The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum showcases the plants and animals of the Sonoran desert and is also a centre of academic research. The museum aims to house its animals in enclosures that are as close to their natural environment as possible. It largely succeeds and also has a programme of continual improvement.
The desert museum is situated in the Tucson mountains to the west of Tucson. If you are staying in one of the resorts in the Catalina foothills it will take around an hour to get here. A visit here can usefully be combined with a visit to Saguaro West National Park or Old Tucson studios which are both close at hand.
The majority of the museum exhibits are outdoors on a lightly sloping desert hillside with signposted trails leading between exhibits. Because the museum is situated within the natural environment of Tucson Mountain Park you will also see native wildlife that is not part of the exhibits. Lizards are common and fairly large chuckwallas may also on occasion be seen.
The museum also has an indoor reptile display, a geological exhibit situated in a simulated cave and two walk in aviaries.
Snakes and Reptiles and Insects – situated adjacent to the entrance turnstiles this area shows species native to the desert southwest. In the wild these are rarely encountered so this is a good chance to see these up close.
Geology Exhibit – This is situated in a simulated cave and explains the geloogic history of the area. There is a fantastic colorful display of minerals and gems found in Arizona including those that glow under ultraviolet light.
Prairie Dogs– A colony of prairie dogs live in a burrow system in an enclosed area, If they are active some time can be well spent watching these often amusing animals.
Javelinas – A troup of Javelinas live in a large enclosure towards the bottom of the site. These can be difficult to see as they are most active outside the heat of the day. Try looking under one of the bridges that the footpath passes over and you may see them.
Life Zones – driving from downtown Tucson to the top of Mount Lemon is a lesson in the life zones that change with altitude. In this case ranging from the sonoran desert lifezone to the Mixed Conifer zone found at the top of the mountain. If you don’t have time to make this drive then this exhibit illustrates with actual specimens the different vegetation in each life zone.
Hummingbird Exhibit – Humming birds are present in the wild in large numbers in Southern Arizona (largely migratory). A small walk in aviary provides the opportunity the watch these fast moving birds at close quarters. It is best to watch the feeders for the best observation chances. Photographing them is an exercise in patience but if you are lucky you may get some great shots.
There is a good gift shop that has in particular a good selection of local interest. There is a representative selection of various native american crafts and in particular of high quality pottery.
There is a small snack bar and fountain adjacent to the gift shop and a self service grill restaurant in the museum grounds. Details can be found on the museum website.
In the summer months the animals are most active before the full heat of the day hits. You should therefore plan to complete your visit before noon.
Alternatively the museum opens to 10pm on Saturdays in the months of June, July and August. A programme of special events takes place on these evenings.