I was eager to know more about desert habitat, after a hike I attempted in Tucson. (Read about that hike here.) There are plenty of things you should know before hiking in the desert, especially if you’re not accustomed to the climate and the surroundings. I hail from the east coast, where hiking is one hundred percent different than hiking on the west coast. After my ‘hike gone wrong’ I sought out the best place to learn about the desert, and came across the Sonora Desert Museum.
It was there I learned the names of the cactus, that I’d been seeing, including the specific types of prickly pear, agave, cholla, barrel, ocotillo, and other cactus. I was also interested in being able to identify the various types of bushes and small trees, such as the Palo Verde and Mesquite. I was also able to learn about desert wilderness, from poisonous snakes and scorpions to Cougars and Coyote. The Sonora Desert Museum is one of the most memorable places I visited in Arizona, and the drive to get there is a ride you won’t forget. Make sure to bring your camera!
The Sonora Desert Museum is a private, world-renowned zoo and natural history museum. The museum contains interpretive displays containing more than 300 animal species and 1200 kinds of plants. Two miles of paths take you through beautiful desert settings.
Founded in 1952, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, is 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, because of its unique approach in interpreting the complete natural history of a single region. This represents a significant achievement, as the Museum’s collections and size are smaller than many of its counterparts. Not a “museum” in the usual sense, it is an unparalleled composite of plant, animal, and geologic collections with the goal of making the Sonoran Desert accessible, understandable, and treasured.
Due to its bi-seasonal rainfall, the Sonoran Desert region is known as the “lushest desert on earth.” The museum’s gardens display this ecosystem and represents a variety of biotic communities found within the Sonoran Desert region. There are 1,200 different species of plants with 56,000 individual specimens planted on the grounds, a long with 300 different animal species. The nonprofit organization focuses on the interpretation of the natural history, plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert. It is open every day through the year, and hosts nearly 400,000 visitors annually, including visitors from abroad.
The museum is situated in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains, along Kinney Road just south of the west section of Saguaro National Park, nearly opposite the trailhead for Gould Mine. The surroundings are quite densely covered with cacti and other plants, and across the park’s 98 acres, many dozen species grow naturally and may be viewed along an unpaved, half mile trail, while all the exhibits and collections are arranged along a one mile paved path.
From 1953 to 1985, a local television series, Desert Trails, featured the museum. It was an informal show, almost always having live animals and human guests, and focusing on the natural history of the desert as well as happenings at the museum. In 1991 the museum partnered to develop a national television series known as “Desert Speaks.” It was produced in cooperation with the local PBS affiliate (KUAT), and with The Nature Conservancy of Arizona. This television series was broadcast in 200 markets and ran for 19 seasons.“
My most loved parts of the desert museum consisted of the Loop Trail, Life on the Rocks and the underground exhibit. The “Desert Loop Trail,” is an unpaved half-mile long loop through natural desert, along which are large enclosures, made of Invisinet® developed by Museum Director of Design, Ken Stockton, for animals such as Javelinas, coyotes and lizards that are on display.
The fiber fencing is designed to be almost invisible to the eye, aiming to make the enclosure feel like naturally open space. This fine stainless steel netting is nearly invisible to visitors, providing a greatly heightened sense of seeing animals in their natural conditions. Agaves and various legume trees, native to the region, are also identified on this trail.
Life on the Rocks is a multi-species exhibit focusing on the habitat and species most often encountered amid the region’s rocky slopes. Some enclosures are mesh-topped with natural soils and vegetation; others are glass-fronted crevices or cutaway burrows in simulated soil banks. The “homes” of individual species are embedded in the rocks – many with underground burrows that can be exposed by visitors.
The Life Underground exhibit highlights creatures that make their homes underground. Visitors enter a tunnel and walk below ground into a dimly lit corridor, where various creatures, such as kit fox, kangaroo rat, and ring tail, are featured. Here visitors learn where animals go when the desert heats up.
My trip was informative in various ways, which will help me while hiking and exploring the desert region. I suggest this museum to anyone visiting the area, especially with children. I never seen so many interesting things in one place, and I will never forget the winding drive through the mountains to get there.