Nearly doubling its population between 2000 and 2010, up-and-coming Gilbert, Arizona, is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, outstripping even the state’s impressive growth rate. This progressive community, which lies 20 miles southeast of downtown Phoenix, is home to more than 200,000 residents today. Nearly all have arrived since 1980, when the town tallied a population of fewer than 6,000 people.
Visitors looking for outdoor things to do in Gilbert need not travel far. Within city limits is the 110-acre Gilbert Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, a haven for 200 species of birds as well as a magnet for birdwatchers, many from surrounding states. Trails wind around the preserve’s lake and seven ponds, eventually feeding into the city’s extensive system of hiking and biking trails. The preserve also operates an on-site observatory Fridays and Saturdays, taking advantage of the desert’s clear night skies.
Gilbert visitors will find a lively entertainment scene at venues that range from the cozy charm of family-operated Hale Theatre and the larger stages of Higley Center for the Performing Arts. Theater-in-the-round enhances the intimate experience at Hale, where no one sits farther back than the eighth row. Productions include classics from Broadway, such as South Pacific, but the theater’s most popular show has been The Man With the Pointed Toes, which was written for television in the 1950s. At Higley's 185-seat theater and 1,235-seat concert hall, theatrical productions are just a part of the entertainment mix; cowboy acts, musical concerts and circus performances are among its offerings.
The Higley Center for the Performing Arts also sponsors the Gilbert Folk Festival downtown in February. The performances run all day at multiple stages and are free to the public. Anyone attending this event will find plenty of things to do between sets at Gilbert's bi-monthly Art Walk and weekly Farmers Market.
Shopping in Gilbert is something of an outdoor sport, as open-air shopping districts make full use of Arizona’s plentiful sunshine and dry air. SanTan Village, with 1,000,000 square feet of retail space, will eventually triple in size among a 500-acre development to include hotels, offices and residential units. Gilbert Town Square, a couple of miles south of downtown, is another open-air retail development. It lies adjacent to the city’s administrative buildings.
Housed in a structure nicknamed “the Alamo,” the Gilbert Historical Museum is well worth a visit. This 1913 building served as an elementary school from its construction until 1977. Now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the museum contains a wealth of artifacts and replicas, from antique typewriters to clothes, and from toys to furniture. One of its interactive exhibits encourages children visiting Gilbert to load a replica of a Conestoga wagon. Two dioramas in the Town Room depict the area as it was in 1917 and in 1944. Because the town owes its existence to the railroad, the museum devotes one of its rooms to a World War II-era model train exhibit.