Arizona, Road Trip

A Desert Museum That Warms You

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.

two lane road leading to museum lined with desert vegetation
The road meanders up the mountain on the way 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. 

Large variety of desert plants in native environment
The views include a plethora of desert vegetation.

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.

warning sign for walk through desert
You’ve been warned.

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.

desert coyote close to path
We almost couldn’t see the barrier keeping this guy contained.

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. 

visible rattlesnake tail with snake partially in its burrow
This guy was a little too close for comfort. It’s a good thing his head was in his burrow.

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.

Mountain lion on rocks
The mountain lion came out, took a look around and quickly went back into the shade.

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. 

Monarch butterfly on bush
The butterfly garden is a way station for migrating Monarch butterflies.

An aviary and butterfly garden offer shaded spots to stop and observe these winged creatures in their natural environments.

museum sign describing cacti
Signs let you know a little about the plants you’re seeing.

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. 

heart-shaped, purple tinted cactus
Love from the desert in the form of a heart-shaped cactus.

Some of the plants were surprising, like the heart-shaped cactus that seemed to be sending love from the desert. 

fuzzy looking cactus
Somehow I don’t think these fuzzy looking cacti are as soft as they seem.

Or the fuzzy one that seemed like it would be a great stuffed toy, but was undoubtedly pricklier than its appearance.

little purple cacti that look like mushroom stems
The sign says Rainbow Hedgehog, but they look like topless mushrooms.

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.

© The World A to Z, LLC 2020 — Unless otherwise indicated, no compensation was received for this blog.

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