A Visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

One of the first stops on our latest Southern Arizona road trip was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on the outskirts of Tucson.

Last time I visited it my now-21-year old son was still in elementary school, his sister in preschool.  Living in the desert ourselves, we didn’t feel the need to revisit for a long time.  But my youngest daughter has never been there, and I wanted her to see it.

The Desert Museum is a zoo and botanical garden comprised. To get there, we drove through Saguaro National Monument. I wanted to stop, but in mid-November it was still too hot this year to hike the trails.  Even though we didn’t hit any trails, driving through the highest concentration of saguaro cacti through the park was a treat.

Saguaro National Monument, Arizona

Aquarium at the Desert Museum

As soon as we entered the Desert Museum, my daughter took off towards the aquarium.  Yes, aquarium in the desert. I didn’t remember it being here, but it makes sense.  We do have water in the desert, and most people wouldn’t expect it.  Added in 2013, long after my latest visit, it is set up to teach out-of-state visitors (and locals, though we should know this) about life in the rivers of the Sonoran Desert, including the Colorado, and life in the Sea of Cortez.  Without these bodies of water, the Sonoran Desert would not be known as the “greenest desert”. Following our daughter, we walked through two exhibits, one highlighting life in the freshwater rivers, the other one in the Sea of Cortez.

Aquatic Life at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Walking on the Trail

Out on the trail it was warm, so we were trying to find shade as soon as possible.  We walked out towards the pollinator gardens, with bats, bees and butterflies. Since it was daytime, we didn’t see any bats, but bees and butterflies fluttered and buzzed around us.  I learned that female bees don’t sting, something I never knew in my fifty years of life, even though at some point my dad owned a beehive while I was growing up. You learn something new every day.

Walking towards the hummingbird aviary, I noticed a docent with a beautiful barn owl on her arm, giving a presentation. We stopped for a few minutes to listen, and admire the bird.

We spent some time in the hummingbird aviary, trying to follow some of the tiny birds. Yes, we have lots of them in our backyard, but we still wanted to see them here, as well.  I did notice one with deep purple colors that I haven’t seen before. We were able to see them close by at times, if we stood still for a few minutes.  No luck taking photos of them though, they are much too fast for that.

The Organ Pipe – Cactus

Organ Pipe Cactus at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

We walked through a desert garden, where I pointed out an organ pipe cactus to my daughter.

“Do you recognize this?” I asked her. “We have one in our front yard.”

“No way, it doesn’t even look close,” she answered.

“This one is probably a few hundred years old”, I said. “Ours is only about twenty.”

As she looked closer, she did notice the resemblance.

“Could ours get this big?” she asked.  “It would take over the whole front yard.”

It probably would.  As I stopped to read what they say about my cactus, I realized why I see bats in and around our house sometimes at night.  It is a night-blooming cactus.  Although I have not seen its flower in bloom yet, my son told me that last year, when he came home very late, that he did see one of the flowers open.  It is beautiful, but only opens for the night pollinators, the bats.

Back on the Trail

Back on the trail we walked through the riparian corridor and stopped to admire the bighorn sheep in their enclosure. The underwater viewing center offered shade and a fun way to see the river otter and beaver up close in their element. The beaver was very active, and we stopped to watch him from the outside as well, standing under the shade of some trees.

We bypassed the cactus garden, because, well, we pretty much live in a cactus garden, and it was still too hot to hang out outside.  Instead, we took a beeline to the cat canyon.  The bobcat and the ocelot were sleeping, or resting, but the grey fox was walking around her enclosure, and I was able to stand there and watch her for a while. The porcupine was sleeping right by the window, easy to see.  My daughter remembered seeing one in the wild, in Banff National Park a few years ago.  They live in both environments.

Though we originally planned to walk through the Desert Loop Trail, we didn’t do it this time.  It was sunny and still too warm to walk the half-mile with no shade in sight. We live in the desert, after all, we see it every day.  But for out-of-state visitors, it is a great hike.  Especially on a cooler day. Normally it cools down enough by this time of the year, but global warming must be real, we haven’t seen real fall/winter weather yet.

Blue Heron in the Desert?

In the Desert Grassland Exhibit I admired the great blue heron, standing by the water, and grooming herself.  Her neck is so long and so flexible, she seemed to turn her head all the way around.  The prairie dogs here are bigger than those in the Phoenix Zoo, and they are fun to watch. A few turkey vultures and black vultures added to the diversity in this exhibit.

My Visit with the Mountain Lion

Mountain Lion in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Mountain Woodland was the highlight of our visit.  I noticed the mountain lion.  She is one of the most beautiful creatures I can imagine.  As it was still hot, she just sat in the shade under a rock, grooming herself and lazily looking at the visitors, and me, as well. She looked so much like my kitty at home, I wanted to pet her.  Of course, she’s much bigger and I doubt she would have enjoyed me petting her. We walked around and looked at her through the glass, from the other side of her enclosure, she was closer to the window.

They have a beautiful Mexican Wolf in this exhibit, as well. It is an endangered species and I know that the Southwest Wildlife Center in Phoenix helps with its captive breeding program.  So far, the program seems to be successful and these wolves are slowly reintroduced to the mountains of the Southwest. Their howl is one of the most beautiful music I ever heard.

Earth Science Center

Before leaving, we walked through the artificial cave in the Earth Science Center. It was a great place to get away from the sun and fun to explore it. but the real deal was waiting for us later on, when we visited Kartchner Caverns at the end of the trip.




A Southern Arizona Road Trip

A road trip is just what we needed on a long weekend, with school being out on Friday. Since it is mid-November, almost winter, we opted for a Southern Arizona trip.

On a normal year this is the time when things finally cool down in the desert. On a normal year.  However. This year is still a bit too warm.  Next week is Thanksgiving. And we are still hot.  We had the air conditioning on a few days ago.  Yeah. Life in the desert.

Saguaro National Monument, AZ

Still.  It is only in the eighties, and mornings and nights are pleasant.  A Southern Arizona road trip seemed like a great idea. We haven’t been passed Tucson in years. And I wanted to take my youngest child to Kartchner Caverns. She’s never been there.  The older two visited on school trips years ago.

First we figured, as usual, let’s go! Then we looked up the site – fortunately – and realized that we needed reservations. Since it is such a popular destination, we had to do it well in advance. We did make a reservation for sometime next month.

As luck would have it, someone canceled and we ended up with reservations for both tours in the same day, this past Sunday. Lucky us! Of course, we took the opportunity and made a three-day-weekend road trip out of it.

First Stop: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Our first stop was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  And of course, we were hot. Still, the museum is spectacular, a combination of zoo/aquarium/botanical garden/Earth Science Center all in one.

Despite the heat, we had a great time.  And heat is relative.  It wasn’t in the 100s, only the high eighties.

Mountain Lion in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The animals were a bit sleepy, but we saw them all, even the mountain lion.  I remembered them having more than one, but that was many years ago. I might have been mistaken.  We caught a presentation of a ranger with a beautiful barn owl on her arm, sat in the shade watching hummingbirds flutter around us, walked through an aquarium, through an underground exhibit, under water through a riparian habitat, and even through a cave.  We were going to see the real deal at the end of the trip, but this was a nice little preview.

Road Trip Stop 2: Saguaro National Monument

Since we were basically in Saguaro National Monument already, we decided to stop at the visitor center, and maybe even take a short hike. We did stop and enjoyed some time in the shade of the outdoor area, but we felt too hot for a hike.  We live in the desert, after all, we have plenty of opportunities to hike through the land of cacti.

Saguaro National Monument, Arizona

However, we don’t see such a concentration of saguaro cacti in one place anywhere else.  It was nice to enjoy the view of it, then drive through it for a while.

Unplanned Stops: Apple Annie’s Country Store and the Amerind Museum

We spent the night in Wilcox, a small desert town with not much to see.  But as we were driving towards it, we noticed a sign for the Amerind Museum.  We originally planned to drive to the Chiricahua Mountains the next morning, however, after a fw minutes of debate, we decided to take a side trip the next morning and visit the Amerind Museum, as soon as it opens.  It is the place where they have on display most of the finds from the archaeological site Paquime in Mexico, not far from the border, and we knew this.

We have been in Paquime (Casas Grandes) more than fifteen years ago, and we thought it would be great to see some artifacts from the site. So we changed the plan for the next day, and decided to visit the museum before heading to the Chiricahua National Monument.

Since it opened at 10am, we had some time on our hands, and stopped at Apple Annie’s, where we bought a delicious loaf of apple bread and spent some time enjoying a country store. (We are city slickers, don’t get to see many of them often).

Apple Annie's Country Store

We drove a few miles on a dirt road to reach the Amerind Museum, and it did seem like it was in the middle of nowhere, in a nice desert location though.

Amerind Museum - Door of the Art Exhibit

It didn’t have as many artifacts as we hoped for, but it was still pretty good.  They have other Native American exhibits worth a look, and it is well organized. As bonus, we got to even visit an art exhibit on the premises – all Native American art, of course.  In one of the first rooms we entered, I noticed the name on the painting as Ed Kabotie. I didn’t know he was an artist, too. We’ve seen him perform multiple times in Flagstaff with his reggae band.

4. Chiricahua National Monument

One of the highlights of the trip, Chiricahua National Monument is a beautiful place, and, being higher in the mountains, we finally felt cool enough to enjoy a few hikes.

Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

The scenic drive through Bonita Canyon is spectacular and we enjoyed the slow winding road.  We hiked to Echo Canyon, and a little beyond, a short but spectacular trail, with breathtaking views all around, then stopped at Massai point and hiked a little more.  It was nice to feel cold at times in the shade of the cliffs. Once back at the Visitor Center, we hiked on the Rhyolite Trail, in the forest, for a short time as well.

Chiricahua Mountains, AZ

We did not encounter either one of the jaguars seen in these mountains. Since 2015 as many as three jaguars were spotted in the mountains, to the delight of all those who hope to see them return to the US one day.  I was looking out for them, but I guess fortunately for me, we didn’t see either one.

The Main Destination of This Road Trip: Kartchner Caverns

The highlight of the trip, the reason we took this road trip to begin with, Kartchner Caverns was our last destination. Save the best for last. Well, that and we could only get the reservations for Sunday.

I heard and read a lot about these caves.  Still, seeing them was a treat I will never forget.  No, it wasn’t my first time in a cave.  We’ve been exploring caves in the Yucatan for years. I have been in a few in my childhood, growing up around he Carpathians.  But this cave is truly magnificent.

Again, we left the best for last.  Our second tour was the Throne Room, with Kubla Khan in the center. The light show was spectacular, we would not have been able to see this huge column and the surrounding stalactites, stalagmites and smaller columns in this room that the cave’s first explorers called Xanadu.  Why did they call it that? Well, read the poem and you’ll guess.  Then definitely go see the room.

The Throne Room tour is shorter than the Big Room.  I am not sure which one I like better overall.  As spectacular a Xanadu is, the Big Room has so many more things to explore. Bacon, fried eggs, and other food-related names on those formations made us all wonder if cave explorers are a starving bunch.  Our guide indeed confirmed this, telling us that before entering a cave, they don’t eat for a while, so they are already hungry.  Staying under ground without food for a long time, all they will think about is going to be food.  Though no matter if you’re hungry or not, the formations called bacon, indeed look like perfect bacon slices. Interesting, and beautiful (if you happen to like bacon).

No photos because we were not allowed to take cameras or phones inside.  You can look on their website for some great ones.