Central and southwestern Arizona is covered by the Sonoran Desert, part of which also lies in California and the Mexican states of Sonora, Baja California and Baja California Sur. West of Tucson, just south of Saguaro National Park, lies the Sonora Desert Museum – a botanical garden, natural history museum, zoo, aquarium and art gallery.
The desert at Tucson’s doorstep
At the entrance of the Sonora Desert Museum, there are two sets of buildings. One of them houses the art gallery. The other set is the entrance to the desert museum and has the natural history museum, aquarium and shop.
An aquarium? In a desert museum? But why? The Sonora Desert is the lushest desert on Earth. This is all due to the freshwater rivers that support life here. This area also used to be under the ocean millions of years ago. Water shaped the history of this desert. The aquarium represents this fact. One can also argue that the Gulf of California is part of the desert. Over 900 islands are considered part of the desert and are part of the same biome. The small aquarium displays some of the fresh- and saltwater inhabitants.
The natural history museum looks at the geological history of the region. Arizona and the Sonora Desert are very rich in minerals and the permanent exhibit acknowledges this fact by displaying many specimens. It is even considered one of the finest regional mineral collections in the world. If you can find it in Arizona or the desert, it is in the collection. It also contains other rocks and metals.
The desert garden is the main attraction of the Sonora Desert Museum. There are over 1,200 different species of plants and over 56,000 specimens. These are split into various gardens as you find the plants within the desert:
Palo Verde Trees
Hohokam Agave Field
People and Pollinators
Tropical Deciduous Forest
In these gardens, there are signs with information about the plant species, including various names, background information and how to distinguish them from other planets. This is particularly helpful for some of the cacti.
I did also mention a zoo. Between the gardens, there are some buildings that hold animals native to the desert. These include hummingbird and desert bird aviaries, a set of large mammal enclosures, and terrariums with desert insects.
The hummingbird aviary is the closest to the entrance. When you enter the garden and go to the left, the first small building is the hummingbird enclosure. It has two sets of double doors. This is to allow you to enter the enclosure with the hummingbirds without letting them out. Usually, the hummingbirds are very active during the day and they are well-fed. As a result, they are usually active while visitors are there. The hummingbirds in this enclosure are not native to this part of the desert, which is why they are contained (they would be invasive).
Further along the route, there is an impressive walk that has the larger animals: a mountain lion, mule deer, Mexican gray wolves, and a Black bear. These are part of the mountain woodland biome, which is found on top of the mountains throughout the desert.
There is another set of enclosures called Cat Canyon, which has Bobcats, a Grey Fox and an Ocelot. Usually however these sleep during the day, so it is less likely that you will see them unless they are sleeping in a part of the enclosure that is visible.
Finally there is also the Riparian Corridor, which houses River Otter, Beavers, Bighorn Sheep, Aquatic Invertebrates and Desert Fish.
I really enjoyed the visit to the Sonora Desert Museum. As I was with someone with limited mobility, we did not visit everything, so we skipped the aquarium and art galleries, which we felt were the least unique. Instead we focused on the gardens and the animals.
We (4 people) got there around 10 a.m. and started with the first set of gardens, which also included the hummingbird aviary. You can do everything at your own pace. Since a lover of hummingbirds was part of our group, we spent nearly an hour there. Several of the hummingbirds were flitting around, preening themselves and putting on a show. True to form, they rarely stopped moving. Unfortunately, none of my photos of the hummingbirds turned out well.
Afterwards, we continued around the gardens, going in an anticlockwise direction (from the entrance to the left, which was where the wheelchair slope went). The plants in the first gardens were succulents and other flowering non-cacti desert dwellers. If you go this way, it leaves most of the animal enclosures for the end of the trail. If you go the other way, you naturally start with the animals.
We also had lunch at the Sonora Desert Museum. There is a full restaurant there as well as “faster” food. We ended up opting for the faster option and had Mexican/Texmex food: tacos, a taco salad and nachos. The food was not expensive but I would have preferred to pay a bit more to have better quality. The food wasn’t very good in my opinion. I am not sure how the restaurant was.
The mountain lion
A highlight of the visit, apart from seeing all the different kinds of cacti, was the mountain lion. She is a rescue and has lived at the desert museum her entire life. Usually, during the day they are not very active. However she decided she had had enough of where she was sleeping. She decided to get up, do a lap and then found a new place to sleep. She was so majestic that I forgot to take pictures until she was settled into her new place out of sight.
It was amazing to watch her move: the way her shoulders alternated as she walked, the obvious muscle and power in her body and the aloof attitude with regard to the people watching her. She was the queen of the museum and she knew it. I could have watched her for hours if she had let me.
Getting to the Sonora Desert Museum
The Sonora Desert Museum is about half an hour from downtown Tucson (e.g. the University of Arizona) by car. You drive through the Tucson mountains, through Gates Pass and down the other side.
Admission for adults (age 13-64) is $24.95, seniors (65+) is $22.95 and a ticket children (3-13) is $13.95. Military and resident adults of Arizona or Sonora State pay $21.95. Or you can become a member: students with ID for $35, individuals for $69 and a dual membership for $99 and go anytime. Sonora Desert Museum is open 365 days per year (closed for inclement weather) from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. October to May and 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. June to September (due to the heat).
It is just south of the Saguaro National Park (west), and those two can be combined into a day trip if you do the driving route of the park. The Sonora Desert Museum’s website estimates that you can see everything in 2 hours.
Want to do some more travelling? Explore the map here!