ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel
  • »
  • Travel and Places»
  • Visiting North America»
  • United States»
  • Arizona

A Day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Updated on June 26, 2015
Looking out over Avra Valley from a prominent vantage point at the Museum.
Looking out over Avra Valley from a prominent vantage point at the Museum. | Source
A markerArizona-Sonora Desert Museum -
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 2021 North Kinney Road, Tucson, AZ 85743, USA
get directions

A visitor carefully peaks around a corner, not knowing what lies beyond in the Life on the Rocks exhibit.
A visitor carefully peaks around a corner, not knowing what lies beyond in the Life on the Rocks exhibit. | Source

Scorpions anyone?

On a warm morning in Tucson, Arizona, George Montgomery, curator of botany at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and an old botanical friend of mine, left me a pass at the museum’s front gate. Professional courtesy is the term that this is used for this little perk, like a surgeon giving another a discounted triple bypass.

I had barely come through the main entrance when I was passed by no less than four docents (trained interpretive volunteers) dressed in long sleeved, button-up white shirts with embroidered museum arm patches, each carrying a living creature of the Sonoran desert. One held a Harris’ hawk, a handsome social hawk that hunts in family groups. It was tethered in true falconry fashion with a leather strap wrapped around one of its feet that grasped the docent’s heavy glove. Another docent carried a kestrel, the smallest hawk in North America, about the size of a cardinal. She held this hawk tethered in similar fashion to the much larger Harris’ hawk, as did yet another docent who was holding a four-inch tall pygmy owl that was even smaller than the kestrel. A fourth docent carried a mysterious insulated lunch box that she told me matter-of-factly “is full of scorpions.”

One of the most unique things about the design of the Desert Museum is its seamlessness. The paths meander through desert vegetation that is maintained to be as natural and unpretentious as if you were hiking in the wild and open desert, but with the convenience of wide concrete paths and regularly spaced, refrigerated drinking fountains.

Within a few minutes, George had caught up with me and as we walked, we passed yet another docent (they were everywhere!) named Betty Anne, who stood behind a low table full of insects preserved in various stages of their life cycles. There was a gravelly-looking tubular structure made by the larval stage of the caddis fly, an adult sphinx moth speared through the thorax with a long, slender pin, and a dozen more insects forever preserved in some stage of their interrupted metamorphosis. Betty Anne shared the physical qualities of the other docents I’d seen—female, white-haired, and a long term social security check recipient. George introduced her as the oldest docent at the museum, a designation that she quickly downplayed by saying, “He means the most experienced.”

A female bighorn emerges out of the cool shadows and contemplates an entrance into the full sun of this hot September day.
A female bighorn emerges out of the cool shadows and contemplates an entrance into the full sun of this hot September day. | Source

Leaps and bounds

Around the corner towards the west, directly above the Geology Ramada, was an elevated overlook of Avra Valley and the Tohono O’odham reservation that included a clear view of the observatory at Kitt Peak in Baboqivari Mountains (see topmost photo above). Large rectangular ponds were also visible in the distance and George told me they were used to recharge the underground aquifer with imported Colorado River (CAP) water. This water was cleansed by the aquifer, then pumped out, mixed with more CAP water, and distributed to the residents of Tucson.

Since George was on-the-clock and I was just a free-loading visitor from another botanical garden, he said goodbye, and I headed straight towards Phoebe’s Coffee Bar, a convenient bistro attached to the far end of the gift shop. After a double espresso, I jogged towards the Mountain Woodland exhibit, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Desert Museum’s trademark animal, the mountain lion. Having lived in the desert southwest for over half of my life, I have seen just about every animal in the wild at least once, but the mountain lion has eluded me.

When I reached the boulder-filled enclosure, it was mid-morning, already over 90 degrees, and the lion had just shifted from lying on his stomach to his back, looking not unlike a family dog taking a nap on the living room rug. As docile and lethargic as he was at this particular moment, the mountain lion is still an impressively big animal up close—males can weigh up to 145 pounds and have been known to jump 23 feet in a single leap.

This is the entrance (or exit) of a simulated limestone cave that requires the small frame of a child or a very thin and limber adult to navigate successfully.
This is the entrance (or exit) of a simulated limestone cave that requires the small frame of a child or a very thin and limber adult to navigate successfully. | Source

Animals above, caves below

One of the most unique things about the design of the Desert Museum is its seamlessness. The paths meander through desert vegetation that is maintained to be as natural and unpretentious as if you were hiking in the wild and open desert, but with the convenience of wide concrete paths and regularly spaced, refrigerated drinking fountains. Each new exhibit, from Life on the Rocks to the Walk-in Aviary, appears organically out of nowhere, and the feeling after reaching each one is that of personal discovery. The map that everyone receives is almost a hindrance, a last resort designed for visitors to become unlost—but not to find.

At one I point, I accidentally entered the exit of the limestone cave in the Earth Sciences area and exited the entrance, then circled around from the opposite direction without realizing that I had entered the actual entrance again. The exhibit is a re-creation of a limestone cave complete with an optional and claustrophobically narrow tunnel with lots of tight twists and turns that they actually encourage you to crawl through. There was no sign that warned, “Please, only really thin people lubricated with Vasoline should attempt to climb through this cave.” So I snaked my relatively thin frame through, all the while wondering how they extricated the pudgier folk who inevitably got stuck. I mean, it just had to happen.

A bulky, buck-toothed beaver becomes a remarkably adept and graceful swimmer once it dives beneath the water of its pond.
A bulky, buck-toothed beaver becomes a remarkably adept and graceful swimmer once it dives beneath the water of its pond. | Source

Though many of the nocturnal animals were bedded down for day, I was able to get great photographs of desert bighorn sheep, wide awake and walking along the man-made rocks in the Riparian Corridor exhibit. Next door, steep concrete stairs led down to a viewing area below the adjacent otter and beaver pond. I had always thought of beavers as blue-collar, working class animals, bulky fur bearers that rose early, gnawed down a few trees, piled them up into a dam, and then kicked back and waited for a pond to form. In reality, once they are in the water, they are sleek, athletic swimmers with the smooth underwater shape of a diving penguin and the gracefulness and agility of a seal. Beautiful to watch.

Burrowing owls and prairie dog holes

There is plenty of opportunity to eat with a centrally located snack bar, a coffee shop (Phoebe’s), and two full service restaurants. The restaurants aren’t over-cooled like most indoor spaces; in fact, the Ironwood Terraces Restaurant is evaporatively cooled with additional air movement from large, industrial floor fans that knock the napkins off of your cafeteria trays but make the transition into and out of the heat much less of a shock.

In the hour I had left after lunch, I caught a glimpse of a burrowing owl diving into a prairie dog hole in the Desert Grasslands exhibit, heard dozens of Inca doves calling in the Walk-in Aviary, and spotted a Costa’s hummingbird, the only active hummer in the hundred degree heat of the afternoon, in the Hummingbird Aviary. As was the style of all of the other exhibits, the aviaries blended into the surroundings effortlessly. Only the entry air locks and the nearly transparent netting above gave away the fact that the birds were actually captives.

The Desert Grasslands exhibit, full of prairie dogs and burrowing owls.
The Desert Grasslands exhibit, full of prairie dogs and burrowing owls. | Source

Admission

  • Adults: $19.50

  • Youth (13-17): $15.50

  • Children (4-12): $6.00

Hours

  • March – September 7:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.

  • October – February 8:30 – 5 p.m.

  • June – August Sun - Fri 7:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. Sat 7:30 a.m. - 10 p.m.

Attractions and exhibits

  • 21 acres and two miles of walking paths

  • 16 individual gardens

  • 1,200 Sonoran Desert plant species

  • 56,000 individual plants

  • 230 live native animals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and birds

  • Docent-led grounds tours

  • Live animal presentations

  • Warden aquarium

  • Earth Sciences Center cave and mineral collection

"Look-it!"

On my way towards the exit, at the Reptile and Amphibian House, a four or five year old girl was going from one glass-fronted snake cage to the next, saying at each, “Oh my god! Look-it!” Her dad was following patiently, naming off the snakes. “That’s a Black-tailed rattlesnake that lives…” –before he could finish, she was on to the next, jumping onto the step in front and putting both her hands against the glass. “Oh my god! Look-it! Oh my god!” This went on and on and by the time I left, the father had quit apologizing to the other visitors.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a family place, certainly, but diverse enough to appeal to everyone from hardcore desert plant and animal lovers (like me), to anyone who wants to learn and experience the bountiful natural history of the Sonoran Desert.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 3 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      congrats for the award. Great start , too bad I didn't had the chance.

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 3 years ago from Australia

      What an amazing place - now on my bucket list when next I make it to the US.

      Congratulations on the award. Voted up

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 3 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Very interesting article with great descriptions of the museum.

      Thanks for sharing it and congrats for the award.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 3 years ago from Florida

      Great job with this Hub~ I felt like I was there in person! I was in this area about three years ago, but I didn't make it to this museum, I'm afraid.

      I really enjoyed your wonderful photos, too.

      BTW: congrats are in order.

      Voted UP, etc. and shared.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: "https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr"

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)