A Hidden Gem in the Desert
The desert may seem lonely and devoid of life, outside the Saguaro cactus standing forever at attention. The truth is the desert is alive and thriving. The Arizona- Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) is designed to educate, enlighten and delight visitors strolling the pathways, with surprises around every corner.
I normally refrain from writing on a single attraction because I do not want to advertise for any specific entity. The ASDM is an exception, because it is so exceptional. I do not care if I offer free advertising because I strongly feel everyone should visit this incredible place.
Located about two hours outside Tucson, the ASDM is off the beaten track, but worthy of the journey. People towing a trailer or driving a large motor home will need to detour, as the primary connection road (Gates Pass) will not allow large vehicles. By car take I10 to Kinney Road, large vehicles must approach Kinney Road from I19, via Ajo Way.
While the location may seem odd at first, it is ideal for the ASDM. Covering 97 acres, this is far more than a typical museum. In reality, the desert Museum is a fusion of natural history museum, art gallery, zoo, aquarium, and botanical gardens. The design fuses these topics together to help visitors gain better insight to the desert around them in innovative and personal ways.
Earth Sciences Center
Here you can explore the secret underworld of the Sonora Desert, as you wander through underground caverns. The caves housing the Earth Sciences are a great place to escape the heat while proffering stunning natural wonders, and ancient cave art. In addition, you will get a glimpse of the wildlife that routinely calls the caves home. Barn owls to bobcats join small rodents and other twilight loving species.
The caves are pitch black as you enter, but give your eyes a few moments to assimilate, and follow the lights from one exhibit to the next. A smaller side cavern is open to the public, but beware; if you are even a little claustrophobic, you will want to avoid this diversion.
At the end of the path, you will find the Earth from Space exhibit, funded by NASA. Video clips of the Earth reveal the effects of extreme weather, wildfires, and other major changes that are visible from space. Docents are available to answer questions and provide fascinating extras. We were allowed to hold and examine a moon rock on our last visit. Few museums allow that sort of hands-on learning.
The diversity of life on our Mother Earth will astonish young and old alike. Even the mineral collection is reputed to be one of the best in the world. I like the area where you can observe minerals, gems and crystals under ultra-violet light. The luminosity of the collection is beautiful.
Ancient civilizations that settled the area, the geology, flora and fauna are explored in the Ancient Arizona exhibit. Did you know the ASDM has its very own dinosaur? Sonorasaurus roamed the region far earlier than the first settlement and makes for a kid-friendly exhibit.
Unlike most zoos, the ASDM presents animals in their native environment. Landscaping provides trails for visitors to explore the diverse environments found in the desert. Indigenous animals are presented in such a way, as you feel part of their environment. Although perfectly safe, animals appear to be accessible, but clever barriers built into the landscape keep animals and visitors safe. I love to photograph the animals, sans any acrylic barrier or fencing, and with a regular camera lens.
Reptile, Amphibian, and Invertebrate Hall
This is one area that the animals and visitors are separated, as some of them may be poisonous. If they won’t hurt you, you could endanger them. Enter the climate-controlled gallery, and explore a surprising array of creatures. This is a great escape from the heat, as well.
As the name suggests, grass is the dominant form of life in this exhibit. Partnered with wild flowers and bulbs the vast expanses of grassland are home to a number of animals. Prairie dogs are playful, curious creatures that delight visitors with their antics. Watch for Great Blue Herons, and two different species of vulture. Shrubs and trees try to establish themselves, hindered by fires during the dry months.
The semi-desert conditions produce grasslands that are quite shallow compared with their mid-west varieties. Although covering vast expanses, the grasslands are meager enough to allow the growth of the other plant life. The northeastern portion of the Sonora Desert is primarily dessert grassland or chaparral.
Mountain Woodland Exhibit
Mountains pop up in the desert, like islands in the ocean. The higher altitudes provide cooler, more hospitable accommodation for many animals that could not survive the desert heat. You will stroll through Mexican Pine-Oak Woodlands, and view animals in their native environment.
Large mammals include White Tailed Deer, Black Bear, Mexican Grey Wolves and the ASDM’s mascot Mountain Lion. Thick-billed Parrots, American Kestrels and Merriam’s Turkeys are also located in this habitat. I cannot stress how natural the displays are. You will swear you are viewing them in the wild.
Desert Loop Trail
This little jaunt features Palo Verde Trees and agave, staples for javelinas, coyotes, and lizards galore. Javelinas are fascinating creatures, often called “Skunk Pigs” due to their odiferous nature. They seem perfectly at home near humans, and appear to be friendly. These large hoofed mammals have large tusks that may not be readily visible. When the javelin opens their mouth to attack, a long, sharp tusk reveals itself.
Life on the Rocks
Much of the area near Tucson is covered in rocky outcroppings. This exhibit demonstrates the diversity of life by providing native species to view. Roadrunners (meep-meep) entertain with their swift mode of ambulation. Striped skunks, and several reptiles are on view, and visitors can learn how the creatures survive in such a harsh environment.
Here you will have full view of bobcats lazily sunning themselves. A grey fox, porcupine and an ocelot may also make a presence, leading to larger than usual crowds. Be patient, and work your way up to the front when a bottleneck occurs.
Even deep in the desert, there is water. Where there is water, there is riparian life. This corridor provides a shady retreat near the center of the ASDM. Humans will enjoy an ice cream or a cold drink at the Cottonwood Café before exploring the incredible inhabitants of the area.
River otters are delightful as they frolic and play, or hold hands as they float. These critters are
natural born entertainers, inviting visitors to linger a while. Beaver and Big Horn Sheep call this home, along with cute Coatis. Coatis, or coatimundis, have long ringtails and rather sharp snouts. They look adorable, but can be fierce when provoked.
Aquatic invertebrates and Desert Toads offer yet another surprise from the ASDM.
The aquarium is relatively new, having opened in January 2013. Although it may seem strange to think of sea life, both salt water and fresh, when you think of the Sonora Desert, but indeed they are quite important to the region. You will learn all about it as you explore the wonders of undersea life, and find out why the Sonora Desert is considered the “lushest desert on earth.”
Smaller birds can be viewed in the aviary, home to Gambel’s quail, brightly colored cardinals, doves, ducks and about 40 other species that I cannot name. When you walk through, you can expect to spy about half of the species, unless you are an experienced birder who knows where and how to look. If you are having trouble spotting our winged friends, ask a docent for some hints. They hide themselves well. Cactus Wren and Gila Woodpeckers make their home in the giant saguaros, actually burrowing a hole where they can escape predators and the heat of summer.
No less than 16 individual gardens are open to the public, displaying 1200 different plant species. There are approximately two miles of walking trails that lead you through 56,000 individual plants. The gardens are intermixed with the animal exhibits, so even the youngsters will not mind you taking your time to wander. Some of the flowering cactus have exquisite blooms in dynamic colors that will keep your camera clicking.
Don’t be surprised if you come across snakes and lizards that naturally inhabit the grounds. They are generally harmless, but I recommend you give them the right of way. It is their home, after all.
Other Things You Should Know
This museum is one of the best in the world, and deserves plenty of time to explore. The thoughtful management supplies sun screen in the restrooms, in case you forgot yours. The sun can take a toll on folks, even the young and fit.
The management has planned the layout exceptionally well, allowing cooler spots periodically to allow for cool down. Take advantage of these respites so you can fully appreciate this unique experience.
Daily, docent led interactions with animals are offered, as are tours and interactive demonstrations. While I might avoid such an interaction elsewhere, I get excited when I come across one at ASDM. As I mentioned earlier, we were able to hold a moon rock in our hands. Where else could I have done that? Nowhere. I have found every docent interaction to be educational and fun, appealing to all members of the family.
To be fair, I have not adequately been able to describe this outstanding attraction. I have not even begun to discuss the beautiful art on display, or the fascinating visitors center. Dedicated to the preservation of the desert, and the incredible life teaming within it, the ASDM is actively working to save the endangered species that call Sonora Desert their home. You can learn about conservation, ways to help protect these rare creatures and plants, and be thrilled as you learn.
I dare you not to be impressed by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.