A few weeks ago I made the trip out to the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum. Everything about this day trip is great – the drive and the scenery especially. I avoided this place for the first two years of living in Tucson (because it has the word museum in it and I am notoriously bad at museums), but then I realized it is essentially a zoo. With the multitude of southwestern flora and fauna, it is almost impossible to take a bad picture at ASDM. If you’re staying in central Tucson, take Speedway Blvd through Gate’s Pass on the way out, and arrive early to see the animals at their peak activity.
Gate’s Pass cuts through the Tucson Mountains west of the city. The road is steep and winding, but there are several places to pull off the road for outstanding overlooks. I stopped on the way to the Desert Museum and on the way back.
Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum
The Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum was ranked in the top 10 best museums in the world by TripAdvisor in 2013. In addition to a zoo, it houses an aquarium, botanical gardens, and serves as a display for local artists’ work. It is open every day of the year, starting at 8:30 during the winter and 7:30 during the warm months. General admission is $19.50 (as of March 2014), with discounts for seniors, students and children.
230 native animals and 1200 native plant species can be seen along the museum’s two miles of pathways, which are never steeper than a gentle incline. Guides are more than happy to share their knowledge with you as you wander the grounds. See a museum map.
Along the half-mile Desert Loop Trail you can spot the coyote and a whole pack of javelinas.
The butterfly garden is the first stop after entering the museum and turning left. I came on a great day to see them.
One of the best places to see many animals at once is Cat Canyon, which houses bobcats, a grey fox, porcupines and an ocelot. The exhibit can be seen from two levels: one looking down into the enclosures, and into the crevasses where the cats like to sleep during the afternoon, and the other from the ground, where I imagine you see the cats eating and prowling if you catch them at the right time. I’ve only ever seen them in the crevasse though.
While the bobcats and butterflies and mountain lions are cool, my favorite part of the Desert Museum will always be the prairie dogs. I could watch them all day. In fact, I would be quite happy if a few prairie dogs decided to set-up shop in my backyard. The prairie dog below was wandering about Cat Canyon, but the rest of them can be found in the Desert Grasslands exhibit.
Unfortunately, I visited a bit too early in the spring for the cacti to be flowering, but I do have some old pictures from a previous trip where the cacti were in full bloom. These can be found all over the museum, but two of the best places to find colorful flora are the Cactus Gardens and the Desert Gardens.
The museum has two aviaries: one for hummingbirds and one for all other species. Although the hummingbird aviary is fun, I find it nearly impossible to get a picture of any of them. They move way too fast.
Since I normally do the museum in a clockwise fashion, starting left, I always end at the “grand finale” exhibits – the black bear and the mountain lion found in the Mountain Woodland. Unfortunately they were all settled down for their mid-afternoon nap by the time I arrived (perhaps I should have started with their exhibits?), but I did have a few pictures leftover from 2012.
Adjacent to the bear’s enclosure are the deer and mountain lion enclosures. I overheard a tour guide telling a group that this was planned to simulate life in the wild. When the wind blows, the deer can smell the scent of the lion and go on guard. When the lion catches a whiff of the deer, he begins to get hungry and in the hunting mood.
It was an interesting anecdote, but the wind was blowing while I was listening in on the lecture, and I can’t say the deer looked too bothered by the scent of a mountain lion. Likewise, the lion didn’t seem too interested in anything besides his nap.
Gate’s Pass (Again)
On the way back from the museum, I again stopped at Gate’s Pass to check out the landscape in the late afternoon. Cloudy skies and strong winds kicked up numerous dust devils on the valley floor.
Along with Kitt Peak National Observatory, the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum is in my opinion one of the “must-see” places in Tucson. Coming up next, more hiking!