The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is one of the most popular attractions in the Tucson area. It is located west of the city by scenic areas like Gate's Pass and popular Tucson attraction, Old Tucson. The museum is a combination of experiences, including a natural history museum, zoo, art museum, botanical gardens, aquarium, and more. Visitors are given an up close and personal interaction with a wide variety of desert plans and animals. Many exhibits show different types of animals like desert cats, nocturnal animals in an underground tunnel (which also gives visitors a chance to escape the heat), and even aquatic animals in the aquarium which often surprises visitors since it is a desert museum. The museum offers education opportunities about history and culture in the Sonoran Desert, as well as a rich history of its own. The museum also funds research into natural history and conservation efforts locally. 


William H. Carr founded the museum with the support of his friend Arthur Pack who was the museum's initial benefactor. Carr had previous experience with museums, having previously founded the Bear Mountain Trailside Museum in New York. This museum in New York was affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History, which helped Carr develop his ideas of working with native plants and animals, creating a regionally focused collection.

Arthur Pack co-founded the museum because he also contributed his time and efforts into developing other places around the Tucson area. Carr stated that "he was always ready to stand up for his views and back them up with his philanthropy". Pack and his wife donated a lot of time and money to help make the Tucson experience for locals and outsiders memorable and positive. The philanthropic family was a large contributor to  the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum as it is today.

Carr found one of his key inspirations for the museum when he moved to Tucson in 1944. When he arrived he found “a gross lack of knowledge among the local populace as well as in the national mind". He took it upon himself to become acquainted with local naturalist as well as to become affiliated with the Pima County Park Committee. His efforts led to the establishment of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Trailside Museum which would evolve into what is now known as the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

Carr chose a site 12 miles west of Tucson located in the Tucson mountain just over Gates Pass. This site had a few buildings but was found mainly to be natural desert land, ready to be used for something like the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. These structures were preserved and are still used today as the entrance to the museum. In the end, Carr was leased a site for the museum that was 98 acres. The same 98 acres are still owned by the Pima County and leased to the museum today.

Opening day for the museum was held on Labor Day 1952. Despite early opposition, crowds indicated a high public interest in the project. After months of success, Carr, Pack, and one of the first staff members, William Woddin, formed a Board of Trustees from key people in the community. This action led to the word “Trailside” being dropped from the name since it did not maintain the institution's image of being a museum committed to the education and care of its collections and visitors. The museum today still focuses mainly on the research of the natural history of the Sonoran Desert as well as educational programs. A fund set up by one of the board members, Roy Chapman Andrews, is still used to fund the museum's science program. This allows the museum to fulfill its desire to educate people not just about the Sonoran Desert, but also about the scientific process on its impact on society.

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The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has now become one of the most widely recognized institutions throughout the world as a model for innovative interpretation and presentation of native plants and animals featured in ecological exhibits. This has provided for the Museum to be regularly listed as being one of the top ten zoological parks in the world to visit. Additionally, TripAdvisor lists the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum as the second most visited Tucson attraction according to data from users. The site also gives the museum a 5 star rating with over 7,500 user reviews. Since the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has a distinctive methodology in representing the complete natural history of the Sonoran Desert region and its ecosystem, it is highly coveted as a site for exploration and education. Although the museum does not consist of a vast collection of specimen and its size is much smaller than other museums in the top rankings, it is still able to provide visitors a widely praised experience. The museum strives to be more than a museum; it seeks to become an incomparable site for the composite of plant, geological, and animal collections with the main goal of creating the Sonoran Desert habitat treasured, accessible and understandable to the community.

The museum has become a key factor for the Tucson community since it represents the beauty of the local environment.  Nearly 400,000 people visit each year. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is an institution that strives and continues to educate the community on the natural history of our land and its importance locally. The museum has also opened several avenues for employment and educational opportunities for those of the Tucson community. One such program is the docent program which has been recognized now as one of the hallmarks of the museum. The program began in 1972 and is a small group of volunteers trained to tour school children around the grounds and provide interpretations of geological and animal findings. The program attendees go through a rigorous 15-week program the provides them skills to give demonstrations throughout the grounds of the museum. In addition, the museum awards researchers with the “Sonoran Desert Conservation Award” biannually.

Other educational programs have arisen from the museum. One program that has become popular is one developed by Hal Gras that begun in 1955. This program was developed to further educate community members on the organisms found in the Sonoran Desert. To take a more direct route to education the program takes live animals to schools and other venues to present the organisms to the local community and provide a further understanding of their habitats and living necessities.

The museum also has a large focus on art and culture. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum regularly displays art from local artists and often hosts art exhibits in its Ironwood Gallery. In addition to hosting art exhibits, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum also teaches classes about art to encourage conservation, and these classes became available online as of 2018.


Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum map as of 2018

There are over two hundred animal species that inhabit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Also, over 1,300 plant species (40,000 individual specimens) can be found when touring the museum. The museum’s animal collections 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

Exhibits that can be viewed include: the Warden Aquarium, Cat Canyon, Walk-in Aviary, Reptile Hall, Mountain Woodland, Desert Grassland, Hummingbird Aviary, Riparian Corridor, Packrat Playhouse, and many different gardens (Agave, Desert, Cactus, and Pollination). When going to the museum, people can be expected to see animals like bobcats, ocelots, native reptiles, prairie dogs, river otters, quails, brown bears, and many, many more.

ASDM includes interactive animal exhibits as well as observation. Multiple times a day, shows are hosted indoors and outdoors with a variety of animals, allowing visitors more interaction with the animals under the supervision of expert handlers. As of 2018, the stingray exhibit has been opened for the public. These stingrays are local to the Sonoran Desert, originating in the Gulf of california. This exhibit is a hands-on experience which costs visitors an additional fee. Visitors may feed and pet the stingrays, which are very friendly, often splashing guests or cuddling them.

As a main staple in the community, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has begun to promote further education on the habitat and biodiversity loss found today in the Sonoran Desert. It seeks to further research the impact that population expansion is having on the organisms found in the Sonoran Desert. Currently, the museum has programs to reintroduce species to the Sonoran Desert that were previously lost. One such program is the Species Survival Plan that is directed on the Mexican Wolf and Thick-billed parrot that will be worked as a reintroduction species. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum will cooperate closely with other agencies in these reintroduction programs in addition to managing stud books for the various species.

Additionally, the museum includes non-animal exhibits. The immersive caving experience, where visitors can experience exploring the dark depths of caves, connects to the geology exhibit, of local gems and minerals. The Ironwood Art Gallery hosts a moving exhibit of desert art, representing cultural and artistic significance. ASDM also publishes books on a variety of topics, which are sold in the gift shop.

As the community grows so does Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum seek to grow and further provide education for the Tucson community. It has increased its output in School and Community based educational programs in urban and rural areas of Baja, Sonora, and Arizona. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum will also maintain its interest in developing new and exciting exhibits for the visitors of the museum to guarantee a fun and educational visit.


The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum offers a lot of different school and youth programs. 

Play Like a Packrat

  • An activity that is led by one of the education staff members. Kids can come 30 minutes before opening time to play in the playhouse along with doing educational fun activities. The programs main objectives are building the kids understanding of science, arts, languages and movement. 

Field Trips, Programs, Outreach Teacher Resources

  • The Museum provides visitors with year-round scheduled self-guided tours. Labs, classes, and outreach programs that are available in Spanish or English. In the labs, classes, and outreach programs visitors are able to get the chance to see and interact with live animals along with Museum artifacts. All the programs are concurrent with the Academic Standard in Science. Field trips are available to be scheduled all year-round. Some main attractions to the Museum they offer is Stingray touch Experience, Live-Animal Theater Program, and Live-Animal Theater Program. 


  • Day and overnight camps are offered by the Sonora-Desert Museum. Kids ranging from 1st to 7th grade can go to their day camp and grades 8th and 9th are offered overnight camp. Kids will be able to get the chance to learn about the Sonora Desert Region with their hands on, minds-on camp. Kids will learn about the land and sea of the Sonoran Desert and will be able to make scientific discoveries their museums. Some features will be able to examine their live animals, make art, tools from the plants the Sonoran Desert, hike, and see how the animal keepers take care of their animals. 

Coati Kids' Club

  • This Club is for kids ranging from 6-12 years old accompanied by their parents. This club is perfect for a kid that loves learning about the desert. Administration is free, you get a free t-shirt by joining, along with eight special events. 

Junior Docents 

  • Junior Docents are volunteers ranging from 13-18 years old that get to interact with visitors of the museum educating them about the Senora Desert. Junior Docents learn about plants, animals, geology, and ecology of the Sonoran Desert Region. Some responsibilities the Junior Docents get is handling live animals, talking with the public during programs, making experiments and collecting data for the museum, and decoding natural history themed kits. 


  • Scouts are very welcomed at the Museum and is a great way to earn their Geology, Science, Wildlife conservation pins and belt loops. Some of the badges you can earn is Bird Study, Environmental Science, Fish and Wildlife Management, Forestry, and more. There is a Sonoran naturalist Badge Day that the Sonora Arizona host every year to the girl scouts. 

Online Fun and Learning 

  • On the Desert Museum website, you can find many education links. Videos about the plants, animals, food, water, and more. Other links are Digital library catalogs, desert Q & A's, Facts about plants and animals that are native to the Sonora Desert, and educational websites about bats. People can find information comparing the Sonoran Desert to Australians Desert. Online tours and educational games about the desert. The links are very thorough and tell a lot about the Sonoran Desert. 

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum-Educational


Funding and Ownership

The ASDM is a private non-profit funded through membership fees and ticket sales, as well as by donation. The membership of the museum has the authority to vote in the 24 members of the governing board. As of 2010, the Director of the museum is Craig S. Ivanyi, according to the ASDM official website. The names and contact information for all 24 members of the board is available through their website.

An annual gala is hosted to raise funds, which includes ticket costs, a silent auction, raffle tickets, and member drive.

The museum is staffed by both volunteers and employees who dedicate their time to things like maintaining the grounds, caring for the animals, and sharing information with visitors in selected areas along the walking path.


The ASDM is only accessible via driving or by bicycle. At 12 miles out of town, there are no busses, trolleys, vans, or other public transportation services available to access the ASDM. Most exhibits are accessible via wheelchair, excluding very few completely outdoor trails which may be rocky, hilly, or otherwise unsuitable wheelchair terrain. Service animals are welcome, but must be checked in. The ASDM warns on the site that the animals on exhibit, as well as the hot outdoors may not be suitable for service animals, but the decision is up to the owner of the animal. American Sign Language interpreters are provided when requested via phone or email 3 weeks in advance. Similarly, for all other accommodations they recommend calling or emailing well in advance.



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Information was also provided by an in-person visit to the museum in October of 2017.

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Information was also provided by an in-person visit to the museum in November of 2018.

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