Vast desert accessible through Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Black-tail prairie dog
Black-tail prairie dog is among the 230 animals on display at the museum.
The Sonora desert is the same and yet very different than the Chihuahua desert here in Southern New Mexico. Desert is desert. Right? What appears to distinguish the Sonoran from our Chihuahuan is its keystone plant, the saguaro cactus.

To learn about the saguaro and the natural history of the desert, I journeyed to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a dozen miles northwest of Tucson.

Managers may call this a museum, but it’s not like most museums I’ve visited. In fact, the museum’s literature says this is an “unparalleled composite of plant, animal, and geologic collections.” There are natural history exhibits, an art gallery, and aquarium, but its heart is outdoors — about 85 percent outdoors.

This park may look like a slice of the Sonora desert, but it’s completely artificial. Everything seems natural, but this is a highly orchestrated symphony of plants and animals, organized so visitors experience its rich diversity.

Plants occurring naturally in the Sonora are planted in settings I’d encounter on a walk in the desert, but they’re here to teach me about themselves. Various cacti species compete in a beauty contest with the signature saguaro cactus, the icon that says “desert” more than any other plant. Most are identified with signs, and there are panels explaining habitat and growing habits. Literature says there are 1,200 different types of plants, more the 56,000 individual specimens. I’d have to hike miles and miles to see everything available in this microcosm.

Instead, planners mapped out 98 acres and laid out two miles of walking paths, some of which are paved and the rest groomed gravel trails. There are water stations like oases in the Saraha, providing a cool drink just when I needed one, and strategically placed shade ramadas with benches to rest tired feet.

Additionally, this museum is a zoo. The closest we have in New Mexico is Carlsbad’s Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park. Habitats house coyote, black bear, javalina, deer, big horn sheep, and puma — among the 230 animal species kept here. There’s a regularly scheduled raptor display — eagle, hawks, and even a vulture — whose cooperation depends on how they feel. It was too hot for them to fly the day I was there, even though it was still a week from the first day of spring.

I was amused by the black bear, who found a way to beat the heat. There she was, lying on her back, splashing in a shallow pool — dipping a paw in the water and bringing it to her mouth.

(Above) A puma relaxes in the shade at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. (Right) This lovely flower in a landscaped desert setting has unsightly name of hog potato.
The puma found a shady cave in which to sleep through the hot afternoon. Fortunately, there’s a window where I could see her. Here I was, six feet from an American lion. She studied me as I studied her. Curious? Or contemplating a tasty snack?

One of the best parts of the animal experience is birdlife. There’s a walk-in aviary and a separate hummingbird aviary, but the best birdlife remains outdoors. I could see birds flit from tree to tree and cactus to cactus. But I heard them more than saw them. I stood quietly and listened to an a capella choir in concert. Birders might know the species from their song. I just relished the delightful sounds and harmonies.

Humans also make a joyful noise in the park. I identified at least four languages spoken by people walking the trails — Japanese, Arabic, German, and what may have been the language of a Scandinavian country … they all pretty much sound the same to my ear. A docent informed me they receive visitors from every continent, speaking scores of languages.

Founded in 1952, the museum is — according to its web site — “widely recognized throughout the world as a model institution for innovative presentation and interpretation of native plants and animals featured together in ecological exhibits. The museum is regularly listed as one of the top ten zoological parks in the world due to its unique approach in interpreting the complete natural history of a single region — in our case the Sonoran Desert.”

While the plants and animals are the most visible part of the museum, conservators and researchers quietly go about their work from day to day. “Over its history,” the web site says, “it has played a vital role in Mexican wolf recovery; protecting Islands in the Gulf of California and Tropical Deciduous Forest in southern Sonora, Mexico; direct salvage, augmentation, and reintroduction of at-risk reptiles and amphibians; developing a better understanding of venomous reptiles and their venoms; establishing regional coordination centers for invasive species management, as well as recognizing the importance of pollinators and documenting the impacts of climate change on mountain ‘sky island’ biota.” Each of these would make significant contributions to understanding our natural environment. Collectively, they are invaluable and a critical part of fulfilling the museum’s mission of inspiring people to live in harmony with the natural world.

The best time to visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is early morning, when it’s cooler. The animals are active then, since many are nocturnal and rest or sleep during the hottest time of day. Information about hours, fees, directions, and more is available at

If you’re like me and are curious to understand the Sonora desert as much as you know the Chihuahuan, this is a must place to visit. You can “see it all” without having to stage a major expedition into a 100,000-square-mile with its inherent costs and risks.