In March 1877, when a group of 84 Mormon settlers arrived here, they found a desert landscape with only thin strips of vegetation lining the Salt River. The eager families immediately began rebuilding the old Hohokam irrigation canals, hoping to make the desert green and start a prosperous new life under the warm Arizona sun. Because the land reminded them of a tabletop, they named the settlement Mesa. From the tiny adobe fort used by pioneers in the first years, Mesa has grown into Arizona's third-largest city, with a population approaching half a million. More people arrive in winter to enjoy the sunny climate, the lakes, and the Superstition Mountains. Mesa, bordered by Tempe and Apache Junction, lies 15 miles east of Phoenix.
Arizona Museum of Natural History
Exciting exhibits take you from the beginning of time to the modern era (53 N. Macdonald St., 480/644-2230, www.azmnh.org, 1-5 p.m. Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat., $6 ages 13-54, $5 seniors and students, $3 ages 3-12). Turn right in the lobby to enter the Tunnel of Time to see meteorites and exhibits about the universe. Next, the Hall of Minerals has some beautiful specimens along with illustrations of how rocks formed. You'll come out at Dinosaur Mountain, a towering rock face inhabited by lifelike animated beasts. Pictures, fossils, and realistic models trace the development of early life. Families can detour into the Desert Discovery Zone to check out the hands-on exhibits and projects. Skeletons in Dinosaur Hall represent over 20 species, including a giant plant-eating Camarasaurus. Continuing to the upper gallery, you'll have another perspective of Dinosaur Mountain, see a gallery of impressive Arizona Highways photos, and view Sonoran Desert exhibits. On entering the Paleo-Indian room, you'll pass archaeologic displays and a skeleton of a mammoth. A recreated Hohokam village just beyond looks like it's still inhabited. A gallery of Mesoamerican art contains figurines and other ceramics.
You'll feel the Spanish presence on entering a replica of Guevavi Mission (1701-1774), the first one built in Arizona. A short side trip leads to a grim territorial jail. Continue to the courtyard outside where you can see a mine replica and try some gold panning. Back inside you can enter the tunnel of the Lost Dutchman Mine and discover some of its facts and mysteries. The historic displays end with an entertaining "Arizona and the Movies" room. Several changing galleries and a theater room host a variety of shows about the Southwest and beyond.
A gift shop sells books and souvenirs. Staff can tell you about Mesa Grande Ruins, a nearby Hohokam platform mound excavation that can be visited by appointment. The museum is downtown on the corner with W. 1st St.; from the Superstition Freeway/US 60, turn north on Country Club Drive, then right on 1st Street.
Mesa Arts Center
This impressive complex of glass walls and spacious galleries houses exhibition galleries, theaters, studios, classrooms, and offices. You'll see exhibits by the Mesa Contemporary Arts collection plus visiting shows. Performing arts include a wide variety of concerts and plays. The center (1 E. Main St., 480/644-6560 gallery info, 480/644-6500 box office, www.mesaarts.com, closed Mon.) is downtown at the southeast corner of Main and Center Streets.
Arizona Museum for Youth
Children view art exhibits and participate in art projects presented just for them (downtown at 35 N. Robson St., 480/644-2467, www.arizonamuseumforyouth.com, $3.50 ages one and up). The main gallery will appeal to ages 5-12, while ArtVille entertains younger kids. Workshops and classes also have fun things to do. The museum is open 1-5 p.m. Tues.-Fri. and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.; summer hours (Memorial Day through Labor Day) run 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun.; exhibits change three times a year.
Mesa Arizona Temple
Rising from beautifully landscaped gardens just east of downtown, this temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) rates as Mesa's most notable landmark. Workers completed the structure, based on classical Greek architecture, in 1927. Friezes at the top four corners of the exterior represent the gathering of church members from different regions of the world; brochures at the visitor center explain each of the eight scenes and the temple's history.
Marriages and other sacred ceremonies take place inside the temple, so it's not open for tours, but you're welcome to wander among the exotic plants in the gardens and view exhibits in the nearby visitor center (525 E. Main St., 480/964-7164, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily, except 10 a.m.-10 p.m. in Dec., free). Personalized tours in the visitor center begin at the Christus, a ten-foot statue of Italian marble, and present the basic doctrines of the church. You can explore further with interactive exhibits or online at www.lds.org.
Special events at the temple include the Easter Pageant during the two weeks preceding Easter and a Nativity Scene plus a display of Christmas lights (750,000 of them!) that brighten the grounds from late November through December. Also during the Christmas holidays are 30-minute musical programs at 7 p.m. nightly.
Trace your family roots at the Mesa Regional Family History Center (41 S. Hobson, 480/964-1200, www.mesarfhc.org, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon. and Sat., 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Tues.-Fri., free), located across the street from the temple grounds. An introductory video and tour will help you get started.
Mesa Historical Society Museum
This remarkable collection (2345 N. Horne in north Mesa, 480/835-7358, www.mesahistoricalmuseum.org, call or check website for hours, free) of pioneer memorabilia in the 1913 Lehi School tells the stories of settlers and later citizens who contributed to the now flourishing city. Each of the many rooms has a different theme. You'll find antique furnishings, school exhibits, a sports hall of fame, personal histories, old photos, and changing exhibits. A video about Mesa's history provides a good introduction. Outside in front, you can see replicas of Fort Utah (the area's first pioneer building) and Mesa's first schoolhouse. Antique farm machinery rests in the side yard and around back. Auditorium murals, shown on request, depict Southwest history. A gift shop has books and crafts.
On the way, you may wish to stop at Park of the Canals (1710 N. Horne, free) to view three ancient Hohokam canals that pioneers dug out and utilized in 1878. The park also has picnic tables, a playground, and a small desert botanical garden.
Arizona Wing CAF Museum
The World War II B-17G bomber Sentimental Journey stands out as the centerpiece of a vintage aircraft collection (northeast corner of Greenfield and McKellips Roads at Falcon Field, enter from Greenfield, 480/924-1940, www.azcaf.org, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily from Oct. to May, then 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Wed.-Sun. in summer, $10 adults, $9 seniors 62+, $3 ages 5-12). The B-17G and other aircraft may be open for tours, or you may be lucky enough to see one roar down the runway and take off into the skies. Even more exciting is a ride in one! Call to check on the flying schedule. Other World War II planes in the collection include a B-25J Mitchell bomber that flew missions out of Corsica, a C-45 transport, and a SNJ trainer. The hangars also house visiting aircraft, photo exhibits, engines, and displays of radio, navigation, and gunnery equipment. At the Annual Veterans Day Fly-in and Community Expo, on the weekend leading up to Veterans Day in early November, the museum hosts special aviation programs and you can see warbirds in flight and in ground displays.
Rawhide Western Town & Steakhouse
This replica of an 1880s' Old West town (5700 West North Loop Rd., just west of I-10 Wild Horse Pass Blvd. Exit 162, on the Gila River Indian Reservation, 480/502-5600, www.rawhide.com, 5-10 p.m. daily all year, extended to 11 a.m.-10 p.m. on Fri.-Sun., Oct.-May) invites you in for some fun and food. Pistol Packin Paula and other characters regularly enliven the scene. Rough Riders stage stunt action shows in the Six Gun Theater. A haunted hotel and Lost Dutchman's Mine provide additional thrills. Or take a ride on a stagecoach, train, burro, camel, or the Widowmaker Mechanical Bull. Kids may also have a hard time passing up the shooting gallery, ice cream parlor, and candy store. A photo emporium lets you pose in period costumes. Shops sell a variety of Western-theme goods. Rawhide Steakhouse and the Sundown Cookout offer food and entertainment. Admission and Main Street activities are free; you pay for the attractions and shows with carnival-style tickets.Open Tuesday –Saturday, 10 AM – 4 PM
Thursdays open 10 AM to 7 PM
Historical exhibits at this museum (178 E. Commonwealth Ave. in downtown Chandler, 480/782-2717, www.chandlermuseum.org, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Sat. (until 7 p.m. Thurs.), donations welcome) display Native American artifacts and memorabilia of pioneer life and early agriculture. You'll learn about Dr. Alexander J. Chandler (1859-1950), who pioneered irrigation here, opened the nearby San Marcos Hotel, and founded the town named for him.
The museum is just east of A.J. Chandler Park. To get there from Mesa, head south on Country Club Drive (AZ 87), which becomes Arizona Avenue and is the main street through Chandler. Go east one block on Buffalo St. (also signed "City Complex"), south one block on Arizona Place, then east one block on Commonwealth Avenue.
Arizona Railway Museum
Railroad enthusiasts have preserved a 1906 steam locomotive and a wide variety of other historic rolling stock (330 E. Ryan Rd. in Tumbleweed Park, east of Arizona Ave. in Chandler, 480/821-1108, www.azrymuseum.org, noon-4 p.m. Sat.-Sun. from Labor Day to Memorial Day weekends, donations welcome). Guided tours through Pullman cars recall a bygone era of rail travel. You may also see volunteers restoring steam and diesel locomotives and variety of freight cars.
Gilbert Historical Museum
In the small agricultural town of Gilbert, south of Mesa and east of Chandler, exhibits in eight rooms of the 1913 Gilbert Grammar School tell the town's story from prehistory to the present (10 S. Gilbert Rd., enter from Elliot Rd., 480/926-1577, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues., Thurs., and Sat., donations appreciated). A lineup of antique farm machinery sits outside.
On to Mesa Accommodations