Sunset in Sonoran Desert, near Phoenix
He then continues to steer us across the subtropical Sonoran Desert, famous for its huge diversity of species. We are in Arizona but this vast, wild terrain, where succulent, tender plants survive, stretches all the way out to California and down into Mexico.
Buckled up and hanging on, our bumpy adventure takes us high up into the mountains. As darkness falls we reach a flat look-out point, jump down from the vehicle and take in the views.
As the moon appears over the distant peaks, we spend a peaceful hour stargazing. Miles from anywhere and free from light pollution, Saturn and its distinctive rings become visible against the indigo sky.
With its characteristic red rocks, spectacular sunsets and adorable small towns, Arizona is a famous road-trip state. The wild west at its very best, this iconic desert landscape has been a prominent feature in many classic Western movies and TV shows, such as El Dorado, Young Guns and Bonanza.
But instead of passing through, we’re staying put. We’re keen to discover how life works in this cultural corner of the Valley of the Sun.
Small town at the base of a mountain in Arizona
After making our way back into town, a cool breeze blowing in our faces, we shower away the desert dirt before sinking into the comfortable beds of the Sheraton Mesa Hotel.
A welcoming, resort-style hotel featuring local artwork, it’s perfectly positioned for the Riverview Park recreation area and a shopping mall which boasts Boot Barn – the go-to store for authentic western wear. It’s also right next to the Chicago Cubs spring training ground. The Phoenix area explodes with visitors in March – when pitchers, catchers and batters from around 19 Major League Baseball teams arrive to make the most of the almost year-round sunshine. Tickets start from just £9 per game and pre-season fans arrive in their thousands to worship their Cactus League heroes.
The Sheraton Mesa Hotel is conveniently located by the Riverview Park recreation area
Art and culture are also big here. The Mesa Arts Center is the largest arts and entertainment park in the southwest. There are more than 200 public art sculptures on the city streets. Plus, don’t miss downtown’s museums: the kid-friendly Arizona Museum of Natural History and i.d.e.a. Museum, and the Mesa Historical Museum.
The surrounding Sonoran Desert experiences twice-yearly monsoon rains, making the landscape, especially north of state, relatively lush. Although the temperatures rise well above 100F (37.7C) in June and July, the defining saguaro cactus, complete with arms, is always green. We saddle up for an early morning trail ride with views of the volcanic peaks of the Superstition Mountains and of the Native American reservation land.
Mesa Arts Centre
Our horses pick their way among the palo verde trees and prickly pear cactus and we pause to watch wild mustangs galloping in the distance.
In the afternoon, we cover a different part of the Sonoran, this time abandoning four legs for two wheels on a Segway. Before setting off, our guide, Cowboy Don, makes us recite two golden rules: don’t look backwards and don’t touch any rattlesnakes. Happy to oblige!
The blue skies, warm sun and breathtaking red rock scenery make for an unforgettable ride.
Kayaking is one of the main options for visitors exploring Salt River
Dinner at Liberty Market in nearby Gilbert feels homely. With a strong community spirit, the restaurant, based in a converted grocery store with retro shopping trolleys around the wall, prides itself on its connections to local farmers and suppliers. Along with classic burger combinations, we sample a local favourite – Salt River Bars, a crunchy, creamy combination of chocolate, peanut butter, caramel and salt – washed down with craft beers.
The mighty, but calm, Salt River is the location for our next Arizona adventure – kayaking.
The gentle, flowing water provides a smooth ride as we paddle along an exquisite part of the Tonto National Forest. The river looks so inviting, we round off our expedition by jumping into the shallows, still with our lifejackets on, at the end of the route. We also meet mountain bike experts Chris and Sierra inside Usery Mountain Regional Park on the west side of the Valley, for a two-hour cycle around the desert tracks and hills.
The Horseshoe Bend at sunset
Under the searing Arizona sun, this might sound like more of a sweaty endurance test than a pleasure, but with plenty of stops and plenty of water, we all make it back to the final, flat section, for an easy freewheel back.
That night we enjoy Mexican food at its finest at Hacienda De Rosa’s. This Mesa favourite serves prickly pear margaritas, tequila and beers as well as colourful plates of spicy delights.
If you want to get to the fried ice-cream, then go easy on the starters.
Arizona is of course also famous for one of nature’s most show stopping creations, the Grand Canyon. A day trip with Across Arizona Tours takes us to some of the most spectacular vistas of the vast gorge created by the Colorado River, its layered bands of red rock revealing millions of years of geological history (£114 adults, £57 children).
The following day we decide to take it down a notch with some early morning yoga. Joining an 80-strong group, up and ready for some life-affirming sun salutations, we form a circle in a field.
Sarah Williams runs Arizona Goat Yoga
“We’ll do 10 minutes of serious yoga, then let the goats in,” declares the group leader…
After a few basic, easy-to-master moves, the ramp of the nearby trailer slowly lowers and, bizarrely, a small herd of goats does indeed trot down to meet us.
Keen to get in on the action, the animals then leap around us, jumping on and off people’s backs, as we try – and fail – to do some useful postures.
Sarah Williams, who runs Arizona Goat Yoga, has developed a winning formula and numbers are growing each week. Not so much downward dog, but down with the goat, it is more like laughter therapy than the search for inner stillness – and worth every penny for pure, haphazard amusement.
After an uplifting week of vivid landscapes and varied outdoor pursuits we come to the conclusion that life is beautiful here in Arizona and we simply can’t stop smiling.
• The knowledge: America As You Like It offer a five-night package from £1,060 per person, including return international flights from Heathrow to Phoenix, Arizona, on Virgin Atlantic on April 21, car hire with free additional driver and accommodation at the Sheraton Mesa Hotel on room-only basis. (americaasyoulikeit.com; 020 8742 8299). More info at visitarizona.com