Discover A Reason To Return To Tucson’s Top Attraction Year After Year

It’s the new year of 2001. We arrive mid-morning, sunny but cool enough to give us an excuse to wear the recently gifted winter clothes we received for Christmas (though in the afternoon sun, we’d be shedding them and lapping up ice cream). Everyone is here. My mom, dad, sister, brother, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, two nieces, nephew, husband, and daughter surround me—I push my one-year-old son in a stroller ahead of me.

If you’re keeping track, that’s three generations—with that comes differing generational mindsets, schedules, and interests. It proves challenging to bring everyone together. Thank goodness it’s easy to know what to do when they arrive. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a refreshing desert escape with the open-air freedom to explore the high desert and stare straight into the eyes of the region’s wilder residents.

Though, to be honest, “museum” just doesn’t seem to cover it. The Desert Museum (the local nickname) is several attractions that focus on the surroundings that surround you; an outdoor campus that embraces the Sonoran Desert’s open and unpretentious atmosphere. It’s a place that captures my family’s spirited interests.

A family outing

With a group like ours, it’s important for everyone to feel like they have the freedom to explore, and since the museum is laid out in one main loop with smaller, contained loops attached, it’s easy to spread our wings amongst the many exhibits while still spending time together.

At first, we stay together, making the ever-popular reptile room our first stop. While most zoos’ reptiles stay behind glass, the Desert Museum prefers to be off-the-beaten-path by occasionally letting visitors observe a diamondback rattler or a beaded Gila monster out of their cage, up close and personal. My lovesick nephew (a surly teen missing his girlfriend 1,200 miles away), however, adores the creatures and thankfully finds a remedy for his affliction when a docent invites us to pet a beautiful king snake. Meanwhile, my father (nearly 70 yet still an avid hiker) reminds us of the rhyme to distinguish between slithering friend or foe: if white (or yellow) touch red, you’re dead.

Back on the main loop, we soon bottleneck into a dark, artificial cave that feels like the real thing—it’s dim, cool, and damp, and different paths lead you further in and deeper below. We pass a side tunnel with an experiential detour warning of low ceilings, steep climbs, rough footings and extremely tight passages. The kids are energized about a cave adventure. My mother, father, one-year-old son, and I, on the other hand, tell the rest of our group, “You go ahead; we’ll meet you on the other side.”

Reuniting in the mineral gallery, my daughter, attracted to things that glitter, selects a large specimen of calcite as her favorite and begs her doting grandmother: “Can I have it, grammy, please?” Just outside, the rest of us enjoy the warm sun and watch the children dig in the sand for dinosaur bones, speculating who might grow up to become geologists, paleontologists, or archeologists.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Mt Lion Rhonda Spencer

Anxious to visit one of my favorite exhibits, we head to the Desert Grassland to see gophers sunning. I love that the gophers can almost always be seen here, attentively watching with an interest and curiosity equal to our own. It’s almost like we’re on exhibit for them. My one-year-old coos and points excitedly, surely believing they are cuddly, stuffed animals come to life.

At every station throughout the museum, our youngest family members compete to be first to spot the obscured animals in their near-natural habitats—a pack of sly coyotes and snorting javelina along the Desert Loop Trail; the elusive ocelot or George the mountain lion lying in the grotto in Cat Canyon; the furry, black bear and the silver wolf stalking behind the Mexican Pine-Oak in the Mountain Woodland area. Our youngsters excitedly race to stamp animal prints in an ASDM booklet as we parents struggle to keep up and keep our eyes on them!

Driving home, I ask my lovesick nephew what was his favorite thing, and without hesitation, he proclaims, “Petting the snake. And also the hummingbirds. They’re right there. Whizzing by like black-hawk helicopters.” Then, his lovesick look returns, “I only wish Jessica was here to see it with me,” he groans.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Hummingbird Photo Rhonda Spencer

Back to the present

A flash of fluorescent pink swishes right past my face and I hear a hum in my left ear. Young and old, we crane, shift, and move our necks every which way to catch sight of the hummingbirds zooming around the Hummingbird Aviary. We freely roam with them (at a much slower speed) in their bustling metropolis, and it feels like we’re exploring a natural habitat—not an outdoor museum. It’s no wonder that the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is one of the top 10 museums in the country.

Despite the passing of 15 years, the free surroundings are much the same, but the perspective is different. For one, it’s spring and the weather is as refreshing as the wide-open spaces of the outdoor museum. Also, we’ve aged. My once-fit father opts for the comfort of a motorized cart—attended by my thirty-something nephew and his fiancé. Nevertheless, we slide right back into the same behaviors as our group scatters to seek out what interests us most.

Just as they did back then, each family member finds a different area to explore. My father and niece (both artists) appreciate the gallery, where artistic expression captures the essence of freedom that the Tucson desert inspires. My desert-dwelling daughter satisfies her yearn for the ocean in the aquarium, where the Sea of Cortez comes to life.

The Life on the Rocks exhibit reveals not only what is found on rocky slopes, but also what lurks below. As I peer into the crevices for centipedes, spiders, and scorpions, I feel something crawling on me. Creeped out, I frantically swat at the sensation only to find my jokester son, now a teenager, letting his fingers do the walking across my back.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Ocotillo Cafe Photo Jay PierStoriff

Eastside District

Thanks to our digitally connected world, my son, unlike his cousin of years earlier, isn’t missing his girlfriend—he’s Facetiming her along the way. In the cave, the girls—now young women—pose with giant bat ears and immediately post pictures to Instagram. Soon, I find myself and my father the subject of another photo op at the gopher exhibit—the girls position each of us between a pair of vulture wings, and giggle as they share the photo on Facebook for all our friends to see. Even the otters are tweeting, as they trigger motion-sensitive cameras that post photos to their Twitter account!

To cap the evening, instead of ice cream, we reunite to enjoy a fine dinner at the museum’s Ocotillo Café. Our conversation is lively, sharing adventures from the day mixed with a few memories from past visits—did you know a barrel cactus always faces southward…how about when we chatted with the artist on exhibit … remember when he draped a snake around his neck… my vulture photo has surpassed 100 likes…

As we stroll to the parking lot, I ask my eldest nephew as I had 15 years before, “What was your favorite part?” He’s not as quick to reply this time.

“The raptor free-flight demonstration was amazing, but really it was all great. And just being together again.”

His reply makes me smile.

“We should come here every time I visit,” he says. “I mean, I can’t wait to bring my own kids someday.”

I nod, knowing this will be an easy promise to keep.