This Arizona town is the gateway to a wild (or mild) Western weekend

Dec 19, 2023

Set in the Sonoran Desert against the backdrop of inspiring mountain views is Mesa, Arizona. You might recognize this city—located just 20 miles east of Phoenix—as a baseball spring training destination (the Chicago Cubs and Oakland A’s both call Mesa home every spring). Beyond the Mesa city limits, you’ll find small towns like Queen Creek across a region known as the Greater Mesa area. Add them all together, this region has the makings of a classic southwest vacation any time of year—with the bonus of reliably good weather.

The area pairs small-town vibes, like a charming downtown, with the convenience of big city amenities, like its own Phoenix Mesa Gateway Airport, with plenty of unique outdoor experiences. Hike the desert trails or take in the views by horseback, enjoy local food at the source along Arizona’s Fresh Foodie Trail and experience a real rodeo (Western boots optional). 

Allow this guide to be your inspiration before you head to the desert for a Western getaway.  

A Western experience 

Mesa serves as a perfect launching point for a day of exploring on the Apache Trail (also known as Arizona's Route 88). The scenic drive is 65 miles roundtrip, and brings you to stretches of desert, past the Superstition Mountains and through the Tonto National Forest.

First up, head to the Superstition Mountain Museum to learn about the region's history and geology. The museum also features a replica of an old mining town, complete with skits performed by re-enactors. Drive a few more minutes along Route 88, and step back in time with a stop in the Goldfield Ghost Town, where you can see the town's historic buildings, pan for gold and tour the Mammoth Gold Mine.

Farther along the trail is Tortilla Flat, which was established as a stagecoach stop over a century ago. Today, visitors can visit the old schoolhouse-turned-museum to learn about the town's history; stop into the Tortilla Flat Country Store, known for its unique prickly pear gelato; and saddle up at the Superstition Saloon and Restaurant, where the bar stools are made of actual saddles. Try a signature brew like Snake Venom (a red ale) or Mule Oil (a pilsner), and dishes like their "Killer Chili" and "The Prospector" (pulled pork with prickly pear BBQ sauce).  

(Note: parts of the Apache Trail Scenic Byway beyond Tortilla Flat are currently closed. Be sure to check the trail's status before heading out.)

Get up close to the landscape with a hike along one of the many trails in the region. The Queen Creek trail system, the San Tan Mountain Regional Park and the Usery Mountain Regional Park are home to several options that range in skill level.

Before you hit the road, consult Visit Mesa's list of hiking tips, which include packing plenty of water, staying on the designated trail and how to remove cactus needles (just to name a few). For an elevated trail experience, you can also giddy up and go horseback riding in the desert.

Beyond the desert

Even if it isn't your first rodeo, consider planning a trip during Roots N' Boots Queen Creek from March 13-17 at the Horseshoe Park & Equestrian Centre. See rodeo performances, live music and rodeo dances, plus family-friendly activities like a petting zoo and pony rides. And if this is your first rodeo, you can purchase tickets for their Rodeo 101 Tour to get a look inside the rodeo arena, have your questions answered and even try on some rodeo attire. If you can't make it in March, check out their year-round events calendar for more happenings. 

Change out your cowboy hat for a baseball cap in Mesa during spring training, when the Cactus League hosts over 200 games in Arizona in just 30 days. Baseball fans looking for a break from winter weather up north (and 4+ months of no games) will flock to the area, so plan ahead if you plan to be part of the fun.

The Chicago Cubs depart Wrigley Field and call Sloan Park home for the month, while the Oakland A's set up at Hohokam Stadium. Enjoy affordable game tickets; watch the Cubs' batting practice at the Nike Performance Center and Riverview Baseball Complex; and bring the family to the Stomper Kid Zone at Hohokam Stadium, where kids 12 and under can partake in games like the tee-ball home run derby, and depending on the day, might even meet the A's mascot Stomper.

Set in Queen Creek Canyon about 45 miles east of Mesa is the Boyce Thompson Arboretum. The sprawling arboretum sits on over 370 acres, including 135 acres of gardens (aka, a plant-lover's dream). There's also guided experiences, like a bird walk available on the second Saturday and Sunday of the month through April 2024, and a butterfly walk available the last Saturday of the month from March-May 2024. 

As you plan your visit, check out Visit Mesa's resources for accessible travel, including accommodation options, low mobility and autism-friendly itinerary ideas and more.

Food fresh from the farm and an evening fireside 

Arizona’s Fresh Foodie Trail has compiled all the best foodie experiences in Mesa's limitless agricultural region. In Queen Creek is Schnepf Farms, a family farm known for its peach production that also hosts events throughout the year. Their U-Pick for peaches will begin in May, but you can find vegetables to pick any time of year here—including collard greens, garlic and carrots; in fall, purchase tickets to their Pumpkin and Chili Party, where you can try many types of chili, go on a hayride and test your corn hole skills; and during the holiday season, get into the spirit with Christmas at Schnepf Farms, where you'll find activities like visits with Santa and ice skating.

For some Italian-inspired cuisine, dine at the Queen Creek Olive Mill where olives are grown and pressed to make extra virgin olive oil. Located inside of the olive mill is Del Piero Kitchen, a marketplace cafe with dishes like a honey mascarpone and Calabrian crunch bruschetta and the pepperoni Del Piero brick-oven pizza with a roasted garlic olive oil drizzle. Learn more about the production process by attending their Olive Oil 101 tour. Tickets start at $8 per person and include the opportunity to taste some of the oils.

Finish the trail with a tasting at the Windmill Winery. This vineyard focuses on grapes that thrive in the drier desert climate. Try their cabernet, pinot grigio or something more unique like a barbera at the wine tasting room. Check out their events calendar to see when food trucks will be in attendance, and for a lineup of live music.

Back in town, there's plenty of dining options to choose from—especially for patio dining, if you'd like to take advantage of the nice weather. One such option for outdoor dining is Old Ellsworth Brewing in Queen Creek. Their rotating tap list includes varieties from IPAs to porters to pale ales, and a menu of pub food comforts like poutine, nachos and burgers are a great way to fuel up after a day on the trails. 

A trip to San Tan Flat will keep the Western theme going. The steakhouse—situated near the base of the San Tan Mountains—features Western decor, an eye-catching menu with items like rancher tips and honey BBQ baby back ribs plus a calendar full of live music. There's also a spacious outdoor seating area complete with fire pits, where you can roast s'mores (kits available for purchase) as you admire the desert night sky. 


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