A Lesson in Desert Ecosystems: The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Our final day in the Tucson area was spent checking out the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Honestly, I was a little skeptical as to whether it was worth the $20.50/person admission price since we had seen our fair share of different deserts in multiple states the couple of months prior. But with a day to kill and the fact that this had been recommended to us by several people and was well reviewed online, we figured we’d check it out.

The museum’s primary purpose is to expose visitors to different aspects of the Sonoran desert – from plant life to animals to artwork and natural history (with some plant life examples from other deserts as well). Since its inception, it has been looked to as an innovative museum and is ranked as one of the United States’ best. Most of the museum is outside so that the flora and fauna may thrive and also so that visitors may really take in the experience of the Sonoran Desert. That meant that it was pretty warm walking through it, despite it not being anywhere near peak temperatures for the region. There is also a good amount of ground to cover so we made sure to bring water and wear comfortable shoes.

We always love seeing animal exhibits, so that was naturally the best part of the museum for us. Our favorites were a new discovery – the javelinas – which resemble small, black wild pigs, but in fact are much more closely related to the peccary, and the always entertaining prairie dogs! These were Sonoran-native prairie dogs and seemed particularly chubby to us, perhaps from being in captivity or maybe that’s just their natural figure…either way, watching these adorable little guys scurry from hole to hole kept us entertained for a good bit. We got to see some other neat animals as well.

Javelina sleeping in the shade







We just love these little guys!




Employees and volunteers run educational exhibits throughout the day. I was surprised John was brave enough to pet and hold the snake!

What was really unique about the presentation of native animal species here were the aviaries, in which you could enter through several doors and be surrounded by a variety of birds native to the Sonoran Desert. One such exhibit highlighted a variety of larger native birds while the other was strictly hummingbirds, which we were surprised to learn can thrive in the desert. It was really cool to just be surrounded by a bunch of buzzing and zipping hummingbirds!






There was also a non-enclosed area that was supposed to attract a large number of butterfly species – and we saw a few! Since we weren’t there at peak season though, they were kind of scarce. As North American monarchs make an annual migration to Mexico, it makes sense that they would also survive in the desert. It was another animal we had never really thought about living in this type of environment before though!

Look for the butterfly!

The museum had a variety of plant species, not only from the Sonoran desert, but from other North American deserts as well. Though we had seen a lot of these species either locally or elsewhere on our travels, it was awesome to see them conveniently labeled with their names and additional information on each species!

The good old joshua tree from the Mojave Desert
Apparently desert plants like to play dead! It’s amazing that plants can “come back to life” for a little while after a single good rain!
These cacti looked really pretty to me.
Organ Pipe Cactus
I had literally asked this question while hiking in Saguaro when we came upon a palo verde!

On top of having a unique educational experience, we were able to have some fun with some of the exhibits, too, which clearly have no age limit. I drew the line at getting the animal tracks stamp at every animal exhibit though – even though it was hard to resist. 🙂

John earned his wings! As a vulture, no less…


Though we still feel as though the admission might be a tad bit steep, we are certainly glad that we checked this place out and were able to learn more about what we had been seeing the previous few months in our desert excursions. I don’t even usually dedicate whole posts to museums, but this one was exceptionally unique. I especially think that it is a great place for young children or anyone with limited mobility or heat tolerance (the museum covers a lot of ground but is wheelchair/scooter accessible) to experience what the desert has to offer without going out on a hike. Either way, it’s educational for all and was certainly a pleasant surprise for us!

Oh, and we finished the day with dinner in downtown Tucson. Though we had to get over the fact that the menu item on one Google photo showing FRENCH FRY NACHOS had been discontinued, this place was like Chipotle but with homemade flavor and with an in house bar serving local craft beers and serve-your-own complimentary chips and a variety of salsas to choose from – what more could we really ask for (besides french fry nachos)?! We love Chipotle, too, but we are still craving this place again!


this one

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