Every year, more than a half-million Canadians visit the American Southwest.
Golfers, spa enthusiasts and RV cruisers who revel in the region’s dry and temperate winter climate—the city of Mesa, Arizona, sees them all. These days, though, more Canadians are travelling to Mesa to hike and bike in the Superstition Mountains, stand-up paddleboard on the Salt River and explore the region’s fascinating indigenous cultures. Truly, for snow- or rain-bound Canucks, the short flight to Arizona offers an outdoorsy alternative to a classic ski or beach vacation. Here are the Top Seven reasons to make Mesa your next winter getaway:
Full Moon Hikes
Explore the Sonoran Desert environs of Lost Dutchman State Park under the silvery light of a full moon. If the sky is clear, there’s no need for a flashlight—the moonglow is more than enough to view cacti, desert wildflowers, ethereal rock formations and maybe even wildlife like javelina, owls or mule deer. Led by a knowledgeable park ranger, this monthly two-hour night-hike meanders along the four-kilometre-long Jacob’s Cross Cut Trail, with just enough elevation gain to keep things interesting. If you miss the full moon, park staffers also host regular astronomy nights—learn about the brilliant starry sky, and also about the namesake Lost Dutchman Mine, a mother lode of gold said to be hidden somewhere in the area. The park is located 40 km east of Mesa; upcoming full moons are December 27, January 25, February 25 and March 23. Full Moon Hikes are limited to 100 participants—reserve a spot by phoning 480.982.4485.
OK—you’re probably still thinking about Lost Dutchman State Park’s hidden gold mine. Let’s indulge. Local lore says the Peralta family of Mexico founded a successful gold mine in the area during the 1840s. Following the Peraltas’ fateful run-in with some angry Apaches, the mine was later re-discovered by a German whose legal name was Jacob Waltz and nickname was, oddly, “The Dutchman.” After collecting a fortune in gold, and likely murdering his mining partner, Waltz took the mine’s location to his grave in 1891. Word spread that the cache was still out there, waiting to be mined, but many subsequent gold-searchers fell to misfortune over the decades. However, don’t let superstitions stop you from exploring the Superstition Mountains. Rising abruptly more than 700 metres from the desert, these stunning volcanic skeletons beg exploration. Enter the range via Lost Dutchman State Park—for an easy intro, start on the four-kilometre, 150-vertical-metre Treasure Loop Trail. Ready to get sweaty? Slog up the Siphon Draw for three kilometres, then continue on to the challenging, five-kilometre Flatiron Trail (16 km total, round-trip). Not for the novice, one scramble-section climbs 600 metres in just 1.6 km.
Wind Cave Trail & Beyond
Butting against boundless Tonto National Forest, and 1,500 hectares in its own right, Usery Mountain Regional Park is rife with recreation. One local-fave hiking route is the five-kilometre (return) Wind Cave Trail. Winding upslope with a 200-metre gain, this path leads through an environment surprisingly lush with desert flora, alongside dramatic cliffs and toward the volcanic-formed peaks of the Superstition Mountains. Enjoy a vista from the Wind Cave on Pass Mountain (watch for beehives). If you have more energy and more drinking water, consider the backcountry trails that stretch further into Tonto National
Forest. Another 100 metres of elevation will leave the weekend crowds behind and lead to the nearest summit, offering a staggering panorama over the Sonoran Desert. Usery Mountain Regional Park is located 30 km east of Mesa.
Get Wet in the Desert
Stand-up paddleboarding in the Sonoran Desert—why not? Mesa’s No Snow Paddleboard Shop (nosnowsup.com) seeks to make SUP’ing one of the city’s top activities—and it is prime season right now. The Lower Salt River Recreation Area, about 40 km northeast of Mesa, is a local paddleboard favourite. Butcher Jones Beach at Saguaro Lake is an easy-access drive-to paddleboard destination—meander past rust-coloured canyon walls and take a dip in the freshwater as you float for hours. Plan to spend a full-day paddling through 35-km-long Saguaro Lake, immersed in an environment of pristine H2O and surrounded by prickly cacti and sandstone cliffs. (Wondering about the name “No Snow” Paddleboard Shop? The owners are expat Canadians.)
Get Wet, v2.0
The waterways of the Lower Salt and Verde rivers have even more waterborne recreation on-hand. Desert Voyagers (cliffcreekoutfitters.com) runs rafting tours on the Lower Salt River, in Tonto National Forest. Set on a Class I river, these sedate trips are suited for wildlife- and bird-watchers; guides are seasoned experts who illuminate the local ecosystem as you enjoy a gentle float. This operator also runs kayak tours in the same area—spot bald eagles, coyotes and wild horses from your own inflatable boat as you splash your way through a laid-back tour. Perhaps the most leisurely of all, Salt River Tubing offers shuttle service and inner tubes for visitors looking to relax with a floating picnic down the slow-running Salt River (seasonal operation; saltrivertubing.com).
Arizona Outback Adventures (aoa-adventures.com) aims to show you the Sonoran Desert by pedal-power—whether on-road or off. With both guided tours and DIY rentals, cyclists of any experience level can get equipped. AOA’s half-day guided mountain bike trips are popular, leading riders through swooping single-track in the Superstition Mountains. And catering to anyone from a casual road-rider to a triathlete, their four-hour road tours cover between 20 and 160 km through the sunny Arizona environs. Or just rent your own ride—from a hardtail or full-suspension mountain bike, to an elite carbon-fibre road bike, to a comfy cruiser and more. Staff happily gives up beta on the best routes. Ask any MAMIL (middle aged man in Lycra)—Arizona is a premier cycling destination for Canadian riders with the winter blues.
Rife with archaeological wonders, the area in and around Mesa attracts the culturally curious year-round. Right in the city, Park of the Canals (parkofthecanals.org) showcases evidence of a canal system developed by the Hohokam people some 2,000 years ago. It’s also home to the Brinton Desert Botanical Garden, where vibrant flora from four desert regions is on display. Nearby, Mesa Grande Cultural Park (azmnh.org) is home to an interpretive trail that leads guests through an ancient Hohokam Temple Mound, which was constructed from calcium carbonate hardpan between 1100 and 1400 A.D. Staff from the Arizona Museum of Natural History are on-hand to explain this marvel. Drive 80 minutes east of Mesa to Globe for Besh-Ba-Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum (globeaz.gov), a walk-through 800-year-old Salado Pueblo that is home to the largest single-site archaeological collection in the American Southwest.