The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Photo: The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Whether you’ve jetted in from the East Coast, driven leisurely from the West Coast, or are a native of Tucson, AZ, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is must-see, primarily outdoor experience – with a botanical garden, natural history museum, and world-class zoo, all for the visitor to behold – in one place. The museum is the leading tourist attraction in Tucson.

It may not be possible to see everything in one day, but visitors are encouraged to spend as much time as they can to gain the most from their visit. The Museum features signature displays of living animals and plants native to the Sonoran Desert – an area encompassing some of California and Arizona and the Baja California and Sonora. Since the indoor exhibits account for only about 15 percent of the museum, it’s best to come equipped to spend the lion’s share of the day outside; that means it’s good to sport sunscreen, comfy shoes and a hat, or appropriate colder weather gear for the few times you’ll need it in Tucson.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is recognized worldwide as a model for the innovative interpretation and presentation of native plants and animals paired in ecological exhibits. The museum is considered one of the top ten zoological parks in the world because of its singular approach to interpreting the complete natural history of a region. This is quite an achievement given that the museum’s collections and size are smaller than many of its counterparts on the list. Not viewed as a traditional museum, it is rather a combination of animal, plant, geologic collections, created to make the Sonoran Desert understandable, widely accessible, and above all, valued.

Today, this innovative approach can be appreciated by taking note of the museum’s collection: the living animal collection contains 4,892 specimens of 242 species; plants represent 56,445 specimens of 1,100 taxa; and 16,853 specimens make up the mineral and fossil collections. Up to 120 species – considered to be of conservation concern – can be seen in the living collection.

»History: Inspired Thinking

History: Inspired Thinking

The museum has been open since Labor Day in 1952 when four employees staffed the facility. Now, the staff numbers over 100, with about 200 docents and nearly 300 more volunteers. On an average day in the spring, the staff sees to some 2,500 visitors and 200 children from school. Yearly visitation numbers about 460,000.

William H. Carr founded the museum with his friend and the Museum's first benefactor, Arthur Pack, editor of Nature Magazine. Carr was the founder of the Nature Trails in New York State and the Bear Mountain Trailside Museums. There, at Bear Mountain, Carr furthered his ideas of collecting native animals and plants with the goal of establishing a collection with a regional focus.

Carr brought this innovative approach when he relocated to Tucson in 1944 where he found “a gross lack of knowledge [about the desert] among the local populace as well as in the national mind.” He became friendly with naturalists, and then affiliated with the Pima County Park Committee, and these relationships eventually helped create the predecessor to the museum. At the time, Carr faced significant opposition because the local understanding of zoos was imagined as “snake farms” along the southwest highways.

The original site that was selected for the museum was in the Tucson Mountains, 12 miles west of Tucson, much further from the Tucson of 1952; paved roads were unheard of and travelers had to pass over Gates Pass. The site was mostly natural desert with a few buildings, known as the Mountain House, originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. These same structures are used today as part of the Museum's entry. The 98 acres, which constitute the museum, continues to be owned by Pima County and is leased to the museum, which is governed by an independent Board of 24 members. Photo:

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»The Museum’s Collections

The Museum’s Collections

The museum’s collections are the primary means by which it accomplishes its mission to inspire folks to live in harmony with the natural world by fostering an understanding and love for the Sonoran Desert.

Its desert environs are its most outstanding asset. The museum exhibits 100 acres of nearly untouched Sonoran Desert.

The outside experience is sublime. Unanticipated experiences – such as a soaking summer rain, a wealth of wildflowers on a hillside or an animal skirting a path, plus natural rock formations – are the most obvious means of accomplishing the museum’s mission. Collections and exhibits exist to augment and interpret its natural surroundings.

Most of these exhibits mimic natural habitats and the co-existence of animals, plants and geology. The museum’s fossils, minerals, plants and animals are native to the Sonoran Desert region, and there are few exceptions to that rule.

The museum’s animal collection consists of:

  • 106 mammals of 31 taxa
  • 241 birds of 72 taxa
  • 361 reptiles of 86 taxa
  • 122 amphibians of 23 taxa
  • 10,700 fish of 9 taxa
  • 840 arthropods of 78 taxa

The primary exhibit areas are: the Warden Aquarium, Reptile, Amphibian and Invertebrate Hall, Earth Sciences Center, Ancient Arizona, Mountain Woodland, Desert Grassland, Desert Loop Trail, Life on the Rocks, Cat Canyon, Riparian Corridor, Walk-in Aviary, Life Underground, and the Hummingbird Aviary.

Museum staff cares for about 40,000 plants (excluding grasses in its grassland exhibit), representing 1300 species. Some 1400 plant types are on view. These feature types that are naturally found in the area.

Because the museum’s goal is to show interrelationships, it incorporates geologic specimens and concepts in exhibits throughout the grounds, including animal exhibits.

Also, it has a wide and various collection of Sonoran Desert fossils, minerals and gems, which amount to 14,095 specimens, many of which can be seen at the Earth Sciences Center. The museum also shows a vertebrate paleontology collection.

On hand are stored collections of plant and animal parts used for reference, research and hands-on interpretation. The museum also hosts a reference library that relates primarily to the Sonoran Desert. This amount to a collection of more than 83 periodical subscriptions, 6,000 books and audio-visual material.

The museum’s animal and plant collection includes some 20 threatened or endangered species and hundreds of rare species. Several are part of recovery programs. By cooperating with federal and state agencies, its maintains a genetic refuge for endangered native fishes, a snake, and plants.

The museum also participates in state and federal recovery programs for the thick-billed parrot, the Mexican gray wolf and amphibians. Its captive breeding programs have resulted in the release of some animals to the wild: among them, golden eagles and Harris' hawks. Reproduction of other captive animals, known for their rarity, means they can be viewed, when collection from the “outside world” would not be impossible or inappropriate.

The museum is aware that a potential danger exists through the success of such museums, zoos or botanical gardens because some visitors may mistakenly become assured by the health and vitality of the collection that they become complacent about the condition of wild environments and species. The museum seeks to educate visitors by exhibiting and interpreting – and also by encouraging them to consider its wild and untouched areas as part of its collection to contemplate during their sojourn. Photo:

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»Conservation and Research

Conservation and Research

Since the museum was launched, it has sought to conserve the natural ecosystem of the Sonoran Desert Region – and connect people to it. The Sonoran Desert has among the greatest plethora of animals and plants to be found in any desert in the world. For example, the Sonoran Desert is the only area where the saguaro cactus lives, and its varied bi-seasonal rainfall and geography supports a range of birds, mammals, amphibians, arthropods and reptiles. Throughout many millennia, the Sonoran Desert has been a force behind humans living in peace with this landscape.

Dining Options

Between collections and exhibits, several fine choices await you for your dining pleasure.

Ironwood Terraces is a food court, offering a complete menu including children's items, which is open every day.

Among the offerings are hamburgers, specialties like marinated chicken breast with prickly pear plum sauce and a Sonoran steak sandwich, plus cuisine designed especially for the kids, hand-tossed pizza and wraps.

The Ocatillo Café offers fine dining and is open seasonally for lunch in the winter and spring – and for dinner on those cool summer nights.

The menu features a hummus platter, spinach salad, Arizona Cobb salad, pumpkin seed blue corn chicken, wok-charred salmon, a vegetarian palette, and so many more items. Reservations are suggested.

Phoebe’s Coffee Bar features hot and cold drinks, pastries, ice cream, sandwiches and a host of other snacks.

The Cottonwood offers hot and cold drinks and ice cream, and visitors are also invited to picnic in the area just outside the museum entrance.

2021 N Kinney Rd, Tucson, AZ 85743, website, Phone: 520-883-1380

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The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: A Must-see Outdoor Experience