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Mesa, Arizona Is An Awesome Spring Destination –- Our 36 Hour Guide Shows Why

Mesa, Arizona
Merle/Visit Mesa

Heading to Phoenix? Take a travel writer’s word for it and skip Arizona’s heavily populated capital city for its nearby little sister — Mesa. Just 25 minutes outside of the Phoenix metro area is an oasis of nostalgic lodging, epic hikes amongst endless cacti, wild horses, and so much more.

The downtown Mesa strip is significantly less chaotic than Phoenix’s city center and is quickly becoming a leader in the craft beverage scene. Better still, Mesa is now home to a surf park — yup, you can catch waves in the middle of the desert — making it an awesome spring destination.

Here’s how to spend 36 hours in the desert town.


Saguaro Lake Ranch
Saguaro Lake Ranch

While Mesa is lacking in trendy boutique hotels, you could choose to rack up some points at the (slightly lackluster, TBH) Courtyard by Marriott Mesa at Wrigleyville West (rooms start at $349 a night) or DoubleTree Hotel Phoenix-Mesa (rooms start at $257 a night). If rewards points aren’t your focus and you want a truly Southwest experience, stay at the storied Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch (rooms start at $353 a night).

In the 1920s the ranch housed the workers who built the nearby Stewart Mountain Dam before becoming a family-owned guest ranch in the ’40s. Much of the old-timey paraphernalia remains as adornments around the property, including the saloon with ancient bottles of whiskey. The 20 rustic cabins have panoramic views of the majestic Bulldog Cliffs and are decorated in typical Southwestern-Mexican flare.

You won’t find a TV in your cabin. Instead, you can enjoy the heated pool, and fire pit, and take a short stroll down to the Salt River along the saguaro cactus-studded trails.

If you’re arriving in the afternoon borrow a paddle board or kayak (guided trips start at $51) from the lobby and get out on the Salt River in the Tonto National Forest, the sixth largest National Forest in the States. You’ll float past saguaros, cottonwood trees, and rolling mountains. At dusk, keep an eye out for Mesa’s mystical-feeling wild horses. The incredible creatures tend to hang out along the Salt River’s edge. Over 500 mustangs reside in the area and are presumed to be descendants of Spanish Colonial or Iberian horses brought to the Southwest by colonizers in the 16th century. The wild horses are protected by the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. The ranch also has an on-site horse stable and can organize a horseback ride through the cactus-studded wilderness guided by local wranglers.

If water activities aren’t your thing, lace up your hiking boots and head out for a short stroll from the ranch. It’s kept a bit hush-hush to preserve a sacred site but there’s an easy trail that leads to ancient petroglyphs of spirals, birds, and lizards. En route, you’ll stroll through an old-growth area of the Sonoran Desert and catch a birds-eye view of the aforementioned Dam.


tikki bar
Vist Mesa

Nothing hits quite as good after a day of travel as a flavorful, spicy, Asian-inspired meal. Grab a table at the chic Belly Kitchen & Bar and order small plates to share of Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese dishes. Don’t skip the green papaya salad or seared mushroom bao bun (shared starters start at $5, main courses $14). Get the evening started with a few rounds of handcrafted cocktails ($13-$18 per cocktail). My favorite was the “Yuzu & Miso” — a gin cocktail that instantly transported me back to Japan. Or take things up a notch with a round of $8 “Belly Shots” for the group — after all, lemongrass is good for you. Other classic Asian drinks are also available, including Korean Soju ($16) and Lao Lager ($13).

After dinner head next door for a one-of-a-kind experience — a tiki bar in the desert! Brave the plank at Undertow and stick around for the wicked thunderstorm. The award-winning immersive cocktail bar transports patrons into the belly of a spice trader’s Clipper ship. Grab a seat by the portholes and watch as the sea gets more and more tormented as the storm approaches.

Hold on tight to your Scorpion Punch Bowl or Lei Lani Volcano cocktail as the ship braves the massive waves! Cocktails start at $16.


Surf's up at Cannon Beach
Visit Mesa

After enjoying breakfast at the lodge, start your day off with a surf sesh. That’s right — surfing in the desert.

This Spring Mesa is set to open a 3.3-acre surf lagoon — Cannon Beach Revel Surf Park. It’s the first surf park in the world with both a large traveling wave and a stationary rapid surf wave. Here you can ride a consistently perfect year-round wave.

Want to double up on thrills? At Cannon Beach, you can also go cliff jumping, skateboarding on a pump track, or just chill out at the beachside pool.


Lola Méndez

After riding waves to your heart’s content, head to Downtown Mesa for pizza and cider to refuel. Named the third-best cidery in the States, Cider Corps is a veteran-owned cidery proving that cider is for everyone to enjoy. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill alcoholic apple ciders. The selection on the grenade-looking taps rotates through seasonal flavors including a prickly pear sangria and POG (pomegranate, orange, and guava), and start at $8 a pour.

Have handmade pizzas from Myke’s Pizza, which shares the space with the cidery, for lunch. My rec is to order the pineapple pizza made with pork roll and aged gouda ($21). Get the side of Brussels sprouts ($8.50) that are made with Cider Corps’ Semper Vera cider.


Stay Downtown Mesa for a self-guided late afternoon pub crawl. The quaint Historic Downtown Mesa strip on Main Street may seem like a wholesome small-town hangout but it’s leading the Arizona craft beverage scene with the most craft beverage locales in one square mile. No driving is necessary making Main Street the perfect destination for a DIY bar crawl.

Stop into the “2022 Brewery of the Year” — Oro Brewing Company. This locally-owned and operated small-batch brewery and taproom has an array of award-winning handcrafted ales and lagers on tap. Hit up Phantom Fox Beer Co. for a hazy IPA made with stone fruit or the neighboring drinking hole Chupacabra Taproom which serves hard seltzer ($6.75).

For dinner, stay local and go to Worth Takeaway for classic American sandwiches and fries that are anything but boring. Sandwiches range from $12-$17 and are made with local Arizona seasonal ingredients, including cheeses from nearby Danzeisen Dairy, produce from Crooked Sky Farms, and Mesa’s own Proof Bread. After a day of tasting the best of Mesa’s craft beverage scene, you can’t go wrong with a buffalo chicken sandwich or a hot ham and cheese on sourdough.

Keep the craft beverage crawl going by heading over to the Mesa Riverview. The taproom at Papago Brewing Co. has a rotating selection of 60 freshly-crafted draft beers including the famous Papago Orange Blossom and top local beers from Arizona that are $7 for 16 ounces. Order rustic soft pretzels with beer cheese ($10.90) and a sausage board ($17.90) to enjoy while you try Papago’s beers.

From there, let the night carry you onward or head back to your cozy bed at the ranch.


Lola Méndez

You simply can’t visit the Southwest without enjoying the great outdoors. In the morning before you leave Mesa go out for a hike in the magnificent Usery Mountain Regional Park. The lower Sonoran Desert park is home to elusive flora and fauna. You’ll see several types of cacti, including the saguaro cactus which is indigenous to the area, and if you’re lucky you may spot cardinals, owls, and hummingbirds.

There are various trails to choose from and all offer incredible views of the desert surroundings. Park entry fees start at $3 per person.