7 Easy Ways to Discover the Secrets of the Arizona-Sonora Desert

Have you ever imagined what a day in the desert would be like? Picture a mountain lion stretching after a morning nap. Envision wandering past furry teddy-bear cholla cactus or organpipe cactus flourishing under the hot sun. Imagine stepping down into a man-made limestone cave and examining a velvet blue azurite or specs of gold. If you’re planning a trip to Tucson, Arizona, you’ll have an opportunity to do this and so much more. Treat yourself to wildlife action, intriguing vegetation, and the beauty of limestone caves and regional minerals at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum located fourteen miles west of Tucson.

Created in 1952 as a private, non-profit, natural history educational institution, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s objective was to help visitors understand the plants, animals and land that make up the Sonoran Desert. Here you’ll have an opportunity to observe over 1200 species of plants and 300 species of animals living in their natural habitats, as well as a superb collection of regional minerals and gemstones.

Before you begin your outing to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, I have a couple of suggestions that might make your visit a little more enjoyable. First, there are over 2 miles of outdoor paths, so make sure you’re wearing your favorite walking shoes, a hat and sunscreen. Second, as you enter the museum grab their self-guiding tour map which will help you move around the grounds efficiently and understand what you’re looking at. You could easily spend two or three days exploring the museum’s 21 acres of desert grasslands; mountain habitats; cactus, desert and pollination gardens; aviaries; and mineral exhibits. But if you only have a day to spare, here are 7 key desert museum sights you won’t want to miss.
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Reptiles and Invertebrates
A view of a venomous Mohave rattlesnake slithering over a rock greets you as you venture into the reptiles and invertebrates section of the desert museum. Close by you might catch a glimpse of a Western Diamondback rattlesnake coiled between two rocks or a Rosy Boa slinking its way around a cactus. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot the poisonous Mexican Beaded Lizard, one of only two venomous lizards in the world. (The other is the slow moving pink and black Gila Monster). Don’t miss the Desert Tarantula crawling across rocks and twigs. Museum monsters, snakes, scorpions, lizards and tarantulas are all safely behind glass so you can sneak a peek as close to the window as you dare.

 
Vista Ramada and the Overlook
As you head over to the Earth Sciences Center, take in a stunning sight of the Avra and Altar Valleys that separate the mountain ranges at the Vista Ramada and the Overlook. If it’s a clear day you might be able to see west across the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation and south to the Mexican Border.

 
Earth Sciences Center
At the Earth Sciences Center, you’ll descend into a credible artificial limestone cave, complete with stalagmites, stalactites and pools. If you want to experience a true cave experience, a side tunnel (designed with kids in mind), takes you 75 feet through low ceilings, tight passageways and jagged paths. Once you’re back on even footing, you’ll discover a large screen filled with erupting volcanoes describing the birth of our world. Next up is the one of a kind regional mineral and gemstone collection. Examine gold from the Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona, or the pearly luster of Smithsonite from Arizona’s Glove Mine.
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Mountain Woodland
Continue your visit counterclockwise and you’ll arrive at Mountain Woodland, a recreated habitat where you’ll discover animals and plants found in many nearby mountain ranges surrounded by the Sonoma Desert. In addition to the mountain lion, you may get to see white-tailed deer, Mexican wolves, cougars and the thick-billed parrots. Nesting only in the hollows of large, dead pine trees, the thick-billed parrots depend on pine seed crop for food. Along the outdoor path you’ll pass colorful cacti including the prickly pear cactus, and perhaps grab a bit of shade under a Mesquite tree.
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Desert Grassland
Because of the heat during the middle of the day, we missed seeing the antics of the black-tailed prairie dogs who took shelter below the ground in the Desert Grassland. But we did stop in and see the snake exhibits. One of the more well-known snakes that live in the desert grasslands is the rattlesnake. Hear we learned that an alarmed rattlesnake vibrates its tail against the ground causing the rattle sound. In the grasslands you may also get a chance to see Sonoran green toads and burrowing owls.

 
Cat Canyon
Cat Canyon, home to small cats in their natural grotto settings, is a museum favorite. When you stroll through Cat Canyon, you can see all the animals, including margays, jaguarmundis and coatimundi from overhead and at eye level. On a hot day you might see the museum’s two bobcats resting on shaded cliff ledges to keep cool. If you’re lucky, you may be able to catch a glimpse of the extremely shy and nocturnal spotted ocelot.
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Desert Loop Trail
If you ever wondered what it would be like to walk through the desert, don’t miss the half mile Desert Loop Trail. Here you might find the pig-like javelinas munching on prickly pear cacti as they move through an area. But the javelinas are not pigs. The javelina belongs to the peccary family while pigs and hogs belong to the swine family. There are many differences between the two families, but a major behavioral difference is that javelinas are highly social while pigs are more competitive.
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As you continue along the desert loop, you’ll come to the coyote exhibit. Because the fence surrounding all the exhibits is difficult to see, you’ll feel as if you’re out there in the desert with them. (I found myself occasionally checking to make sure there was a fence between us.) Along the way the desert’s native vegetation including saguaro, creosote, ocotillo, and soaptree yucca surrounds you.

 
If You Have an Extra Day, There’s Still Plenty to See
Time permitting you may want to explore Life on the Rocks and take a look at habitats and small species found on Tucson’s rocky slopes; and the Bighorn exhibit where you’ll discover large agile sheep at home on a steep, wobbly hillside. Enjoy colorful landscaping at the Desert Garden; study over 100 landscaped desert plants and cactus at the Cactus Garden; and learn about animal pollinators at the Pollination Gardens. Native hummingbirds glide overhead at the Hummingbird Aviary while cardinals, Gambel’s quail, ducks, doves and other native bird species share the Walk-in Aviary. You can also discover how fish adapt in the desert at the Fishes and Amphibians exhibit.

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