We are staying in Tucson for approximately 6 weeks, and the one recommendation we have received over and over again is to go to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Yes! If you are ever in Tucson, go here! I cannot even begin to tell you the number of times I heard, “Wow”, “So cool”, and “This is awesome”. But not only did the kids have smiles on their faces, they were asking questions, discovering, and learning!
Note: If you are traveling in a Motorhome, bus, or towing, there are vehicle restrictions on Gate Pass Road. Be sure your GPS is taking you Ajo Way to Kinney Road. You will drive through Tucson Mountain County Park. The road is paved, but could use some work so don’t plan on being able to drive the posted 35mph speed limit. It is also prone to flash flooding. We received just a little bit of rain right before leaving the museum and there was already some water flowing across the roadway. Tucson Mountain County Park does have several picnic areas, trails, and a campground if you wanted to take advantage of any of those in conjunction with your trip. Old Tucson (and old west theme park) is also right there, so you could so the Desert Museum one day, camp in the County Park (30 amp electric sites), and do Old Tucson the following day. There was plenty of RV parking at the Desert Museum, and you are able to leave the museum to return to your vehicle for lunch. There is a small picnic area right outside the gate. There are stations throughout the park to refill your water bottles.
The price when we went was $21.95 for adults (they do have a military price of $17.95) and $8.95 for children ages 3-12. Stroller rentals are $6.
What a great value. Our large family of 8 spent less than $90 for a day full of educational fun! The Desert Museum is open every day from 8:30am - 5pm (hours vary slightly in the summer). We arrived at approximately 9:30am and left around 4:30pm. Due to some storms that started around 3pm we were unable to see everything. There is certainly plenty to see and do here!
Most of the park is outside. Two miles of trails wind through natural Sonoran Desert habitats. Placards are placed at the bottom of native flora, which helped us to identify some of the plants, cacti, and wildflower we have been seeing on our hiking adventures.
There are also 16 individual botanical gardens which attract local fauna. Did you know a bee vibrates it’s body to shake free pollen from a flower?
If you follow the main loop to the right, the first stop you will come to is Reptile Hall, full of everything that will kill you in the desert! Well, maybe not everything, but there sure are a lot of poisonous snakes in the Sonora Desert. This Sidewinder Horned Rattlesnake perfectly camouflages in the desert sand and is a sky-and-wait predator.
If you survive the snakes and scorpions, the Orientation Ramada is just around the corner. Here our daughter got to meet her favorite animal Hootie the Western Screech Owl. All of the volunteers and workers at the Desert Museum are so friendly, knowledgeable, and patient.
After identifying some mountains at the Geology Overlook, we were off to the cave! This artificial cave, complete with stalagmites, stalactites, side tunnels and passages, and bat models, was an exciting adventure for the children. There is a main passage that is strolled and wheelchair accessible, and a side tunnel that requires some low clearance maneuvering. Signs along the way explain the formation of a limestone cave, stalagmites, and stalactites.
There is a stunning mineral collection as you exit the cave. Microscopes allow you to investigate the structure of different minerals. Just outside is a mining dump. Each person is allowed to find one rock to come home. The children were impressed with their finds and excited to add them to their rock collection
The next exhibit on the main loop is the Mountain Woodland. The Mountain Lion was napping (only its tail was visible), but the Black Bear and Mexican Gray Wolves were putting on a show.
The Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs were our favorite part of the Desert Grassland exhibit. They are fun to watch as they pop in and out of their holes and run about. One of their predators are rattlesnakes. There is a neat little display demonstrating how the rattlesnake’s tail rattles.
If you have children, you don’t want to miss Packeat Playhouse. Everything is fit to scale as if you are a tiny packrat. Packrats are excellent climbers and very curious. You can climb through a prickly pear cactus play structure and slide down cholla skeleton ribs. There is no age limit, so have some fun with your kiddos.
Toddlers have their own area with a rattlesnake, Gila monster, and scorpion for their to slide, play, crawl, and explore, but our older children had some fun in there too! (Note: it was not crowded and most of the time we were the only family in there. Please be courteous if there are small children present and remember that this is their safe place to play). The Packrat Playhouse closes one hour before the museum (4pm), so plan accordingly. There are special programs here and capacity is limited on Saturdays and for special events. By the time the kids were done playing we were ready for a lunch break! Here is a good place to cut across back to the entrance.
After a picnic lunch, some shopping in the gift store, and coffee from Phoebe’s Coffee Bar, we were ready to continue exploring the museum grounds. We went backwards on the loop this time, starting at the Hummingbird Aviary. Seven species of hummingbirds provide a flurry of activity! Our one daughter was wearing a very bright pink shirt and the hummingbirds seemed very attracted to her. She wasn’t so sure what to think at first, but she really warmed up to them and was even trying to get them to land on her.
I am told that there are times of the year when you can see baby hummingbirds and eggs in their nests, but we did not see any. Hummingbirds have the most rapid wing beats of birds and can fly in any direction (including backwards). They are fascinating to watch. Benches are placed throughout the exhibit, so sit and enjoy!
A little further down the pathway is the walk-in aviary with more than 20 species of Native birds. Be sure to peek into the bushes and trees that line the paved walkway. Laminated field guides are available at the entrance of the aviary to help you identify the birds you see.
This White-Winged Dova was one of our favorite finds. It has the most beautiful blue coloring around the eye. These birds can fly 25 or more miles to find water. In the desert they can get moisture from the saguaro cactus fruit. They are actually important to the saguaro cactus because they help disperse its seeds.
We made it to the Ripariab Corridor just before the storms began. We sought shelter here for a bit as we watched the Bighorn Sheep.
It is neat to watch them descend the canyon walls. They knew the rain was approaching too and sought shelter in the alcoves before the rain began. The river otters and beavers in the neighboring exhibit are also entertaining to watch.
When there was a break in the storms we made a mad dash for the Packrat Playhouse for a few more minutes of play before making another dash back towards the entrance. Right by the entrance you’ll find Warden Aquarium with 14 tanks displaying a variety of sea life, including seahorses and garden eels.
Thank you Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum for a wonderful day of learning, fun, and adventure! Before we were even out of the park our kids were asking if we could come back again the next time we are in Tucson. We are all looking forward to returning!