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 another popular Tucson attraction, Old Tucson. The museum offers visitors and up close and personal interaction with a wide variety of desert plans and animals. They have many exhibits to 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 has lots to offer in addition to wildlife, such as experts educating visitors about history and culture in the Sonoran Desert, funding research into natural history, a rich an interesting history of its own, and providing education and research into conservation of the Sonoran Desert. Overall, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has a lot to offer to locals and tourists which makes it a popular destination in Tucson, Arizona.


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 since he had 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.

It is important to note the fact that Arthur Pack was a co-founder of 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 one that can be remembered in many positive ways. The philanthropic family was a large contributor to the greatness that is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum 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.” With this in 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 we now know 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 the opposition that Carr faced early on, the crowds that arrived on opening day confirmed that the museum would be a success. 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 its visitors with a fun and educational 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 has become a site that we can use to represent the beauty of the environment we live in. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is an institution that strives and continues to educate our community on the natural history of our land and its importance to our community. 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.

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.

This museum is not only a historical site and landmark of Tucson, but is also educational and a highly ranked Tucson attraction. It is a fusion experience that includes all different features: a zoo, botanical garden, natural history museum, art gallery, and aquarium. It includes two miles of walking paths on twenty-one acres of Tucson's desert land. The entire experience is almost completely outdoors. Nearly 400,000 people visit the museum each year. Its main focus is on Arizona's plant and animal life. This museum is special to not only those who live in Southern Arizona, but to all that visit it, because of the efforts that go into it to make it a beautiful experience for all that come to see it. In addition, the museum educates visitors about the importance of conservation and awards researchers with the “Sonoran Desert Conservation Award” biannually.

At first glance, the museum appears to be just like a zoo specializing in desert animals and plants, but it 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). Every exhibit that can be visited is special to the plants and animals that live in them. 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.

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.

As the community grows so does Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum hunger to enlarge 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.


--       Information was provided by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum website found at ,  accessed on November 11, 2015.

--       Information was provided by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum website found at , and reaccessed on November 2, 2017. Information was also provided by an in-person visit to the museum in October of 2017.

--       Information was provided by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum website found at , and reaccessed on November 10, 2018. Information was also provided by an in-person visit to the museum in November of 2018.


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