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.
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.
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
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
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.