Mesa, Arizona, is a hidden gem in an overlooked state. Arizona is known for its 120-degree heat, saguaro cactus, and vast desert landscapes. But, for those fortunate enough to venture out, this state provides an abundance of outdoor recreation that hides in some of its most secret places. Mesa is a city full of surprises itself. Just east of Phoenix lies a world of outdoor play that you can't miss! Flatwater kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, canoeing, whitewater kayaking, lazy river floats, boating, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, old ranch getaways, horseback riding, caving, abandoned mines...the options are endless! There is so much to do that a little direction can be helpful. If you had three days to spend in Mesa, this is what you shouldn't miss!
A home away from home, Saguaro Lake Ranch is a beautiful oasis just southeast of Saguaro Lake on the Salt River. These ranchette-style cabins book up quickly, so call in advance to make a reservation. If you're looking for a little more direction on outdoor recreation, their front desk assistants are absolutely wonderful. They can help you plan a day of horseback riding along the stunning Bulldog Cliffs, a lazy float tubing down the Salt River, one of several day hikes that leave right from your front door, or maybe a little kayaking excursion on Saguaro Lake or the Salt River! Looking for a place just to relax? They have a pool on the property and provide your meals for you. Talk about a mini-vacation!
Once you're all settled in, plan a day hike out in Lost Dutchman State Park. There are several loop trails to explore, such as Treasure Loop, and those who are looking for a longer hike can take a stab at Siphon Draw to Flatiron Mountain! This is a strenuous 3-mile hike with over 2,700 feet of elevation gain...but the views are unbeatable! From the top of Flatiron Mountain you can look down on your evening adventure. Beer and dinner await you at the bottom at Goldfield Ghost Town. Heading off of the top of the mountain around 2:30 p.m. should put you down at the ghost town in time for a drink and an incredible sunset that reflects off of the old buildings, giving the town an eerie golden glow.
If hiking isn't your favorite, then consider taking a bike ride at one of the many nearby trails. Singletrack, doubletrack, and even paved cycling paths are available both in and around town, making for a great activity for the entire family. One of our favorite trail systems, Hawes Trail Network, was developed by mountain bikers and offers some excellent singletrack fun without much steep, strenuous climbing. This is an excellent morning ride for cross-country style riders looking for a less rocky trail to cruise around on.
There's no better way to end your trip than a day out on the lake. Saguaro Lake is the fourth reservoir on the Salt River, and it is formed by the Stewart Mountain Dam. Although quite congested during the high season, this lake offers a place for you and your family to picnic, fish, kayak, swim, and sunbath all day! There are two major entry points for vehicles.
Butcher Jones Recreation Area is a little smaller, but it still offers plenty of parking, vault restrooms, and a flat (sandy/gravel) area for a family beach day or picnic. A little too chilly for swimming? Take a mostly flat 5-mile hike on the Butcher Jones Trail paralleling the Salt River for much of it.
Saguaro Lake Recreation Area (west of Saguaro Lake Marina) offers much more parking, shaded picnic areas, vault toilets, fishing docks, and two large boat launches. You can launch a flatwater kayak/SUP/canoe from pretty much anywhere along the parking lot, or you can launch directly from one of the two boat launches themselves. Forgot to pack a lunch? No worries! Lakeshore Restaurant at the marina offers breakfast and lunch Monday through Thursday and breakfast, lunch and dinner Friday through Sunday.
Lastly, if you can time it right, be sure to take a cruise on the Desert Belle Tour boat, which consists of 90 minutes of narrated sightseeing and relaxing. Bring some cash if you'd like a drink at their bar onboard.
Ultimately, three days isn't enough. Fortunately, it's not going anywhere, and there is plenty of time for multiple trips back to Mesa, Arizona.