3 Must-Do Experiences at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum

By Julie Gant, Founder and Co-Creator at The Wandering Gants

3 Must-Do Experiences at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum.

Have you ever had an owl fly so close that its wingtips touch your head? It could happen at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum.

The first time I visited the Desert Museum in Tucson, I didn’t take my ‘good’ camera or a hat, expecting to be inside most of the 2 to 3 hours someone online said to set aside for exploring. To my absolute surprise and joy – and relief that it wasn’t a hot day – I quickly discovered that most of the “museum” is outside.

It’s about 98 acres of botanical gardens, wildlife sanctuary/zoo, trails, natural science exhibits, classrooms, restaurants, and even an art gallery. The gardens and wildlife are grouped generally by their environment and the basic map is great for getting you around the property. If you want more details, there are interactive maps – including a wayfinding map – on their website.

Before You Go

While I’m sure some people could spend only 2 to 3 hours at the Desert Museum, I have spent a 6-hour day and a 4-hour day there and still haven’t seen everything. Plan to be there all day if you have the stamina; otherwise, do multiple trips if you want to see it all.

  • You’ll also want to bring water or at least a refillable water container. They have refill stations around the main buildings, but no potable water farther out on the trails. There are also snack shacks (with limited days/hours) and a couple of restaurants on site. We ate at the grill both times and it was excellent food.
  • I didn’t need it the days I went, but I do recommend a hat and sunscreen.
  • Wear good walking shoes and weather-appropriate clothing. If you’re going to be there all day, dress in layers. Don’t forget your trekking poles! Note: Much of the trail system is well-groomed and we’ve seen people with wheelchairs all over the property.
  • That said, some of the trails may be more difficult or not accessible for those with mobility restrictions. Use the museum’s Accessibility Guidelines for more information. I’ll also note that they do offer rental of wheelchairs and ECV’s on a first come, first served basis.
  • That said, some of the trails may be more difficult or not accessible for those with mobility restrictions. Use the museum’s Accessibility Guidelines for more information. I’ll also note that they do offer rental of wheelchairs and ECV’s on a first come, first served basis.
  • Bring your ‘good’ camera! You will not be sorry.

The Botanical Garden

The first must-do experience at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum is the botanical garden. This is partly because the variety of plants and trees there is incredible. The other reason is that the entire property is one big botanical garden and it’s how you get to all the exhibits, so you can’t help but walk through it.

Exploring the botanical garden is what took up most of our time. Besides what’s on the main trail, there are also several short side loops that showcase specific types of plants such as the Agave, Pollinator, and Cactus gardens.

I suppose you could move through more quickly than we did; but, we enjoyed stopping off at every cool tree or beautiful plant to read the placard and take photos. And going slow isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s about the journey. Right?

So, just know that you’ll spend a bit longer at this outdoor museum if you’re a plant lover or are just curious about all the unique plants and trees in the Sonoran Desert.

The Wildlife

The second must-do experience is stopping off at the wildlife exhibits throughout the museum. These aren’t so much a zoo as a sanctuary. Many of the animals and birds have been given to the ASDM by rescue groups. Along the trails, you’ll find Mexican wolves, foxes, mountain lions, reptiles and amphibians, peccary, various raptors including caracara, and a entire hummingbird enclosure where they run a conservation and breeding program. I love that hummingbird area and could spend hours in there watching the birds buzzing around the trees.

The Raptor Free Flight

The number one must-see experience, by far, is the Raptor Free Flight shows. These happen twice a day, weather permitting, at a specific location on the grounds. Get there early and put yourself along one side or the other (against the fence) for the best viewing if you’re short. If you’re tall, it doesn’t matter too much where you stand.

The free flight is exactly as it sounds. The staff have specific birds they’ve trained using hand signals and food to fly back and forth across the viewing area. The birds fly very low sometimes and you may even feel wingtips as an owl or hawk passes above you. It’s so cool! If for nothing else, this is the reason to bring your good camera.

And More

Besides those three experiences, the Desert Museum has several other offerings: an art gallery, a stingray touch area (that charges a small additional fee), classes, and special tours. There are also two restaurants on site.

So, there you go. The 3 must-do experiences (and more) at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Be prepared with water and time, and enjoy exploring!

Have you been to the Desert Museum? We’d love to hear about your favorite must-do experience. Let us know in the comments!

6 thoughts on “3 Must-Do Experiences at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum

  1. Sounds so fantastic, Julie. Beautiful photos. I think it would be nice to go in the Spring. Is there a campground nearby?

    1. It really is a fantastic place – tied for first in my heart with Biosphere 2 for things to do in Tucson. Spring would be amazing there! And, yes. There are many campgrounds in the area.

  2. Excellent tips! We went with Andrea & Shawn last month, spent 5 hours, and didn’t see everything we wanted to see. Took in the raptor show, and wow, was that unique and thrilling!

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you had a chance to go. Five hours is great! I bet you got to see a lot, if not everything, and at least you got to see the Raptor Free Flight. It’s so cool!

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