I always assume that this child-friendly museum needs a bit of an explanation, because although its name implies it is a museum, it really isn’t. At least it’s not a museum in the traditional sense of the word—not a place filled with dusty, stuffed animals. Instead it is a living museum, a place where most of the more than 300 native Sonoran Desert animal species and 1,300 plant species live in natural-looking habitats. The New York Times called it “the most distinctive zoo in the United States,” but it is not only a zoo, but also a natural history museum, aquarium, and botanical garden.
Whatever you call it, it’s a place where families come to watch mountain lions climb trees, play tag, or doze in the sun atop a huge slab of rock. As you watch the other animals in the Mountain Habitat—the black bears, the foxes, the Mexican wolves and the white-tailed deer—notice the rocks. Are they real? Or are they man-made? What do you think?
Few people realize that the rocks are not natural rocks, but man-made wonders. In fact, more than 90 percent of the natural exhibits and enclosures at the museum are constructed of artificial rock. Made from a framework of rods and pipes covered with Gunite, the “rocks” are then plastered and painted so that they appear genuine.
While the rocks just seem to be real, the fear that some people feel upon thinking of the desert’s many creatures and plants is very real indeed. Some folks conjure up images of rattlesnakes, coiled and ready to strike; others see Gila monsters chasing them down trails; still others imagine sharp cactus spines piercing body parts. The desert is a frightening place to some.
But even the most squeamish can view rattlesnakes from behind glass cages and admire countless cacti with total safety at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. After learning about the desert, perhaps even those with disdain for the desert may learn to love it. (Stay a while and you’ll see that there’s a lot to love.) And those who were once timid may drum up the courage to hike a desert trail and truly enjoy its majesty.
Located west of Tucson, the educationally oriented museum opened in 1952 and has received wide acclaim since then. Visitors come from far and wide to visit the museum. And locals bring their friends and relatives to see “their” museum. Word has spread that this popular place shouldn’t be missed.
Upon entering the museum you may be overwhelmed by the list of things to do. Docent-led tours are a great place to start. Also, I’d recommend a visit to the orientation room and small animal room, where you’ll gain a better understanding of the intricacies of the Sonoran Desert.
The Sonoran Desert is one of four North American deserts; the others are the Mojave, the Great Basin, and the Chihuahuan. Stretching out across much of southern Arizona, as well as, Sonora and Baja California in Mexico, the Sonoran Desert ranges in elevation from below sea level to 3,500 feet. The museum property is located in a region that’s perhaps one of the richest in vegetation, and many visitors wonder how this area could rightly be called desert. One museum docent said, “People laugh when we say ‘Welcome to our desert.’ It’s probably the lushest part of the Sonoran Desert.”
All deserts receive scant rainfall (the Sonoran gets one to 14 inches per year). In most deserts, rain falls during the summer months when violent thunderstorms pound the area and rain pours down by bucketfuls, the rain flowing, river-like, across the baked surface. But in the Sonoran Desert, rain falls in equal amounts throughout the year. The desert receives gentle rains in the winter, while thunderstorms hammer the area in the summer. Thus, an abundance of plant life exists here. Known plant species number 2,500, half of which are annuals.
The animal life is as diverse as the plant life. The Sonoran and the nearby mountains, often called “islands” because they are encircled by a sea of desert, harbor an array of animal species such as the mountain lion, beaver, river otter, white-tailed deer, and the endangered Mexican wolf.
Area bird life is stunning as well. With species too numerous to mention, the museum includes bright red cardinals, cactus wrens, Gila flickers, quail, hummingbirds, and mockingbirds, to name a few.
Cave life is abundant. Although adults enjoy traipsing through the museum’s limestone cave, I think the kids love it even more. Although it’s not a natural cave, it’s so genuine that many unassuming visitors tell the volunteers how lucky they are to have a real cave on the property. As you pass through the cave, you’ll see tiger salamanders, one of the few vertebrate animals that occupy the depths of Arizona caves.
On two miles of trail through the 12-acre grounds, you’ll see bighorn sheep, iguanas, prairie dogs, javelinas, coyotes (stay long enough and you’re bound to hear coyotes yelping—the true song of the West), and coatimundis. Also, special underwater exhibits enable you to view beavers and river otters as they snuggle up in a den, glide underwater, or sun themselves on the rocks outside.
The small-cat grotto is also a must-see. Cliff-like areas form an impressive backdrop as margays, ocelots, bobcats, and jaguarundis strut about in four naturalistic settings, hiding in various nooks and crannies whenever the urge compels them.
Two walk-through bird aviaries make desert birding a real treat. A personal favorite is the hummingbird aviary where eight species of hummingbirds not only buzz visitors, but land on them at will. In fact, these tiny birds will land on just about anything—including tripods and cameras. The other aviary is home to nearly 50 species of birds that range from rare, masked bobwhites, to colorful parrots from Mexico. While standing inside the aviary, one little visitor captured the true essence of the giant cage. “I want to live here,” he said, smiling with his whole face.
The museum’s botanical garden is a terrific place to learn the names of the native species; it’s especially colorful in the spring and summer when the flowers are in bloom. You’ll see the stately saguaro here and elsewhere throughout the grounds. Found only in the Sonoran Desert, the saguaro is a slow-growing plant that reaches the size of a thimble in three years; after 15 years, it’s the size of a watermelon. The saguaro reaches maturity despite tremendous odds. Ponder the fact that only one in 1,000 seeds germinate. Many seeds are eaten by birds, ants, rodents; others perish from lack of moisture. Those that do survive sometimes live to a ripe old age of 150 years.
One exhibit provides insight into the grasslands that looped most of southern Arizona’s mountain ranges a century ago. In prehistoric times, grasslands teemed with grazing animals and predators. Mastodons, mammoths, and bison roamed the land. Although it’s difficult to imagine, ground sloths were the size of elephants, and beavers were as big as the black bear. Today, you’ll see desert grassland whiptail lizards, lesser earless lizards, and black-tailed prairie dogs.
Much of the credit for this truly successful living museum must go to the nearly 200 docents and 300 other volunteers who conduct tours of the grounds and give interpretative programs about hummingbirds, cactus, various hawks, and other species. Upon entering the museum, be sure to check the bulletin board for specific tours.
“We like people to see the Sonoran Desert as the Sonoran Desert is, not through trinkets and rubber snakes,” said one docent. Visit the museum and you’ll see the desert as it really is—a true Sonoran Desert delight.
The Desert Museum exists as a teaching tool. Its many educational programs share the same philosophy: they are experiential, informal, discovery-oriented and personal. Weekend programs, which have reasonable fees so the whole family can attend, offer classes that include crafts, hikes, and other activities. Subjects range from frogs to fossils. In addition, there are classes just for young people, classes for adults, and special programs for teachers.
There are two restaurants, a coffee bar, and refreshment ramadas on the grounds. Picnic and camping facilities are located in nearby Tucson Mountain Park. Two gift shops carry an array of items including a fine selection of books and Native American crafts. Wheelchairs and strollers are available free. Special parking areas are available for the handicapped, motorhomes and buses.
The museum is 14 miles west of Tucson on Old Kinney Road. It is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. from March through September and from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. (From June through August the museum is open until 10 p.m., allowing visitors to view nocturnal animals, which are especially active after dark.) Admission is $12 for adults and children 13 and older, but is reduced to $9 from May through October. Admission is $4 for children 6 to 12 years old, and free for children 5 and younger. For more information, contact the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 2021 N. Kinney Rd., Tucson, AZ 85743-8918. Phone (520) 883-2702 or visit www.desertmuseum.org.
Donna Ikenberry is a writer and photographer who lives in South Fork, Colorado.Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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