West of Tucson at the edge of the Saguaro National Park is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. When I spotted it as a destination after a quick Google search, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
As is typical with museums, the website suggests visitors allow two or more hours to see everything. Those recommendations leave me feeling skeptical. But on this particular day, we had about four hours to kill so we booked our visit online, hopped in the car and headed to Tucson Mountain Park, home to the museum.
Following the signs to the “Desert Museum”, you head up into the hills. From the moment you turn down the curvy road that leads up Brown Mountain, you realize this will be different. The two-lane road is well paved and marked, but leaves you feeling like you’re driving through the desert. Cacti and grasses line the road leaving you the occasional view of the road ahead.
We arrived early enough to snag a relatively shady parking spot and strolled past a solar-powered phone charging station on the way to check in. Once inside, the adventure began.
There are a number of indoor exhibits which provide opportunities for cool breaks from the Arizona heat, but the real magic of this museum is that it is truly a living museum. From paths and overlooks there are expansive views of the valley below.
A warning sign about a path option lets you know you’re headed out into the desert and all its harshness if you make the choice to take the ½ mile stroll. It was early and the temperature was a moderate 88 degrees so we decided to go for it.
A coyote strolled among the cacti behind an enclosure fence that is so well done we didn’t see it at first. I froze in my tracks wondering how close he would get before I noticed the barrier.
We continued along and spotted javelinas relaxing in the shade of a rocky outcropping. A rattlesnake slithered into an underground burrow mere inches from the pathway.
Another pathway leads to a mini zoo where a HUGE mountain lion made a brief appearance before ducking back into the shade in its enclosure. White tail deer stood by as a keeper hosed down a bit of their home. A black bear, a couple different desert cats and a smattering of other animals call this museum home. Their “cages” were creative and left you with a sense that these residents were pretty comfy.
An aviary and butterfly garden offer shaded spots to stop and observe these winged creatures in their natural environments.
The real magic, however, is the pathways that take you up close to every imaginable type of cactus and desert plant. Low key signage tells you what you’re seeing at every turn.
Some of the plants were surprising, like the heart-shaped cactus that seemed to be sending love from the desert.
Or the fuzzy one that seemed like it would be a great stuffed toy, but was undoubtedly pricklier than its appearance.
Or the little pops of cactus that reminded me of mushrooms without their tops.
I didn’t expect to love this museum when we arrived, but we are already planning a return trip in the spring to capture the plants in seasonable bloom.
There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored. Sometimes a last-minute find turns out to be well worth the time.
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