The Living Desert
Zoo and Botanical Garden
Exploring all of the North American deserts, which occupy almost one-quarter of the U.S., would be a time-consuming, expensive and perhaps, dangerous undertaking. Learning about the different plants, animals and how they interrelate within each of these desert environments, would certainly be a daunting task.
The Living Desert, located in the town of Palm Desert, California, provides a one-stop opportunity to explore all the great American deserts and learn about their plants and animals, in a setting that is fun and educational for the whole family.
The Living Desert occupies 1,200 acres of the Colorado Desert, 200 of which are developed as a zoo, botanical garden and natural history museum. A gift shop, administration offices, nursery, food service and educational facilities are all located within the 300 developed acres.
The Living Desert was established in 1970 as a non-profit educational and conservation center, dedicated to preserving desert plant and animal life. It contains lush botanical gardens representing 10 different desert ecosystems and more than 430 desert animals representing 150 breeds including endangered species such as Grevy's zebra, Arabian oryx, Mexican gray wolves and peninsular bighorn sheep.
There are indoor and outdoor exhibits, with paved and unpaved walkways, all interpreting the deserts of the world and providing a unique desert experience to visitors. The Living Desert also acts as a conservation center for desert plants and animals. It is one of the most successful zoological parks in the U.S. and is fully accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Exhibits attract over 350,000 visitors annually, making it one of the Coachella Valley's top tourist destinations. It is a private, non-profit organization and finances all of its operations on income from admissions, memberships and gift shop / nursery sales. Donations make up a small portion of the operating budget and are gladly accepted. Membership is encouraged.
I left San Diego about 6:30 am and headed north on Interstate 15, exiting at Route 79 in Temecula, then following the signs to Indio. By 8:30 am, I was descending from the Santa Rosa Mountains on Route 74 enjoying the stark view of the Coachella Valley splayed out before me.
As the highway flattened out, just before the intersection of Route 111, I turned right and followed the signs to The Living Desert. If you are coming from either the east or west on Interstate 10, exit at Monterey Avenue off ramp south, then look for the signs to The Living Desert.
I arrived just as the gates opened at 9:00 AM, paid the admission fee, and began my explorations with the Small Animal facility, where I finally got to see pupfish, tarantulas, a sidewinder and a number of lizards up close and personal.
Back outside, I began wandering the walkways past numerous exhibits, arriving at the Cahuilla Indian Ethnobotanical Garden containing various native plants, artifacts and a reconstructed village.
Continuing on my way, I explored the Mojave, Sonoran, Great Basin and Chihuahuan deserts, checked out desert tortoises, numerous aviaries, the Palm Oasis Walk-through Aviary and the Sonoran Pond.
Arriving at Eagle Canyon, I watched a golden eagle feed, then was suddenly eyeball-to-eyeball with a mountain lion staring at me, no more than two feet from my face. One-by-one I wandered by a swift fox, coati, peccaries and coyotes and emerged to yet more desert birds in various aviaries.
After a visit to the Plaza Gift Shop for some books, I sipped a drink at the Meerkat Cafe and read about the history and features of this amazing facility.
Living Desert Origins
The Living Desert was the brainchild of several prominent Palm Springs citizens who anticipated how resort development would change the Coachella Valley. They included naturalist Edmund Jaeger, Desert Magazine publisher Randall Henderson and local rancher Philip Boyd.
Together, they promoted the idea of establishing a permanent wilderness preserve where people could enjoy and learn about the natural desert. In the 1950s, they convinced the Palm Springs Art Museum, of which they were trustees, to establish an interpretive nature trail and preserve on 360 acres in the then remote community of Palm Desert.
The Living Desert Reserve was finally born in 1970. Karen Sausman, who had a background as a zoo keeper, park ranger and graduate student in wildlife biology, was hired as resident naturalist. Her vision and hard work resulted in the 1,200-acre preserve we experience today.
Interspersed among the 10 desert habitats are specialized gardens, with wildlife native to each region and displays on geology, zoology, history, anthropology, conservation and ecology. Under her guidance, the facility eventually grew into something quite unexpected -- a zoo, botanical garden, park, preserve, nature center and museum, all in one.
By 1980, a full-time curator of animals was hired, and The Living Desert incorporated as an independent, non-profit entity. A veterinary clinic, greenhouse facilities and paved central pathway throughout the gardens were also constructed. The following year, The Living Desert was accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Programs continued to expand to include environmental education, native wildlife rehabilitation, plant propagation and captive breeding, as well as membership and volunteer programs. Karen Sausman has received many awards and honors over the years and remains executive director to this day.
Programs, schedules and fees:
Open every day October 1 to May 31
9:00am to 5:00pm
Last admission at 4:00pm.
Closed December 25
Open every day June 1 to September 30
8:00am to 1:30pm
Last admission at 1:00pm
TOURING TIME Average: 4 hours
At specific times in the summer and on evenings throughout the year, The Living Desert is open for classes and programs, including a summer nature school and evening lectures.
An all-live animal presentation featuring mammals, birds of prey and reptiles. Summer schedule may vary. Located in the Amphitheater.
Informal talks about small animals on the Main Patio.
Regularly scheduled, non-narrated shuttle service with stops at Eagle Canyon, Oasis Aviary, Wildlife Hospital, Retail Garden Center, Giraffic Park, Village WaTuTu, African Wild Dog and Bighorn Sheep Mountain and Gecko Gulch. $6.00 per person for all day.
The Discovery Room
Hands-on experiences of the desert for children of all ages. Located in the Education Center.
Starts Thanksgiving weekend and runs through the end of the year, on select weekends and nights except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Plaza Gift Shop
Offers a variety of souvenirs, books, postcards, jewelry, apparel, art and film.
Palo Verde Garden Center
An open-to-the-public nursery offers a variety of plants, shrubs and trees suitable for desert landscaping.
The Meerkat Cafe
Located on the Main Patio. Offers snacks, drinks, water and more.
Palms of the World Garden & Patio
Containing coyotes, coati, peccary, mountain lions, bobcats, Mexican wolves, hawks, owls and golden eagles, as well as dozens of other birds.
A reproduction of an authentic African village with an Elder's Grove where native musicians and storytellers gather to entertain the guests. The Thorn Tree Grill and Kumbu-Kumbu Market are the restaurant and gift shops, featuring African themed foods and gifts. Leopards, warthogs, camels, cheetah, addax (white antelope), a petting kraal, and more are all a part of Village WaTuTu.
- Mojave Garden
- Upper Colorado Garden
- Yuman Garden
- Baja Canyon
- Sonoran Aviary & Garden
- Desert Tortoises
- Vizcaino Garden
- Chihuahuan Garden
- Cahuilla Indian Ethnobotanical Garden
- Sonoran Pond
The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens
47-900 Portola Avenue
Palm Desert, CA 92260
There are lots of resorts, hotels and motels in Palm Desert, click here for more information.
Other DesertUSA Resources
Related Books & Gifts - Trading Post
Palm Springs Art Museum
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Palm Springs, California
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Desert Animals & Wildlife Index
Desert Plants & Wildflowers Index
Outdoor Recreation: Desert Wildlife Viewing
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The Desert Environment
The North American Deserts
Desert Geological Terms