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The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum which is close to the city of Tucson in Southern Arizona is anything but a museum. The very word "Museum" to me conjures up images of relics from the past displayed in ornate glass cases, which this definitely isn't. Instead if you visit the place you will be rewarded with a desert zoo experience, which has rightly earned its place in the list of the top ten zoos in the world. Yes there are natural history exhibits, but the botanical gardens and animal enclosures really make this an outdoors experience, with over 85% of the area in the open air.
We made our visit to the museum fairly early on in our holiday to Arizona. My son lives only a few minutes drive away, as his house is literally on the edge of the desert. For this reason we thought it would be a perfect introduction to the area, the scenery and the wildlife.
Full details about the location, opening hours and prices follow at the end of this review, and I have also converted the prices to pounds to enable a visitor from the UK to budget for the day out, which I feel is really important if you have a family. The main point to note here though is that, in common with many attractions in Arizona, the prices are very reasonable, both for the entrance fee and for the catering facilities which exist on the site.
Many of the details about the museum can be read on their website at www.desertmuseum.org, which is why I want to instead explain what a visit there is actually like. Arriving at the museum I was in awe at the surroundings which are quite simply magnificent. The museum is actually a meander through two miles of natural desert. For this reason you have to remember that what you are seeing are exhibits of the natural fauna and flora, as well as the creatures which you would see if you were to set off to traverse this vast expanse of desert. This desert reaches from Arizona as far west as California and south to the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California. So, for example, looking at the enclosures which house the reptiles in captivity, there are signs everywhere to remind you that the relatives of the boarding creatures could be wandering free, and signs warning you to beware of desert creatures and that in particular snakes could be seen.
Everything about the way this museum has been constructed is simply superb. The rest rooms (public conveniences) are so frequent that you come across them almost around every corner, and shaded areas are in abundance. We went in September and it was boiling hot, but the earlier summer months reach temperatures which make a visit even tougher, and a hat, sunscreen and plenty of fluids are vital. We also took coconut water as this is high in electrolytes. There are taps everywhere to fill your water bottle for free, and a sunscreen factor 30 dispenser is provided at every rest room location, and is completely without charge. I thought this was outstanding. I would also avoid a visit in the heat of the day unless you are planning to eat on the site at one of the cafés or restaurants.
The museum is set on a hill which affords views over the desert in every direction. These views are breathtaking and afford wonderful opportunities for taking photographs. What I also really valued was the care and attention which had gone into the enclosures which housed the animals. They are cared for with the utmost respect for them, and wherever possible they have surroundings which reflect precisely what is mirrored in the views you see beyond the enclosures.
Another point to make is that this part of Arizona is not flooded with tourists, and a visit here is something of a personal and uplifting experience - if you like to walk in solitude then there will be times when this is possible. We saw very few people on our visit, and as the park covers 21 acres of desert the feeling of space is incredible.
There are over 1200 varieties of plants and 300 animals in the museum, which is now over half a century old having been formed back in 1952 by William Carr and Arthur Pack. It is a non profit making organization, and most of its work lies in education and conservation.
I think you must allow at least three hours to see everything as the place has so much to enjoy, in fact we plan to revisit on our next trip. I think the highlights for me were the beavers - these have the most amazing pond to live in, and the viewing area is right underneath the water so you can see them swimming below the surface. Apparently they escaped once into the desert (one of the very few escapes the museum has seen) but they soon returned of their own accord to the safety and comfort of their enclosure.
Also fascinating were the snakes, which I have to admit to being rather frightened of. However I knew I had to keep my fear in check, as my son has them in his garden from time to time, and so acquainting me with the various species within the reptile enclosures was important. The snakes were very contented and had superb living areas many in natural rock crevices. I did have to remind myself that these were caged, but that there was a possibility a naturally wandering snake could appear on one of the paths- it is natural desert after all!
The more memorable exhibits included mountain lions, prairie dogs, javelinas which are rather like pigs, but caught my attention because my son has seen one passing by his house. These desert hogs are often found near to Prickly Pear plants and make rather loud noises mostly in the evening! Another exhibit which really interested me were the coyotes. These resemble dogs and pose a danger to foals, lambs, calves, pigs and chickens, and to domestic cats and for this reason my son now keeps his cats indoors, having lost several, presumably to these predators. There is also a superb aviary, and the planting of the butterfly garden was incredible, as unlike those I had been to in the past, these were open to the air so the butterflies really were living naturally attracted by the flowers and the plants.
Eating at the museum was very positive experience, though we did have a little difficulty being vegetarian. We chose the mushroom burger initially, but then realised that it was not vegetarian so we changed our mind to the "Garden Burger" which was lovely, and we enjoyed a beautiful salad of mixed leaves to go with it. Including drinks our meal for three of us came to only $22(£14), which was incredible value for money. There are lighter options and a choice of places to eat within the site, including a café which serves ice creams dinks and snacks. A full description of these is to be found at the end of this review.
The museum caters well for disabled visitors and there are wheelchairs available free of charge. The site also has two electric scooter- wheel chairs which you can hire for $10 dollars per day. The paths are superbly made affording disabled visitors to enjoy the same experience as those who are able bodied.
I can highly recommend a visit to this wonderful place where desert wildlife, fauna and flora, are nestled in a cosy hideaway. You have to remind yourself this is really a zoo as it is built so well and so in keeping with the natural surroundings.
The full address of the museum is:
2021 North Kinney Road, Tucson, Arizona 85743 U.S.A.
The opening hours are:
October - February
8:30 am - 5:00 pm (no entry after 4:15 pm)
March - May
7:30 am - 5:00 pm (no entry after 4:15 pm)
June - August
Sun-Fri: 7:00 am - 2:30 pm (no entry after 1:45 pm)
Sat: 7:00 am - 10:00 pm (no entry after 9:15 pm)
(Summer Saturday Evenings)
7:30 am - 5:00 pm (no entry after 4:15 pm)
September - May
$13 Adults (£8.27)
$4.25 children (2.70)
June - August
$9.50 Adults (£6)
$2.25 Children 6-12 (£1.43)
Summer Saturday Evenings: Admissions after 4:00 p.m. ONLY $7.00 ($2.25 for 6-12)
Children 5 and under are free!
Eastbound: exit I-10 at Speedway Blvd and turn right. After 12 miles, turn right onto Kinney Road. In about 2.5 miles, the Desert Museum will be on your left.
Westbound: exit I-10 at 29th Street, take the frontage road north to Speedway Blvd and turn left. After 12 miles, turn right onto Kinney Road. In about 2.5 miles, the Desert Museum will be on your left.
By motor home or towing a trailer: From I-19 take the Ajo exit westbound. Follow Ajo Way until you reach Kinney Road (about 8 miles) and turn right. Follow Kinney Road for 7.5 miles and the Desert Museum will be on your left.
Places to Eat
The Ironwood Terraces, a self serve grill, offers a complete menu including children's items and is open everyday. Special menus are available for tour groups, school groups, and special events.
The Ocotillo Café offers fine dining, and is open seasonally for lunch in winter and for dinner on Summer Saturday Evenings.
Lunch: 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. Dec to April. Opening and closing dates will vary. Please call 520-883-2702 for information.
Dinner: Saturdays, June - August.
According to their website the chefs utilize the freshest ingredients available to create Arizona-Sonora regional cuisine. Reservations can be made on 520-883-5705.
Phoebes Coffee Bar offers hot and cold drinks, pastries, sandwiches, ice cream and other snacks.
Cottonwood snack shop offers hot and cold drinks and ice cream.
Picnics: There is a small picnic area near the Museum entrance.
This review will also be posted on other sites including Ciao under my user name there - Violet1278