A tour of Mesa might best be started at the very beginning, at the Park of the Canals near the intersection of McKellips Road and Horne Street north of the downtown area. Visitors can see the innovative irrigation systems established by the original Hohokam Indian residents of Mesa, with the effectiveness of the canals demonstrated by the Brinton Desert Botanical Garden at the same location. The Botanical Garden hosts special events in season, along with desert gardening workshops and concerts in what can be a surreal setting. The Salt River is just northwest from the Park of the Canals, making for a water-themed day in the desert.
On the way back to Mesa's town center, it's an easy stop at the former Lehi School, circa 1913, which now houses the Mesa Historical Museum and provides snapshots into the lives of early settlers of the communities that have blended to form modern Mesa. The historic downtown section of Mesa features attractions ranging from the Wild West era to modern arcades. The Ellis-Johnson home, the Alhambra Hotel, the Vance Auditorium and the former Southside Hospital all echo back to the beginnings of Mesa. The Mesa Southwest Museum provides scholarly, scientific, and fun background for sites visited in the city and beyond.
Immediately east of the original Mesa town site is the Temple Historic District, encompassing two residential divisions. Homes from the early 1920s line streets that were named for the Mormon pioneers who helped shape present-day Mesa and who laid the foundations for the Arizona Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints built in 1927. The temple is open for tours.
From Mesa, visitors and history buffs can embark on sightseeing adventures such as the Apache Trail Jeep Tour, which follows the stagecoach and freight wagon route from Mesa to Globe through the Superstition Mountains. Somewhere in those mountains, the Lost Dutchman Mine waits to be found again. The Goldfield Ghost Town resurrects its history as a thriving mining community that bit the dust when the mine petered out. At its height, there were three saloons, a boarding house, a general store, blacksmith shop, brewery, schoolhouse, and bordello. Along the finger of the Sonoran Desert that points across the East Valley, a smorgasbord of desert succulents can be encountered: saguaro, prickly pear, varieties of cholla, hedgehog cactus, and ocotillos. When the mountains and desert become too dry, visitors can head northeast to Saguaro Lake for a paddleboat excursion on the Desert Belle past canyon walls and Arizona wildlife.
The new Mesa Arts Center, expected to open in 2005, is the largest arts center in Arizona at 212,775 square feet of space for performing arts facilities, visual arts galleries and studios, and art education classrooms. The outside of the complex is as inviting as the inside, with a design reflective of the surrounding Sonoran Desert in hue, shape and landscaping. A 700-foot Shadow Walk serves as a cool outdoor plaza for events or relaxing during a tour. Located in the heart of downtown Mesa, the Arts Center campus contains three buildings, including a four-theater complex. The theater spaces are: the 1,588-seat Tom and Janet Ikeda Theater; the 550-seat Virginia G. Piper Repertory Theater; the 200-seat Nesbitt/Elliott Playhouse; and the 98-seat Anita Cox Farnsworth Studio Theater. The other facilities on the Arts Center campus are the Mesa Contemporary Arts Building and the Art Studios' classrooms and work areas.
Ballet Etudes will eventually be housed within the Mesa Arts Center, offering serious ballet performers an experience akin to a professional dance company. Ballet Etudes stages "The Nutcracker" annually, along with a Spring Repertory performance. The dancers have performed with the Mesa Symphony Orchestra, soon also to be located under the Arts Center roof. Besides its five scheduled orchestral performances each season, the Mesa Symphony Orchestra does outreach in the public schools and provides vouchers that allow students and their families to attend future performances at a reduced rate. The Metropolitan Youth Symphony involves 275 excellent young musicians in a minimum of three concerts each season, providing a professional-level experience for aspiring performers. The Sonoran Desert Chorale's 56 vocalists present four major concerts each season, with selections ranging from the classical to the Broadway stage.
Billed as "theatre for children by children," the East Valley Children's Theatre encourages creativity, self-confidence, and expression through community theatrical performances. The company puts on three productions each season, along with a host of workshops and classes for youth between the ages of 8 and 18. Also offering three plays per season is the Southwest Shakespeare Company, which strives to bring classical theater to the masses through dynamic live performances. The actors are able to share their appreciation for the Bard via student matinees, post-show seminars, and play introductions. For theater along with edible fare, the Broadway Palm West Dinner Theatre is recommended.
At the Arizona Museum for Youth, exhibits are tailored for young children to 12-year-olds, although adults will also enjoy the explanatory and interactive displays. Tours, opportunities to contribute to masterpieces, art classes, and workshops all happen at this fun and stimulating site located at Robson and Pepper streets.
Housed in the original 1913 Lehi Schoolhouse, the Mesa Historical Museum contains a wealth of artifacts donated by Mesa's pioneer families and linked to the city's colorful past. Also on the grounds is the Settler's Adobe House, reconstructed in the scale and manner of the first permanent homes as the new residents attempted to deal with life in the desert heat.
The natural and cultural histories of Mesa and its environs are the focus of the Mesa Southwest Museum. A $4.5 million expansion in 1996 brought the museum to its current size of 80,000 square feet, and another $4.5 million funded new exhibits for the expanded area. Collections include Spanish Colonial relics, artifacts of mining, reflections of Arizona's role in World War II (including Japanese relocation camps), Hohokam ceramics and jewelry, and evidence of Arizona's former function as ocean floor. The museum's Archaeology Team has several active excavations that are open to the public.
Arts and Culture Information: Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street, PO Box 1466, Mesa, AZ 85211-1466; telephone (480)644-6501
The desert heat in summer dictates that festivals and outdoor events in Mesa are concentrated in winter, spring and fall months with a bit of a summer siesta in between. The year kicks off in January with the Martin Luther King, Jr., Festival, where the civil rights pioneer is feted with music, food, and carnival rides. In February, Mesa joins forces with Phoenix and other East Valley communities to put on the Blues Blast at the Mesa Amphitheatre. National and local blues artists perform a day-long concert that gets central Arizona in the groove. In mid-March, the Old World Folk Music Festival celebrates centuries-old indigenous music from a variety of cultures. From March through April, Free Community Concerts are performed, including a family series with puppetry and theater as well as the Courtyard Series on Thursday nights.
Cinco de Mayo festivities start May off, with a two-day cultural fiesta in Pioneer Park. For 45 years, Mesa has held a Fourth of July party; the Mesa Symphony Orchestra typically provides a rousing rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner." The United Mesa Firefighter Charities usher in cooler weather in September with the Annual Firefighters Benefit Bash. Live music, auctions and raffles all collect proceeds that benefit firefighters and their families during difficult times. Later in September, Mesa honors its history during the Annual Constitution Celebration, featuring a parade, picnics and music.
Native American art, culture, music, dancing, and food are the focus of the Mesa Pow Wow in late October. Elaborate native dress and dance competitions attract visitors from many tribes and states. From November through April, art takes to the streets with Mesa's Sculptures in the Streets program, during which the public can stroll through temporary sculpture displays along downtown Main Street. In December, Main Street is again the destination for holiday celebrations in the downtown area. Mesa's Merry Main Street decks the halls with lights, gingerbread houses, tempting wrapped packages and a visit by Santa.
The Chicago Cubs get ready for baseball season at Mesa's own Hohokam Field. In 2004, baseball fans at Hohokam Field broke attendance records for Major League Baseball Spring Training. The Cactus League gets started in early March and wraps the Spring Training season up in approximately a month. Locals and visitors get the opportunity to preview not just the Cubs but also their impressive roster of opponents, including the Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres, and the Oakland A's.
Baseball doesn't end in March, though—Mesa and Hohokam Field are also hosts to Golden League and Fall League baseball. The Golden League subsidizes professional independent teams in Arizona and California at present; the Mesa Miners play ball from May through August. In October and November, Fall League baseball picks up the slack, with the Mesa Solar Sox providing a preview of the next generation of Major League Baseball players.
Mesa Community College's Thunderbirds compete in a variety of sports at the National Junior College Athletic Association level, with teams in baseball, basketball, football, soccer, and track. Phoenix offers more professional and collegiate sports options, from the Cardinals football team to the Suns basketball program to the Diamondbacks baseball organization.
The name of the game in Mesa is golf—local courses abound and a short drive provides access to even more holes stunningly situated in desert and mountain terrain. Local courses in Mesa include Fiesta Lakes Golf Club (public; 9 holes), Royal Palms Golf Course (public; 9 holes), Augusta Ranch Golf Club (private; 18 holes), Las Sendas Golf Club (public; 18 holes), and Superstition Springs Golf Club (9 holes), just to name a few. Toka Sticks Golf Course on the grounds of the Williams Gateway Airport offers the unique opportunity to fly in, play 18 holes and fly out again. Mountain Brook Golf Club is located outside of Mesa but is set in the desert just below the Superstition Mountains, making it a dramatic experience for the golfer.
The Gene Autry Sports Complex contains tennis courts, indoor volleyball courts and beach volleyball pits. Lessons are offered, and players can join leagues or drop in on specified days.
Mesa may be in the desert, but watersports are still available. Rafting and tubing on the Salt River are popular summertime thrills, while local lakes like Saguaro are typically good spots for anglers to try for walleye, largemouth and brown trout, bluegills, channel catfish, and crappie.
The Superstition Mountains east of Mesa offer hikes of all levels of difficulty and duration, including the 1.5 mile Massacre Grounds trail, the Peralta Trail to the Fremont Saddle, and the steep Siphon Draw trail. The Tonto National Forest to the north of Phoenix and Mesa is the fifth largest forest in the United States, providing opportunities for a range of outdoor activities such as hiking, rock climbing, and camping. For a classic hiking adventure, trekkers can head north to the Grand Canyon.
The Mesa Market Place Swap Meet covers 55 acres with more than 1,600 booths under a canopy to give an outdoor shopping experience with shade and water misters to keep customers cool. The Swap Meet is open year-round with great bargains and unusual merchandise. Antiques and collectibles are often found among the shops in the historic downtown area of Mesa, while more recognizable stores can be encountered at the Fiesta Mall, Superstition Springs Center, and The Village Square at Dana Park. Mesa holds a Community Farmers Market downtown all year, with vendors providing fresh produce and other goods in a street fair atmosphere.
As might be expected, Mesa's culinary specialty is Mexican-Southwestern food, with burgers and pizza coming in second and third. There's something for every taste, though, in Mesa's menu of Chinese, Japanese, sushi, Italian, Greek, steak, and homestyle eateries. Local and chain coffee shops abound, as well.