Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum
Bordering Saguaro National Park west of Tucson is a world-class natural history "museum": the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. I put the word museum in quotes, because this place is so much more. It is a montage, a collage of elements, beautifully laced together to form what is at once a zoo, a natural history museum and a botanical garden. The interpretive displays are alive and the animals live in their natural desert setting. There are almost two miles of trails in 21 acres of exquisite Sonoran Desert. The view alone is worth the price of admission.
From September to October, visitors to the museum will find desert temperatures mild to cool. Gone is the blazing heat of summer, and the monsoon season has long since passed. Plan to spend most of the day at this wonderful place. You will want to see it all!
You can follow your own path with the help of the pamphlet you receive at the admission desk. Along the way, there are docents to answer your many questions about the museum itself and the wildlife that abounds in this part of the Southwest. If you happen to be in the right place at the right time, you might also get to see one of the animals up close and personal. Docents often bring a bird, reptile or mammal out for visitors to meet face to face, and share information about that particular species.
The museum is divided into sections, so you can easily head for your favorite animals or plants, but the discoveries made on the way are wonderful, too. Be sure to see it all!
More than 140 species of cactus and other Sonoran Desert plants are grown in this garden. Sagauro, cholla, beavertail and hedgehog are just a few of the cacti you will see. Palo verde trees abound, with their green trunks and beautiful yellow flowers. Here, it's easy to gain a new sense of appreciation for the endless variety of plants in the desert.
Believe it or not, southeastern Arizona has some of the most beautiful and rare hummingbirds in the United States. Due to its proximity to Mexico, the uppermost ranges of some tropical species come just into the US in Arizona's southeastern corner. Hummingbirds are a delight to all. This world-famous exhibit lets you walk freely among seven species of native hummingbirds. These harmless and beautiful creatures whiz past your head and might even grab a thread from your sweater to help build their nest!
Nothing is quite so awe-inspiring as standing face to face just inches away from a cougar. Also known as a mountain lion, these stunningly beautiful animals can be viewed this close, thanks to a glass partition that allows us into the cats' den. Besides the mountain lion, Cat Canyon also houses ocelots, margays, jaguarmundis and coatimundi. This is a wonderful exhibit that you won't want to miss!
These amazing animals are found in rocky, dry places throughout the Southwest. In this exhibit, you can see just how incredible these creatures are. Their ability to climb rock faces that would puzzle the most well-equipped mountain climber, is staggering. They are majestic!
This wonderful bird sanctuary brings us closer to our avian friends. The Sonoran Desert has been a favorite haunt of bird watchers everywhere. Here you can see cardinals, Gambel's quail, ducks, doves and many other beautiful birds of this region. Enjoy!
Reptiles & Invertebrates
Snakes, lizards and strange looking insects abound here. Although these creatures often invoke fear in many people, a little understanding of them and a chance to see how beautiful they are can change that fear to wonder. The Gila monster, the only poisonous lizard found in the US , is actually one of the most beautiful and rare. Its relative, the mexican beaded lizard is also here in the museum.
You'll get a chance to see how a rattlesnake's tail works, how its jaws work, and also learn to appreciate what role they play in our environment. There are actually more NON-venomous reptiles in the desert than venomous ones, and most are quite docile and shy. Kingsnakes, milksnakes, gophersnakes, iguanas, geckos and horned lizards are just a few of the non-venomous species that you can see. There's also an insect exhibit that has scorpions, spiders, desert centipedes, giant mesquite bugs, beetles and other insects on a seasonal basis.
Many of the desert's species spend a great deal of their life underground. In the summer when ground temperatures soar, these animals take cover in the cooler reaches of the underground, and come out at night when the surface temperatures have cooled. Kit foxes, kangaroo rats, packrats, ringtails, tarantulas and many varieties of snakes are just some of the animals that you will see living this nocturnal lifestyle in the underground world of the Sonoran Desert!
Limestone Cave & Minerals
A limestone cave with stalactites and stalagmites reveals the wonders of a world beneath our feet. One of the finest and most beautiful collections of regional minerals and gemstones is exhibited here. For the rockhound, this is the place for you! Kids will also enjoy the mini-cave bypass! A working seismograph displays how the Earth is always moving and shifting. Meteorites, archaeological and geologic history, and cave fossils are just a few of the delights that await you in this fascinating exhibit!
Riparian means situated on the bank of a river. Though this part of the world often appears dry and even parched, there is water here, and at times it abounds. The waters here are home to a number of beautiful species including river otters, beavers, pupfish, chub and the Sonoran spiny-tailed iguana to name a few!
Like the Cactus Garden, you'll discover that the desert is home to an amazing variety of beautiful plants. The idea that the desert is a wasteland disappears the minute you enter this lush and gorgeous botanical wonderland. Relax here and take in the sights and aromas of this place -- it will fill you with appreciation for nature at its finest. More than 160 species of plants, a butterfly garden, a red garden, a foliage garden, a grass garden and more are awaiting your eyes and nose! Wildflower interpretive activity is conducted from 1:00 pm - 3:00 pm in the Desert Garden.
The grasslands are full of surprises. Here, prairie dogs play and owls and box turtles make their living. Turtles and frogs, harvesting ants, toads and more than 120 plant species make their home on the desert grasslands. This exhibit includes the replica of a mammoth kill site that is over 11,000 years old!
Here you will find javelinas -- also known as peccaries. These are the wild boars of the Sonoran Desert. There is also a Saguaro harvest ramada here, and an assortment of beautiful palo verde trees, as well as exhibits in the making.
Don't miss this part of the museum. This is where you get a chance to look into that cougar's eyes. The animals represented in this area are found at elevations between 4,000 and 7,000 feet. There are also black bear, Mexican wolves, porcupine, white-tailed deer, gray foxes and more than 100 plant species. This is a wonderful place for mammal lovers.
The view from this point will take your breath away. As you look out, the Sonoran Desert spreads south and west before your eyes. Be sure to bring binoculars. This is an especially wonderful place to watch the sky -- the storms, and sunrises and sunsets.
There is more to see at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum than touched on here. I haven't even mentioned the beautiful coyotes and birds of prey, the chuckwalla or the exquisite parrots that are found in this desert and south into Mexico. This is nature's oasis, to be enjoyed by young and old alike. Be ready to take pictures, bring your binoculars and your sense of wonder. Don't forget to bring your appetite as well! There are restaurants at the museum serving a wide variety of delicious foods, in settings that are in keeping with this desert wonderland.
By Sandy Shaw
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is located at
2021 N. Kinney Road
Tucson, AZ 85743-8918
Web Site: http://www.desertmuseum.org
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