It’s not often that we take a break from our regular national park programming to mention a travel spot outside of the National Park Service. But when we find something too good not to share–like the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona–we’re happy to press pause to give you the scoop.
We’ve already shared how a lot of what we knew about the desert Southwest and Saguaro National Park was less-than-accurate or frankly, completely wrong. Our afternoon visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum helped steer us in the right direction, teaching us more about the plants and animals that call this part of the world home.
The museum, zoo and botanical gardens are frequently ranked as one of the top tourist attractions in Tucson. It regularly appears on lists of the best museums and public gardens in the United States. Today we’re showcase what we loved about the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and how we’d plan for our next visit. Even though it’s not affiliated with National Park Service, we think it’s well worth adding to your travel bucket list!
About the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Here’s what you need to know about the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum:
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is located 20 miles Northwest from Tucson International Airport and 14 miles west of downtown Tucson. The primary road to the museum winds through the stunning Tucson Mountain Park, a 20,000-acre county park with large concentrations of saguaro cacti and native plants. We enjoyed the drive to the museum just as much as the visit itself!
2021 N. Kinney Rd.
Tucson AZ 85743
When to Visit
The museum opens to the public 365 days per year. While we visited in September, the most popular months are October to March, peak travel season for Southern Arizona. The park hours vary during the year, so check the website for
Much of the museum requires hiking and walking outside. While the museum does its best to provide shade and water, it is Arizona after all. We recommend visiting early in the morning or in the late afternoon. You’ll avoid the hottest part of the day and have the best chance for viewing the animals.
How much time you’ll need
We spent around 2.5 hours at the museum, which was enough time to see about 75% of the exhibits. We caught the museum at the end of the day, and ran out of time to see everything there was to offer. The average time the museum lists for a visit is around 2-3 hours, so be sure to allow yourself at least that much time.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum charges admission for adults and children over 3 years old. Although it could be a pricy travel stop for a large family, we still thought it was worth the admission cost. (Yes, we paid our admission, this is not sponsored content!) The
- Planning Our 12 Day Arizona National Park Road Trip
- 15 Surprising Things We Learned at Saguaro National Park
- Hohokam Pima National Monument: The National Park Site We Couldn’t Visit
- Where to Watch the Sunset in Grand Canyon National Park
What We Did During our Visit
After grabbing a map and checking in with a museum docent, we headed for one of the highlights of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: the animals. The 98 acre museum is home to 242 different animal species, including some we’d never encountered before. When we say the museum was a chance for us to get to know the Sonora Desert and the rest of Arizona’s wildlife, this was it.
Some of our favorites: watching the mountain lion hunting an unlucky squirrel, the river otters, and the hummingbird aviary
Desert Loop Trail
The museum has two miles of walking paths, including the unpaved Desert Loop Trail. The trail traveled through plants and animals native to the Sonoran Desert and was one of the highlights of our trip. The half-mile loop took us down to see javelina and coyote in a saguaro forest. The trail is
In between checking out the animals and the Desert Loop Trail, we wandered through the demonstration gardens at the museum. Their guidebook states that as of 2019, there are 16 individual gardens, 1,200 native plant species and 56,000 individual plants living at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. If you’re like us and not familiar with what grows in the Arizona landscape–this is the stop you’ll want to make. We guarantee you’ll come away with a better picture of how and why the Sonora Desert plants call this place home.
What We Liked The Best About The Museum
Even though the museum has a lot to offer, there were a few highlights. We both enjoyed the aesthetics of the museum. During the entire time, it’s hard to remember you’re in a museum or a zoo at all. The gardens and trails are maintained with a natural look vs. cultivated or overly manicured.
The animal habitats also match closely with how they’d naturally live. The only downside is you have to carefully look for things since the animals have natural places to hide!
- The cactus and agave gardens
- The Mountain Woodland animals
- The hummingbird aviary
- The Yucca Ramada
What We’d Do Next Time
Since we didn’t have time to visit all of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, if we’re ever back in the Tucson area, we’ll plan another visit. If you have a chance to visit, we thought we’d include some of those “it would have been nice if…” items in case you might catch them during your visit. If we had the chance to go again, not only would we allow ourselves a little more time to travel through the exhibits, but we’d also plan these things into our trip:
- Cool Summer Nights – On Saturday nights between May and September, the museum has late-night hours until 10 pm. We’d love to wander through these grounds in the late evening and after dark!
- Attend a Keeper-Animal Program – While there were a few options to see one of the museum’s animal caregivers working with the animals, we wanted to make sure we had a chance to see the grounds first. Next time, we’d like to attend one of these daily programs.
- Ironwood Art Gallery – The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has a large conservation-through-art program. It includes traveling exhibitions from artists with an emphasis on the Sonora ecosystem. We didn’t have a chance to check out the gallery, but it’s on our list for the next visit!