This modern city in the Sonoran desert has the best of history, nature and foodie experiences

MESA, Arizona is one of the fastest-growing areas in the States, and following an early winter visit, I can see why so many want to make a life there.

It’s only a 20-25 minute drive from Phoenix Sky Harbor airport to the city centre. For us more mature travellers, who do not want to face a long road journey after an 11-hour transatlantic flight, this is ideal.

You can choose to base yourself in the centre of things and easily discover both city and desert delights or stay just outside in the glorious countryside.

Because I and my videographer son arrived on an internal flight from Texas, we were not jet-lagged and chose to head outside the city for around 30 minutes (but still a very relaxing drive) to our first base – Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch in the Tonto National Forest, the fifth largest in the US, within the Sonoran Desert.

It’s in a truly gorgeous, mountainside location on the banks of the Salt River.

Arriving there is one of those shoulder-lowering, totally relaxing moments. You just sigh with relief. The family-owned ranch is set on its own beside the towering Bulldog Cliffs with cabins set within the forest, surrounded by the distinctive saguaro cacti all around.

It was created in 1927 for workers during construction of the nearby Stewart Mountain Dam. The main lodge at the ranch was originally the mess hall for the crew. It is now a welcoming place to relax and eat, watch TV or use the WiFi, leaving you feeling as if you are in an authentic western ranch.

Famous guests have included Glen Campbell, Henry Ford III, Norman Rockwell and Rob Lowe. Understandably it has also been used as a film and music video location.

To a certain extent it’s a no-frills location, no TV, WiFi, radios, clocks or phones in the rooms, but the rustic, Western-style accommodations have heating and air conditioning.

There are 20 cabins and my son and I had a two-bed version with a comfortable sitting room and porch overlooking a green lawn looking towards the swimming pool. 

Here, star-gazing is quite simply dazzling. The desert air is clear and the sky untainted by man-made light, www.saguarolakeranch.com

On our first day, keen to explore the area, we set off on what Mesa has dubbed the Apache Trail. It’s an easy road trip around 12 attractions and places of interest along the way. According to your taste and the time you have you can visit the ones that interest you.

The Apache Trail and Chain of Lakes is thought to be one of the best scenic drives in Arizona. The partially-paved 48-mile road snakes along a chain of three man-made lakes on the Salt River – Canyon, Apache, and Roosevelt, which takes three to four hours if you do it all.

We chose first to take the winding road to the scenic Canyon Lake for a fun and informative, 90-minute Dolly Steamboat ride. As we made our way around the cactus-lined perimeter we passed other small leisure boats and kayaks. Our guide taught us about the rock formations

and wildlife, including Big Horn sheep. We even spotted one nimble-footed specimen high up on the cliffs.

We enjoyed drinks and snacks on board and the trip, in glorious sunshine, was memorable, www.dollysteamboat.com

After the boat trip, we had lunch at Tortilla Flat, an authentic remnant of an old west town. It started out as a stage stop in 1904 with real saddles serving as bar stools where we enjoyed Killer Chili, Big Burgers and Prickly Pear Ice Cream, www.tortillaflataz.com

Next stop was another glimpse of the old wild west at the recinstructed Goldfield Ghost Town. With a stunning view of the spactacular Superstition Mountains, so called because native Americans felt ‘superstitious’ about them, it was the site of a gold strike in 1892 and became a small town of miners. A great place to wander around, watch a ‘gunfight’, take an underground tour of the tunnels or enjoy a drink and meal in the saloon. Behind the bar, there’s a very eccentric European ‘cowboy’ who is a big part of the attraction and will oblige visitors with a gunslinger ‘hold-up’ photo, goldfieldghosttown.com

After a long day, it was back to the ranch for a relax before dinner. While there is no regular evening meal, there are Thursday night dining events and Saturday night cowboy cookouts.

Sitting with a small group of other guests and visitors, we enjoyed a prix fixe menu, including a veritable feast of a main dish – pork loin and shrimp stuffed with crab meat – with a salad starter, home-made bread and desserts.

It’s a homely, intimate atmosphere – just like being invited to someone’s home.

While I enjoyed an evening swim under a moonlit, starry sky, my son took the chance for filming the crystal-clear night. So peaceful.

The next day, after a ‘cowboy’ breakfast – bacon, eggs, blueberry muffins and syrup, there was a chance to test out my horse-riding skills, which are at best, not impressive. But the real cowboys at the stables, just a short walk from the ranch, put my mind at rest. The patient horses took us across the river stepping carefully over boulders and climbed up the saguaro cactus-clad hill to a spectacular view over the 10-mile long Saguaro Lake. At one point there was a flurry of excitement as our guide pointed out a swooping bald eagle close by. 

Although my knees were a little bit more creeky than usual when I dismounted, the trail ride was manageable, exhilarating and fun.

Saying goodbye to the ranch was a wrench, but we had yet another tour to try and headed back into Mesa on the Foodie Trail, which is a ‘have fork will travel’ collection of Mesa’s finest venues for buying, eating and drinking your way around the area.

It’s a celebration of farms, agritourism attractions and restaurants in Mesa and surrounding towns, and a really imaginative way to discover the best of local food on offer.

First stop was the Queen Creek Olive Mill. 

This is a family-owned olive farm producing olive oil, but also every known product that could possibly use olive oil in its production, including beauty and health products. A fantastic place to buy some gifts for yourself and people at home. The Olive Oil 101 tour gave us all the background on how the oil is produced, and we also enjoyed a tasty lunch and sampled some of the in-house roastery’s Superstition Coffee, www.queencreekolivemill.com

Our base in town was the new Residence Inn Phoenix-Mesa East. In contrast to our ‘get away from it all’ ranch stay this is a slick and modern hotel with every mod con, including a fully-functioning kitchen and two giant TVs in each suite. There are two-bed suites too which would be a great offer for families.

That evening another venue on the Foodie Trail – Agritopia – was our destination for what turned out to be a very, very special event, the Fall Orchard Dinner.

Agritopia is an urban farm producing fruit and veg through a community garden scheme where individuals grow varied crops, which you can buy fresh, or enjoy in dishes at Joe’s Farm Grill, a 60s-style diner that was once the original far, homestead. There are also other places on site to enjoy a drink or two and workshops.

But we made our way out into the beautiful citrus orchard at dusk to be seated at a long table under the trees to enjoy a Medittereanean-themed feast. It was stunning, the food excellent and the company stimulating. Not a cheap night out (£170pp), but truly special, www.agritopia.com

While the desert climate is a reason to grow certain food, it’s also the main reason people love to live in Mesa. Low humidity, dry, clean air and an average yearly temperature of 86 degrees F make it attractive for outdoor living. Yes, summer is hot – 100 degrees F at times and desert nights can be cold, but you plan accordingly. We visited in November and the weather was perfect, sunny and warm with a chill in the evening.

Hiking is really popular and one of the most popular areas for families to get out into the desert and mountains is at Usery Mountain Regional Park. It’s 3,648 acres of Sonoran desert, accessed with a small entry fee, where you can enjoy a picnic in the shade or take the Wind Cave Trail up 2,840 ft for a panoramic view, www.maricopacountyparks.net

Find out all you need to know at the Nature Centre near the entrance.

For those who prefer a short walk and history lesson, there’s Mesa Grande Cultural Park in town, to learn about the ancient settlement built by the Hohokum between 1100 and 1400 AD, www.arizonamuseumofnaturalhistory.org

Lunch for us was a short drive away at a famous ‘fast food’ venue – Jalapeno Buck’s. Situated at the side of the road, its popularity was evident by the queue waiting for their names to be called out as orders became ready. It’s the best ‘Arizona-style BuzzSaw Brand BBQ and New Wave Mexican Soul Food’ on offer. You can take it away or find a table, hopefully under the branches of a citrus tree. This is a feast mostly for meat lovers! There are burritos and quesadillas filled with your choice of chilli, brisket, and pulled pork and more with a load of Mexican rice, beans and mac and cheese thrown in, all with prices at around $10 for a meal. Makes you feel like a real local!

www.jalapenobucks.com

Mesa has so much to offer and it’s all so easily accessible – a fantastic desert experience taking in the best of the past and present. 

Fact box

 As You Like It (www.americaasyoulikeit.com / 020 8742 8299) has a five night fly-drive to Mesa, Arizona from £1119 per person, including return flights on British Airways from London Heathrow to Phoenix, five days fully inclusive car hire, two nights bed and breakfast at the Residence Inn Phoenix-Mesa East and three nights bed and breakfast at the Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch.