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Mesa is the third largest city in Arizona, with a population of 462,823, as of June, 2008 (per the city’s Web site).

I always thought that a mesa had to be a flat-topped mountain, but I’ve found that isn’t always true.? A mesa is a flat land surface, but only needs to have one or more steep sides, at least according to some definitions.? In the case of the town site, the Salt River valley has created a steep incline along its southern side, and it’s on the upper plain above the river that the town sits.? The plain actually slopes smoothly all the way from the Superstitions through Mesa and on into Tempe.? Apache Junction to the east is at 1722′ in elevation, Tempe is at 1140′.

The history of Mesa is much longer than you might think.? The Hohokam people were the first to arrive in the area, some 2,000 years ago, and they established a huge network of canals that included much of the Valley. Their abandoned canals were later used by the new settlers coming in from Utah in the 1800s. The Mormon settlers have left a lasting mark on the city, not the least of which is the large Latter Day Saints temple near downtown.

Mesa LDS Temple

The reworked canals allowed cotton to be grown and the planting of vast groves of orange trees. Even now the smell of orange blossoms settles over much of the city in the spring.

As an aside, a true story: When we first arrived, we saw that a lot of the orange trees had trunks painted white. We speculated that it was to protect the trees from the sun or from insects. However, we also saw a lot of trees that had green trunks. We couldn’t figure out why those were painted green until we pulled over and looked at them more closely.? We realized that the tree trunk and all the branches and twigs were green because that’s the way Palo Verde trees grow….

In 1980, the census showed 152,404 people living in town. Since then the population has more than tripled and the little town grown big struggles to keep up with all the new people. Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale to the west have the major industry and company headquarters and Mesa has largely served as a bedroom community. As a result, the city is covered with housing developments intermixed with the remaining orange groves. The population booms every fall and drops back the first of April as the snowbirds – people fleeing the frozen north every winter – come and go. There’s much more than just housing, though. There’s the beautiful Mesa Arts Center . The Center has three main stages for theater and performances, art studios, and an art museum.

Other attractions include the Arizona Museum of Natural History , the Commemorative Air Force at Falcon Field, and the Mesa Historical Museum .

The Park of the Canals is a small park dedicated to the canals that were first dug by the Hohokam and later reworked by the Mormons to bring water onto the mesa. In addition to the canals still visible, there’s a small botanical garden (especially nice in the spring when the cacti bloom) and a large playground. It’s not very well known in town, which is both a pity because it should be better known and a blessing because it’s not usually crowded.

In the downtown area, particularly along Main Street, there is a permanent collection of 30 pieces of street art that is often supplemented with other fine art pieces to the public for free viewing. Walking around downtown to see all of those pieces is a wonderful way to spend the day.

During spring training (March), the Chicago Cubs come to Hohokam Stadium to play in the Cactus League.? The city is currently working on a plan to upgrade the Cubs’ facilities.

Mesa has a waterpark called Golfland Sunsplash, which is packed with kids (and adults) all summer.

Another water park, called the Waveyard, is trying to get funding right now (tough in this economy!). It’ll be huge if it has everything that’s planned – surfing, whitewater rafting, scuba and snorkeling, wakeboarding, canyoneering and on and on…? Recently, however, the site chosen has come up as a possible location for the Cubs training complex, so the possibilities don’t look so good right now.

If you like bicycling, bike lanes on city streets, paved paths along the canals, and designated bike routes crisscross the city. The city provides a helpful PDF map and the moderate temperatures make bicycle riding good in all but the hottest months (and even then early mornings are tolerable). I trained for a long ride during the summer months twice, so I can tell you that the “dry heat” really does help on a bike! The evaporation is so good that you don’t start dripping sweat until you stop moving and as soon as you start again, the sweat is gone. (Of course, I can also tell you that I drank a gallon of water on a July or August training ride, too!)

Near Mesa is a string of lakes that starts with a lake that isn’t… The Granite Reef Diversion Dam splits almost all of the Salt River into two canals that serve the Valley. The result is that beyond the dam the riverbed is mostly just dry land most of the time. In fact, there are paved major roads across the riverbed. These do become impassable when too much water comes downstream to be diverted. Behind the dam, the Salt backs up into a nice nature preserve. The river is largely placid here and people fish, go birding or hiking and, in the section of the Salt between the Saguaro Lake dam and the ponding from the Granite Reef dam, float downstream on inner tubes, rafts and kayaks. The “SCAR” lakes impound the Salt for flood control, water storage, hydroelectricity and recreation. They are Saguaro, Canyon, Apache and Roosevelt Lakes (although they are reservoirs, more accurately). The Apache Trail was built to give access to three of the dams and remains the only way to get to two of them.

There are two airports in the city: Falcon Field in the north and Williams Gateway in the south. Both were WWII training bases that have been maintained and improved.

Allegiant Air provides flights to and from Williams Gateway as an alternative to Sky Harbor in Phoenix.

For your canine companions, Mesa offers two dog parks. We use the Quail Run one, which is convenient to our home and the Loop 202.

Oh, yeah. Golf courses galore, too!

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