First of all, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is not really a museum. Nor is it a zoo, exactly, or a botanical garden, although it has elements of all three. It is, however, an excellent introduction to the natural history, flora, and fauna of Southern Arizona and the Sonoran Desert. It is primarily an outdoor discovery center, showcasing more than 300 animal species and 1200 kinds of plants, all growing or living in their natural settings. Nearly two miles of paths meander through 21 acres of desert, leading visitors through grasslands, a limestone cave, “cat canyon”, a riparian corridor, a desert loop trail (past the coyote and javelina habitats and the agave field), and into two aviaries (one devoted solely to hummingbirds.)
I’m from Virginia; I’m used to lush, verdant surroundings; grass and trees everywhere, and all manner of vines and weeds and kudzu thriving even where they’re not wanted. Southern Arizona is, well, not like that. It’s arid. It’s far from barren, but it’s very different. People have gravel and rock gardens in their front yards; grass grows only where it is carefully cultivated and encouraged (mostly on golf courses). Everywhere else, the dry earth of the Sonora is home to chaparral brush, cacti, and alien-looking succulents. Driving east from Tucson toward the museum (about a 20 minute trip), one sees a lot of dry scrub, river beds with no water in them, low trees, prickly pear cactus, and mountains off in the distance. The eastern section of Saguaro National Park starts a mile or so past the entrance to the museum; as one gets closer to that area, the hills are covered with ten and twenty foot tall saguaro cacti, standing silent sentry (and occasionally waving hello).
It takes two or three hours to explore the museum, and you won’t see all there is to see in one trip. Museum volunteers act as docents, giving talks on wildlife (often accompanied by the animal they’re discussing); schedules are posted so that you can plan to attend demonstrations of particular interest, or you can just count on running in to these experts as you make your way around the grounds. By visiting the museum, you are assured of seeing roadrunners, coyote, scorpions, rattlesnakes, and the like—the last two, by the way, safely behind glass. The loop trail provides a taste of desert hiking, albeit with the comforts of water fountains and shade ramadas. Plant specimens are labeled, and educational information abounds. You may even see free-ranging lizards, bees, snakes (gulp!) and birds that are not part of the planned exhibits—like pigeons at the zoo, these are fascinating because they’re uncaged, and might appear at any minute. . .
On my first trip to the museum, I was behind a group of avid birdwatchers as I made my way through one of the aviaries. The birders provided fascinating running commentary, and pointed out a lot more than I ever would have seen on my own. On my most recent trip, I found the limestone cave, with its samples of gemstones and minerals imported from different parts of the state. I opted out of the “caving experience”—75 feet of tight passages, low ceilings, and rough footing—but I loved the part where, having exited the mine shaft, I was invited to prospect through the loose stones for samples of hematite, azurite, malachite, amethyst, and numerous other rocks and minerals. A friendly docent was in attendance, to help me identify my treasures and remind me that I could only keep two samples.
It was at this museum that I learned about the red dye made from the cochineal, which was used to color everything from the shields of Aztec warriors to the red coats of the British army. I tasted jelly and punch flavored with the fruits of various cacti. I learned that saguaro cactus don’t grow arms until they are 60-70 years old, and I learned to tell cholla cactus from prickly pear. I know now that javelina are not really related to pigs, and that palo verde trees can be identified by their green trunks. I like knowing these things; this is the kind of adventure that makes me happy.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is open every day of the year, from 7:30 am to 5 pm from March through September, and 8:30—5:00 the rest of the year. On Saturdays during the summer, it stays open until 10 pm so that visitors can experience the desert after sundown. Tickets currently cost $8.95 for persons over the age of 13, only $1.75 for six to twelve year olds (children under age 6 are admitted free). There are four cafes/ snack bars scattered around the property, as well as a gift shop and a gallery which hosts temporary art exhibits. Since most of the exhibits are outside, sunscreen is a must, and hats and bottled water are very good ideas.
Information taken from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Self-guiding Tour Map, their official website (www.desertmuseum.org ), and two very enjoyable visits.
Phone: (520) 883-2702
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