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The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum: A Virtual Visit Before You Go (or If You Can't!)

Updated on April 12, 2014

What Sort of Museum Is This, Anyway?

A combination zoo, botanical garden, educational oasis and museum, the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is an enchanting attraction in the desert west of Tucson. If you love wildlife, you'll be impressed by the close-up views of native animals in natural settings -- but you're just as likely to be enchanted by the sculptured landscaping showcasing our prickly-but-picturesque plant life. This is the place where we "Zonies" take our visiting friends from out of state -- or where we spend a serene afternoon in the company of fond friends (that is, javelina and rattlesnakes).

Cavorting in Progress:  Desert bighorn sheep.
Cavorting in Progress: Desert bighorn sheep. | Source

Animals Take Center Stage -- Maybe.

Despite the stunning grounds, animals are clearly the stars at "the Sonoran." Don't expect to find neurotic inmates pacing a sad path along the perimeter of their cage; here, the animals have spacious, naturalized enclosures where they are clearly at home. It is to their benefit that they may not be visible at all: habitats are rugged with plenty of places for the animals to find privacy, although strategically placed glass-fronted vantage points increase the odds you'll see most of them. Perhaps it'll be just one sun-dappled butt of a napping bear, or the lazily-twitching ear of a nearly-concealed cougar, but expect some animals to be happily oblivious to your presence and relaxing nearly out of view. It's for the better -- and it'll give you a sense of discovery just as we natives have when we spot the same animal in the wild.

A coatimundi scuttles into view … and quickly vanishes.
A coatimundi scuttles into view … and quickly vanishes. | Source
Hey!  I'm an antelope squirrel!
Hey! I'm an antelope squirrel! | Source
Be charmed by a snake … a rattlesnake, that is.
Be charmed by a snake … a rattlesnake, that is. | Source

Slithers, Stings, and Hideous Biters: They're All Here!

What's a self-respecting desert without lots of venomous creatures? Get up close and personal with the wide selection of rattlesnakes (yes, there are lots of species!) and arthropods (if I say "insects" a language purist will quite rightly correct me). From that bane of my own existence, the assassin bug, to the oft unfairly-maligned tarantula, the museum offers a sure glimpse of things that go "bite" in the dark (and by day). See the "Reptiles, Invertebrates, and Amphibians" exhibit for a close-up of these creatures so well adapted to their challenging environment.

If you're unfamiliar with rattlesnakes, you may be astonished by their beauty (or, perhaps, not so much). Meh, you say? You can't help but be impressed by the Gila monster (a lizard more toxic than the average rattlesnake) with its bright and beautiful colors.

You'll happen across the more user-friendly chuckwallas throughout the museum. They'll charm you from the rock faces in the bighorn ram enclosure or clinging to crevices in the gardens.

Kiss me, my lovely … a rattlesnake puckers up.
Kiss me, my lovely … a rattlesnake puckers up. | Source
Great blue heron showing a little leg.
Great blue heron showing a little leg. | Source

Flights of Fancy.

Bird-lovers will marvel at the ability to enter the aviaries and be among the doves, hummingbirds, raptors and dozens of other avian specimens. The aviaries themselves are landscaped as beautifully as the exterior gardens. Enjoy seeing nesting hummingbirds from within the enclosure itself (take your best camera) or cross the creek within the larger walk-in aviary, where even desert ducks are at home among the 20 species kept within.

Throughout the museum, the birds have trees, not wood-dowel perches, and they share their addresses with other animals. You may be surprised to spot the roadrunner leaping from boulder to boulder in a habitat with reptiles or mammals. You'll happen across the elegant, dignified great blue heron as you leave the prairie dogs, and you may be astonished to see the Mexican thick-bill parrot (what? Parrots in Arizona, you say?) as you leave the mountain lion's canyon-like setting.

Sweeping vistas greet you from the museum's walkways.
Sweeping vistas greet you from the museum's walkways. | Source

Biome, Sweet Biome.

The museum offers an overview of some of the Sonoran Desert's varied biomes, incorporating a "Riparian Corridor," "Desert Grassland," and "Mountain Woodland" as specific sections of the 21-acre grounds. More narrow in its focus is the "Life on the Rocks" exhibit and the "Life Underground" highlighting species that flourish among the desert's ubiquitous boulders or beneath the skin of its soil.

For a sense of the more pristine desert, wander the half-mile Desert Loop Trail for a bit of a hike. You'll see our much-loved javelina, ever-present coyote and the magnificent raptors. Seasonal shows of the raptors in free flight draw a crowd, so arrive at the free-flight center (or the overlook at "Cat Canyon") early.

Wildflowers set against saguaro
Wildflowers set against saguaro | Source
Fossilized bird nest in the mineral gallery. Imagine that!
Fossilized bird nest in the mineral gallery. Imagine that! | Source

Rock On!

Arizona is a rocky place, studded with breath-taking boulders and rich in stunning gems. You don't want to miss the mineral gallery within the re-created limestone cave. Within the dimly-lit gallery are hundreds of the desert's most scintillating treasures, from sparkling cobalt-colored azurite to the jagged rust-colored crystals of wulfenite. (As I admired the gems, I overheard one nearby visitor confessing, "Wulfenite always scares me!")

Fossils, crystals, geodes and flecks of gold await you within the cave. So do adjustable bat-ears scaled to human size for an, um, interesting photo opportunity. They beat Mickey Mouse ears any day!

A touch of whimsy:  a javelina sculpture
A touch of whimsy: a javelina sculpture | Source

Sculptures, Whimsical or Lifelike, Add to the Ambience.

There are no dusty stuffed dead animals to see at this museum -- but there are plenty of beautiful sculptures throughout the gardens and grounds. Some are whimsical and stylized; others, lifelike bronzes (so lifelike that my friend, ever-prepared for my pranks, appropriately hesitated when I pointed out the "tarantula" on the loose -- a life-size sculpture that at first passed for the real thing). Make sure you look for the quail collection near the amphitheater; the covey includes bronze chicks from just-hatched to that "able to keep up with mom" size.

Of special interest is the "evolutionary" bronze at the entrance to the walk-in aviary. Take a few minutes to enjoy the progression of evolving winged creatures as they soar into the present.

Woohoo! A bronze owl.
Woohoo! A bronze owl. | Source
Don't go away hungry -- there's plenty to eat.
Don't go away hungry -- there's plenty to eat. | Source

Don't Leave Hungry.

If you can walk the expansive museum grounds without working up a fierce hunger, you're of tougher stuff than I. On our recent visit, my friend and I chose the elegant Ocotillo Cafe. The presentation is as delightful as the taste of the entrees themselves. For a more casual approach, try the food-court approach at the Ironwood Terraces or have a quick snack (don't miss out on the prickly-pear punch) at Phoebe's Cafe or the Cottonwood Snack Shack. We happened across well-positioned beverage kiosks during our walk through the museum. The desert is, after all, a desert and you'll need to stay well-hydrated.

Sunscreen.  Free.  Because it's important.  Use it!
Sunscreen. Free. Because it's important. Use it! | Source

Caveats and Cautions!

If you're not from here … don't get caught off guard. As the rest of the nation seems to be cursing yet another serious snowstorm this week (it is March as I write this), we've been enjoying 80+ degree days in the desert. If you haven't had time to adapt, even our cooler seasons may take you by surprise. Wear sturdy shoes. Drink lots of water. Use the free sunscreen dispenser in the bathroom at the entrance (or, better yet, long-sleeves, wide-brimmed hats, and long pants.) I inwardly shook my head at the very fair-skinned woman wearing a tank-top and shorts. Her legs were bright lobster pink. Don't ruin your visit to the sunny southwest with a bad burn. Cover up.

And please, please leave your dogs at home or the hotel. They're not permitted in the parking lot or the museum (service dogs excepted). They will perish most months of the year here if you leave them in your car. As a side-note, if you do bring your dogs to the desert, keep them on a leash to protect them from the dog-eating coyotes, the venomous rattlesnakes, the painful cactus thorns, and the elusive Gila Monster (I do have a sad tale involving the latter and a tourist's dog) among other hazards.

We're not kidding.
We're not kidding. | Source

Where You'll Find It

Arizona Sonora Desert Museum:
2021 North Kinney Road, Tucson, AZ 85743, USA

get directions

A gorgeous drive through the desert west of Tucson leads to the serene, fascinating Arizona Sonora Desert Museum.

Have You Visited Yet … or Are You Planning to Go?

Have You Been to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum Yet?

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Details, Details!

Hours: Varies by season; during warmer months, opens at 7:30 and during the winter, 8:30 a.m. Closes at 5:00 p.m. with no admission after 4:15.

Address: 2012 North Kinney Road, Tucson, Arizona 85743.

Phone: (520) 883-2702

Admission: Varies; check this page for accurate rates:

Arizona residents receive a special discount -- so if you haven't yet been to this special place in your own "backyard," put it on the calendar!

And So Much More.

How does one do justice to such a place in a brief introduction? One … doesn't. I haven't touched on the pollination gardens, the aquariums, the many child-oriented activities, or the vast, vast majority of animals in abundance. I didn't tell the tale of the boojum tree (I have to add that just because it's such an awesome name) or describe the ocelot spots. Got a thing for butterflies? Do you share my inability to visit a regional bookstore without walking out, arms stretched with bags of books? There's a special corner of the museum just for you.

Bring your camera, get that sun hat out … And make sure you take advantage of that sunscreen.

Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller

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