Arizona -Sonoran Desert Museum

An afternoon at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The mission of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is to inspire people to live in harmony with the natural world by fostering love, appreciation, and understanding of the Sonoran Desert.

One of my favorite places to spend an afternoon in Tucson is at the fantastic Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Located in the heart of Saguaro National Park in the outskirts of Tucson, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is part living museum, part botanical gardens and part zoo all combined in one great outdoor venue.

You can spend an entire day at the Desert Museum, however, an afternoon works out just fine as well. The Desert Museum is a wonderful way to explore and see all of the Sonoran deserts’ diverse flora and fauna.  There are several exhibits featuring Arizona wildlife in its prime, spreading across over 21 acres of beautiful desert and two miles of walking paths.  You can see Javalinas, coatis, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, ocelots, wildcats and brown bears, all native species to the Southwest.

You can also go inside and peek into the dimly lit caverns of the bats, many different species of snakes, scorpions, Gila monsters, tarantulas, black widows and more. It actually kind of creeps you out a bit to know that all these creatures live in the desert right beside human beings (especially the ones that are poisonous such as the black widows, scorpions and rattlesnakes).  Best be ignored, though, otherwise you’d never leave your house!  (Fact: I have almost stepped on a hairy tarantula the size of a small plate. My parents have to spray their home for scorpions as they both have accidentally stepped on one before which causes your entire leg to go numb).

What amazes me is how the wildlife in Tucson lives right next door to civilization.  There are a series of washes (dry riverbeds) that run throughout Tucson and act as a reservoir to handle the rainfall and snow melt in case of floods or monsoons. This is also the home of many of the animals mentioned above so it is best to be careful!

The Desert Museum is a lovely place for all ages and kids love it as well.At the entrance, for one dollar you can buy a Desert Museum Stamping book in which kids can run around the museum collecting different paw prints or “stamps” of the animals and learn some fun facts along the way. It is a great way to keep them engaged in the museum!


Max and Sophia at the entrance of the Desert Museum, sitting on a Javalina, Arizona’s notorious troublemaker.  


As you can see, the Desert Museum is truly in the heart of the desert! 

Getting there is half the fun.  Once you pass through Tucson, you will climb upward towards Gates Pass, a dramatic view of the flat desert landscape below. Some have said that you can actually see the curvature of the earth from the vantage point but honestly it all just looks flat to me.   As you drive up towards the pass, there is a great place to stop and take a short hike up and see for yourself.  I have done this before however since I was with young kids, we decided to “pass on the pass” and get right to the museum.


Max and his cousin Hanna listening to a volunteer docent tell them about snake skeletons and skins.  


Rattlesnake skin.  



Some of the beautiful cacti along the outdoor paths of the museum.  


The museum boasts over 300 different animal species and 1200 kinds of plants on display, all alive in their natural desert setting.  


In back is a mountain lion.  It is very rare to see them (thank God!) however sometimes they do end up in contact with humans which isn’t a good thing as they can be quite dangerous.  


My son Max getting his first stamp in his animal booklet.  


My niece Hanna and nephew Brody watching the prairie dogs in action.


The infamous jumping cactus.  They do jump and they do hurt if you happen to run into one! 






Here is a coati out to play.  


My daughter Sophia found the special viewing window! 



The birds adore hanging out on the Saguaro cactus.  


A saguaro cactus skeleton. 




The cousins having fun and filling up their stamp books.  



A pipe organ cactus…aren’t they cool?

Adventure Travel Arizona TRAVEL BY REGION United States
Phoneline Trail, Sabino Canyon, Tucson, Arizona

Discovering the raw beauty of Sabino Canyon

As I always say, there is no better way to experience the raw beauty of nature than to do it by a good hike.  Sabino Canyon is just one of those places. It is achingly beautiful and perhaps one of the most stunning places in all of southwestern Arizona.

Nestled in the southeastern foothills of Tucson, Arizona in the Santa Catalina  mountains, Sabino Canyon is a true gem. The formation of these mountains began over 12 million years ago, long before the first sign of man.  Over time, a significant canyon formed that would eventually turn into a lush, verdant desert oasis deep inside the canyon.

A massive earthquake in 1887 centered in Northern Mexico caused even more change to the canyon.  Massive boulders dislodged and crashed down thousands of miles below creating an even more dramatic landscape.  In 1905, the U.S. Forest Service was created and took over the administration of Sabino Canyon.  Nothing much happened to the area until the 1930s.  The onset of the Great Depression prompted the US Government to put people to work by building infrastructure and one of the places that benefited was Sabino Canyon.  The Sabino Dam as well as over nine bridges were built during this time, creating a 4.5 mile paved road up through the canyon.  Plans had been made to continue the road all the way up the canyon up to Mount Lemmon but fortunately they ran out of money and the project was dropped.  Had the road been built, the entire beauty of Sabino Canyon would have been destroyed and lost.

Sabino Canyon officially opened as a State Park and recreational area in 1978.  Today, it ranks one of the top tourist destinations in all of Tucson and is a haven for hikers, walkers, bikers and anyone else who wants to enjoy its raw beauty.

A tram service runs daily every half an hour up the canyon and back.  For only a few dollars, you can ride along and listen to an informative narration on the history, geology and flora and fauna of Sabino Canyon.   This is a great thing to do as a family and of course we have done it many times.  However, the best thing to do in Sabino Canyon is to get out there and experience it firsthand with a hike.

There are several hikes in Sabino Canyon and over the years I’ve done many of them.  However, my most favorite hike of all is called The Phoneline Trail, which is about an eight mile round trip hike, located about two-thirds of the way up the canyon, giving you a bird’s eye view of this spectacular place.

The start of the trail is flat but not for long. 

 There are many types of cacti found throughout Sabino Canyon.  The Saguaro Cactus is perhaps the most well-known.  It takes on average 65-70 years for this cactus to grow an arm.  They also can live for over 200 years!  What also is amazing about the Saguaro cactus is its root system.  Saguaro’s roots only go down about twenty inches deep, however, the roots spread out as wide as they are high.  Pretty unbelievable!

After a mile or so of flat walking, it is time to climb up!  It is best to be prepared with tons of water, hiking polls, lots of sunscreen and of course extra stamina.  It is not uncommon to see college aged kids running up the trail!  I even saw some people running barefoot.  Crazy given all the rocks and obstacles. 

Soon the hike leads you gradually and then steeply up the side of the canyon walls. 

My favorite barrel cactus which bloosom beautifully in the springtime.

Finally after a couple of hours hiking we are nearing the top of the hike where the Phoneline Trail flattens out and you basicaly walk along the edge of the canyon.

Down below is the paved trail which is another option for seeing the canyon.  But I prefer to view from up top!

At the end of the canyon in back is Mount Lemmon, a beautiful area that hosts many pine trees as well as a ski resort. 

Sabino Canyon is home to a wide variety of wild life including the elusive mountain lion, bobcats, ocelots, skunks, foxes, deer, javalinas, raccoons and coyotes.  They also have lots of different kind of venomous and non-venomous snakes (I’ve seen a rattlesnack but not on the trail) as well as scorpions and tarantulas (yes, unfortunately I’ve seen these two things yet at my parents house!  Not on the trail!).


I only wished this photo could have turned out better but we were hiking right into the sun.  I have never seen the canyon as verdant as this in December.  It was simply spectacular.  Who would have ever imagined a desert could be so green?  It is even better in March and April when the brilliant desert flowers are in bloom and the green is a vibrant lime-color that almost hurts your eyes.

There has been a ton of rainfall and snow in the upper mountains causing the streams to flow with force. 

The Canyon also has an ample and diverse supply of beautiful trees such as the Cottomwood (in this picture, which still has its golden leaves on from the fall), the white-barked sycamore trees, and the dark-wooded mesquite trees.  Another favorite is the Palo Verde tree which means “Green Stick” and has green bark and green leaves. 

The white-barked tree in back is an Arizona Sycamore.  The bark is lovely. 

This is a mesquite tree which proves great firewood as well as a food source for many animals within the canyon.  The tree produces bean pods which are enjoyed by many small canyon critters. 

After an eight mile strenous hike through record-high heat (who would have believed it was December?), I was exhilared and fatigued.  It was a great hike and I can’t wait to do it again!  

Stay tuned…I am headed back to a wintery Minnesota tomorrow.  I’ve heard that we finally have a few inches of snow and am looking forward to it!  I am not looking forward to the cold January weather, though. 

Adventure Travel Arizona TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking United States

A walk in the desert

I love to hike.  For me, hiking combines some of my greatest passions in life:  Being outside and being active.  Tucson is surrounded by mountains and offers ample opportunity to hike until your hearts desire.  There are some peaks such as Mount Wrightson, that reach almost 10,000 feet and there are many national and state parks loaded with trails.  

Every time I come to Tucson, I try to fit in some hikes.  My parents live in the foothills and are close to several of my favorite trails and hiking spots such as the lovely Sabino Canyon (which has countless trails) and Ventana Canyon.   Some of my favorite trails include the hike to Seven Falls which guides you along diverse desert landscape bringing you to a large canyon with seven waterfalls (this hike is exceptionally beautiful in March or April when the water has melted off Mount Lemmon above and creates huge, rushing falls and beautiful, fragrant desert flowers).  I also love to hike the Phoneline trail that wraps around Sabino Canyon affording a spectacular view below.   Finally, the Ventana Trailhead is another great hike which combines some steep, zigzag trails giving you a fabulous workout and a rewarding view at the top of Tucson valley.  All three of these hikes can take anywhere from 3-4 hours depending on how fast you move and how few breaks you take.  It is a perfect way to let off steam, burn some calories and enjoy the stunning fresh air and views of the Arizona desert.

Yesterday we opted to take a new trail and ventured over to Pima Canyon, about ten minutes away from my parents home.  We chose a trail leading up along the Catalina Mountains which was uniquely beautiful and very peaceful.  It was the first time for years that I hiked with my siblings as well as my father, so it was a great time with good company.  

Here are some shots along the way.  

My dad and sister setting off.

Going up…this hike had a lot of climb involved and was rocky so you had to keep your eyes in front of you! I was relieved that my dad went first. I always get paranoid of encountering a rattlesnake. I’ve seen them before in the distance but never (knock on wood) had one jump out in front of me before.

The trail system goes on forever, way up high into the mountains in the background. You can hike for days back in the wilderness as long as you bring a pack. There is also plenty of wildlife such as mountain lions, bighorn sheep, deer, ocelots and wildcats. Sadly a lot of their habitat has disappeared and these animals have come down to the foothills and valley in search of food and water only to be a nuisance to the human population below. I’ve seen an ocelot, javelina pigs, coyote and wildcat outside of my parents home. Not a good thing to see, though.

A skeleton of a saguaro cactus, Tucson’s most dominant variety of cacti.

The trail map…we took the Pontatoc Canyon Trail.

Photos of the many different varieties of cacti.

These are the notorious and deadly jumping cacti.

And the stunning view behind us…

Then we reached the top and took a sibling photo—-our first in years of the three of us.

And fabulous views of Finger Rock and the surrounding Pima Canyon.

Mount Wrightson beckons in the background….one of my most favorite hikes of all! It is a whole day affair that I’ll have to save for another day.

Adventure Travel TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking