiking pants are made from. These shorts are made from the same stretchy, high-tech, quick-drying fabric! Jeremy’s shorts double as both the shorts he wears every day and a swimsuit. They’re a 2-for-1 (which means less space in your carry-on) and they look great, too! They dry quickly, making them perfect for hopping in and out of waterfalls, rivers, and the ocean and then resuming your normal travel activities.
- Hiking & Adventure Travel Pants (His & Hers): You’re going to need a pair of pants that serve multiple purposes and are up for adventure anywhere: beach, jungle, river, mountains, and city. Luckily, these awesome prAna hiking pants were designed with travel and hiking in mind and were up to every challenge we threw at them. They’re also quick-dry, so I even wore them while white-water rafting and waterfall rappelling in San Gil.
- Travel Jeans: Unlike regular jeans, travel jeans are designed specifically to solve travel-related woes. One of my personal woes is the lack of pockets on women’s jeans. My favorite travel jeans have 6 POCKETS. 6!! And 2 of them are zipped and hidden inside other pockets, for extra pickpocket protection – crucial in any European country. Jeremy and I each have a pair of Aviator USA black jeans. They’re super stretchy and buttery soft, dry quickly in the rain or when wet, and keep our legs warm when it’s cold out. They’re cozy enough to wear on a plane, stretchy enough to accommodate that 5 extra pounds of holiday weight I always seem to bring back home with me, and they’re super cute! We’re both obsessed. Read more in our guides to travel pants for women and men.
- Wool Clothing: Yes, seriously. Merino wool is a miracle travel fabric. It keeps you cool when it’s hot AND keeps you warm when it’s cold. When it gets wet, you’ll stay comfortable while your clothing dries. It naturally resists the growth of fungus and bacteria, so it never stinks – a must-have for travel! It’s even flame retardant. What more could you ask for? Today’s performance wool isn’t like the itchy wool of the past – it’s thin, stretchy, and super soft to the touch, like cotton. We highly recommend wool clothing for travel. Here’s what I bring T-shirt | Sports Bra | Travel Bra | Half Zip Womans | Underwear and Here’s what Jeremy brings: Crew-neck shirt | V-neck Shirt | Underwear | Socks
- Hemp Clothing: Much like merino wool, hemp is a fantastic travel textile. It’s also temperature regulating, meaning it’s cool to the touch and keeps you cool when it’s hot (but also insulates you when it’s cold out). It’s also naturally anti-bacterial, so you won’t get that stinky “I’ve been sweating in this for a week straight” smell. And as a huge bonus, hemp is more sustainable than most other textiles, requiring little water and almost no pesticides to thrive and grow. Hemp is even able to clean up polluted soil, making it a tool for actually fighting against climate change. Hell yeah! Because it’s not a super popular textile (yet), it’s a little hard to find. One of our favorite eco-friendly clothing brands, prAna, makes a fantastic hemp line – browse women’s and men’s. (Lia loves this comfy t-shirt!)
- Day Bag: I carry this cute day bag with me every single day packed with anything I need for the day – a water bottle, an endless supply of snacks, whatever.
Note: We didn’t list out everything here, so make sure you pack plenty of basics!
About the Author: Allie Nova lives in Louisville, KY with her 2 dogs, 2 cats, and high school sweetheart husband. She is obsessed with all things food, wine, beer, & gin and is currently working her way through the Master Sommelier and Cicerone certifications. She is always down to get a drink and dish on true crime (hey, hey fellow murderinos,) books from the Rory Gilmore reading list, or award worthy movies. But most importantly, Allie is a proud first generation American who believes diversity is key to beauty.
Are you excited to visit Mesa yet? Which of these things in Mesa, Arizona are you dying to do first? Drop your comments and questions about visiting Mesa in the comments below!
Psst: Planning a visit to Arizona or the West? Check out some of our other posts to help you plan your trip!
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Disclaimer: This post was created in partnership with Visit Mesa. All opinions and super corny jokes are 100% my own and absolutely not their fault.