The Tucson-Sonora Desert Museum

Tucson, AZ

One day during the Discovery Rally we skipped some of the planned activities and drove with our friends Larry and Mary Anne to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a short drive from the park where we have been staying.   On the way to the museum we drove through scenic Gates Pass, with a stop at Tucson Mountain Park.

The pass goes through some beautiful rock formations and land covered with Saguaro Cactus.

Larry and John enjoy a well-earned break

View of the Sonora Desert from Gates Pass

The road through the desert

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a 98-acre museum and zoo located 12 miles west of Tucson. The museum contains two miles of walking paths on 21 acres and is one of the most visited attractions in Tucson. The facility combines the attractions of a zoo, museum, and botanical garden, with a focus on the plants and animals that live in the Sonora Desert.  The museum was a pioneer in the creation of naturalistic enclosures for its animals.

Arizona Sonora Desert Museum - Tucson, Arizona

Below is a view of the desert to the south looking from the museum.  The two small mountains in the center are located in Mexico, 70 miles away.

We were fortunate to enter the museum just as a docent was beginning a tour.  Marcie is a former teacher who has lived in the desert for 28 years and is very knowledgeable about the plants and animals in the museum.

Most of the tour of the museum is on gravel paths that wind through the desert.

Marcie, our guide, showed us many of the plants of the desert and explained how they survived in the harsh climate.  A few samples are pictured below.   The first is a Palo Verde Tree, the state tree of Arizona.  Palo Verdes often act as nurse trees to young Saguaro Cactus, as the young Saguaro cannot tolerate the heat of the desert.  The Palo Verde shades the Saguaro until it matures.

Palo Verde tree shields a young Saguaro

Below is a picture of Jumping Cholla.  The “jumping cholla” name comes from the ease with which the stems detach when brushed, giving the impression that the stem jumped. Often the merest touch will leave a person with bits of cactus hanging on their clothes to be discovered later when either sitting or leaning on them. The ground around a mature plant will often be covered with dead stems, and young plants are started from stems that have fallen from the adult. They attach themselves to desert animals and are dispersed for short distances.

Jumping Cholla

Following are two pictures of a Prickly Pear cactus.  What is interesting about this cactus is the white substance attached to it’s flat surface.

The white is a waxy substance containing the early stage of a cochineal.  The cochineal is a scale insect from which the crimson-colored dye carmine is derived.  The insect produces carminic acid that deters other insects from eating it.  Carminic acid can be extracted from the body and eggs, then mixed with aluminum or calcium salts to make carmine dye (also known as cochineal).  Carmine is today primarily used as a food coloring and for cosmetics.  Just a few months ago Starbucks drew flak from some vegetarians after a vegan barista (ok, a coffee maker to you plain folk) noticed that the company had started using cochineal extract, which is made from crushed insects, in the Frappuccinos.  You can understand why they would be upset, crushing that poor cochineal!

Two foreign tourists in front of some Organ Pipe Cacti

Below is an Agave.  It is a common misconception (certainly not by us) that Agaves are cacti .  They are not related to cacti, nor are they closely related to Aloe, whose leaves are similar in appearance.   The plant has many uses, including the center which is used as a sugar substitute.

Agave plant

The museum also has a large number of desert animals on display.  A few are pictured below.


California Leaf-nosed Bat


Javelina (Peccary)


Prairie Dogs

Cactus Wren – Arizona’s state bird

After the museum finally threw us out at closing time, we headed back up to Gates Pass to enjoy a mountain sunset.  Below is a picture of part of the Sonora Desert taken from the Pass, with what appears to be lakes in the distance.  Lakes in the desert?  It turns out that it is water channeled by canals from the Colorado River.  Tucson has a good source of underground water, but the supply is strained from overuse due to population growth.  The water develops a high mineral content as it flows from the river, making it unpleasant as drinking water.  So, water is pumped into these low areas of the desert where it is naturally filtered as it slowly sinks into the ground water.

Sunset over the mountains

The Tucson-Sonora Desert Museum is a must-see if you ever visit the Tucson area.  But it is only one of many places to visit in this part of Arizona.

More on some of those places later . . .

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1 Response to The Tucson-Sonora Desert Museum

  1. Marsha says:

    We loved that area. Grant’s Pass is so beautiful! We drove in that area three times. Each time we saw something different. Did you go there for you sunset photo? If not, be sure to do it. You will see tons of cars…that is the place to stop. Your photo is gorgeous!

    You probably notice Paul and I both included the Desert Museum in our top ten. Did you get to see the Raptor Flight? That was amazing. So glad you were able to get on a tour. I think it just adds to the experience of the Museum. I agree that this is a must-see!!! It looks like the weather was perfect!
    Glad you had a great day. So many memories for one day….YEA!!!

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