When it comes to fight or flight, I'm all flight.
And when it comes to Old Man Winter, I want to drop my weapon - err, snow shovel - and flee to a place where a desert sun coaxes small beads of perspiration from my brow. Instead of winter whiteouts, I want inky orange and scarlet sunsets. I want...I want to go back to Mesa.
And I'm not the only one. Know how I know? Because today Westjet starts offering direct seasonal flights from Canada to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway (AZA).
So in the spirit of thumbing your frost-bitten nose at Old Man Winter, here are four ways to play in Mesa, starting with mild and heating up to wild.
Mesa Arts Center
After wandering into the wrong wing of this gorgeous and modern arts center, my husband and I locate the subterranean galleries. Not only is it an inspired space, it's a cool afternoon escape and it's free to visit. With some direction from a smiley volunteer we make our way through the five current exhibits.
We're instantly wowed by Mesa Arts Center's expert curation. We start with Daniel Martin Diaz's allegorical illustrations in Paradise Lost, before diving into the world of Béatrice Coron's delicate papercut artwork in Worldwide Wanderings. Next comes Dina Goldstein's Disillustioned portraits where she pokes holes in the 'happily-ever-after' illusion. Then it's a buffet of mediums, thread together with a literary theme in an exhibit aptly titled Off The Page.
Our visit evokes a spectrum of feelings: admiration then fascination, laughter, scrutiny and astonishment. As I leave the Center, I scroll the artists' social media profiles, decisively tapping the 'follow' button; they've handily made a fan out of me.
Paradise Lost by Daniel Diaz Martin | Photo: Jennifer Hubbert
Worldwide Wanderings by Béatrice Coron | Photo: Jennifer Hubbert
The Mesa Arts Center is located at 1 E Main St, Mesa, AZ 85201. Hours are 10-5 T-W-F-S, 10-8 on Thursdays, and 12-5 on Sundays. The galleries are closed on Mondays.
Click here for current and upcoming exhibitions: MesaArtsCenter.com
Stand up paddleboarding on Saguaro Lake
I could describe the bliss of paddling on a placid lake beneath a hot desert sun. I could wax lyrical about lazily floating along a lakeshore studded with wild-armed saguaro. I could even admit that I spent half the time laying on my board, feet dangling in the cool water. I would gush about it all, but I'd never truly do nature justice. Stand up paddle boarding on Saguaro Lake is more of a state of mind than place anyhow. To appreciate the colour of the water or the curlicues that dance off the end of a long J-stroke, you just have to live it for yourself.
Wet behind the ears when it comes to SUP? I can assure you, Saguaro Lake is a gentle lake, perfect for finding your sea legs.
No Snow Paddleboard Shop
Location: 3654 N Power Rd Suite #104 Mesa 85215
Hours: 7 days/week - during winter hours must call or text ahead to coordinate pick up.
Cost: $30 for 3 hours or $40 all day (per board)
Notes: No Snow SUP is perfectly situated to nearby SUP sweet spots; Saguaro Lake, Salt River, Canyon Lake, Apache Lake, Roosevelt Lake are just 5 to 30 minutes away. All the equipment was clean and in great condition. Boards come with foam roof racks and lashing straps.
Hiking in Lost Dutchman State Park
Standing in a parking lot at the ominously named Lost Dutchman State Park, I'm far from winter's reach. But will Arizona's heat dry my running nose? I stuff a litre of water into my backpack and think what a cruel irony it is to suffer a cold in the desert.
Before hitting the trail my husband and I take the necessary precautions to practice safe sun, spraying our fair complexions with sunscreen. We won't really need it though; our trail runs straight into the shadow of the Superstition Mountains; an iconic Mesa-area landmark.
Everything in relative proximity evokes the American frontier to me, from the ghost town we passed on our way in, to the sign advertising we were driving along Apache Trail, a former stagecoach route. If the tall saguaro cacti that pepper the park could talk, they'd reveal all sorts of local lore. The elder ones are some 250 years old, nearly pre-dating the Wild West completely.
As we approach the Treasure Loop trailhead, I'm entirely engrossed in the state park's legend. Who was the Lost Dutchman? I scan the park from north to south. It'd be pretty hard to get lost here. The desert flora of Tonto National Forest is low and sparse; the mountain peaks are distinctive, memorable. Multiple sources distill the Lost Dutchman tale back to Jacob Waltz. It wasn't Waltz who was lost, so much as his (alleged) fortune: a hidden 'mother lode' mine. He is said to have revealed its location to a neighbour while laying on his deathbed. Fact or fable? Who cares? The story is better left unwritten. For most park visitors the narrative is pure novelty, yet the legend is real for those who still seek out Waltz's treasure. And very real for those who have perished in their pursuit.
Today, our pursuit, is simple. We just want to stand in awe beneath Superstition Mountain, which is Lost Dutchman's real treasure; a crowning jewel 'hidden' in plain sight.
Treasure Loop Trail is not difficult. It's 2.4 miles (3.8 km) and despite a 500-foot elevation gain over the first mile, the trail is forgiving. It is wide, well-marked and well-maintained. (Can a desert trail be overgrown or unkempt?)
Where the Treasure Loop Trail intersects with Prospector's View Trail - the furthest we can ascend the Superstition slope - we opt to take it. We skirt southwest before descending and cutting north on Jacob's Crosscut Trail, which eventually deposits us back to Saguaro Day Use Area. Along the way we inspect a prickly buckhorn cholla and the sun-baked skeleton of a dead saguaro.
A network of short, intersecting trails in any other forest might give hikers some anxiety. However, the front country trails that lace Lost Dutchman often offer up a view of the visitor center, which affords a sense of ease. Go, roam, let your feet lead the way while you muse on cowboy culture.
Lost Dutchman State Park
Location: 3654 N Power Rd Suite #104 Mesa 85215
Hours: Fall/winter office hours 7-5, daily; trails open from sunrise to 10 p.m.
Cost: $7 per vehicle, maximum 4 occupants
Driving dirty in the desert
Mike hands us a green bandana, "Here, you're going to need this."
We've just arrived at Green Zebra Adventures. A line of nine Tomcars stand straight as an arrow, like soldiers at the ready.
For those unfamiliar with Tomcars - as I was until this moment - they're off-road vehicles with military origins. They're loud; they roar; they bite; and they're a lot of fun.
After a safety run-down, we buckle in at the waist and then again across the chest. I fold my bandana into a triangle and fix it snug around my face. A pair of sunglasses completes the look. My husband starts up the angry engine; we look at one another with wide grins. "I feel like Mad Max!" I yell. I grab the spray-on sunscreen and mimic a war boy 'chroming' his mouth for ascent into Valhalla.
We' re off. Our nine Tomcars chew through the backcountry trails of Fort McDowell Yavapai Reservation, unapologetically kicking up a trail of dust. We wind and weave and dip and skid. Rocks get sucked up and spat out the wheel wells. The gas pedal is heavy but we lumber along the washboard tracks with remarkable efficiency. At first we navigate like a car, but soon it's obvious that driving the path of least resistance is the route of less fun.
Mike gives the signal and we drift to the road's shoulder and switch off our Tomcars. He motions us over to the foot of a mammoth saguaro. The lonely sentinel literally towers overhead.
"Now, some people think this cactus is 300...350 years old. That'd mean it's about the oldest cactus in these parts." We collectively crane our heads back in reverence. "You know what I think? I think man needs plants, but plants have never needed man."
Mike continues his bit, educating us about the desert flora. And I have to say, for a group of thirty-somethings biting at the Tomcar bit, he commands everyone's undivided attention. The soil underfoot may be bone dry, but Mike's candor is anything but.
Next, we load up, lock in and fire up, setting off in the direction of a desert oasis.
At first, the low, cragged mesquite trees form a loose stand. But soon enough their arms embrace to form what I can only describe as a tunnel. Collectively, our group slows, navigating the winding route before emerging in a small clearing. We park our Tomcars and like a moth to a flame, we gravitate to the river's edge. Sitting on the soft sand that blankets the bank, we drink in the view of the lazy Salt River. Mike pipes up, "You know, the shade you're enjoying is also favoured by a resident herd of wild horses. In summer, about 80 to 100 of them will come down here."
I take a moment to conjure the heat of summertime in Mesa. Just the thought of it stokes my core temperature. It's exactly the generous dose of warmth I need to see me through winter. It's time to go home.
Green Zebra Adventures
Location: 14803 N Hiawatha Hood Road Fort McDowell
Hours: Oct-May: departures at 9 am, 11:30 am & 2 pm; June-Sept: 8 am
Cost: Adults $149; kids (12 and under) $89; single drivers $249
Notes: Drivers must have a valid license. Hotel pick-up available for a fee. Time spent in the Tomcar is approximately two hours.
When you go:
Plan your Mesa Visit
Where should I dine?
- Whet your whistle at Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. (The tasting flights are huge!) We enjoyed playful brews imbued with prickly pear cactus and lavender.
- Dine at Postino Wine Cafe in downtown Gilbert, which serves up tasty plates made with farm-fresh vegetables and ingredients from local makers.
- Indulge at Joe's Farm Grill located in Gilbert's planned community, Agritopia - a fascinating suburb that demands a peek.
How do I get to Mesa from Canada?
Mesa is 20 minutes (or less) driving time from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)
- Vancouver or Calgary - PHX: 3 hours
- Toronto - PHX: 5 hours
- Calgary/Edmonton - Phoenix-Mesa Gateway (AZA): 3 hours*
*New direct flights:
Starting January 19, Westjet will fly direct between Alberta and Mesa (AZA). Flights between Edmonton and Mesa will run once weekly, and Calgary to Mesa three times weekly. These seasonal itineraries will run until April 30 and boast fares as low as $99 each way.
Have you been to Mesa?
Let me know - comment below!
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