The vast beauty and richness of the desert can be easily seen in one place in Tucson, Arizona. Known as the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum ["Desert Museum"], this gorgeous and convenient site is host to a cornucopia of plants, birds and animals native to the desert. Home to more than 300 animal species and 1200 plants in natural settings, it is a photographer's paradise.
Located in the Tucson Mountain Park just a few miles outside of Tucson, the Desert Museum was founded in 1952. The private, nonprofit organization, dedicated to the conservation of the Sonoran Desert, offers a zoological park, a botanical garden, an art gallery and a geology museum.
The Desert Museum is a 15 minute drive from the heart of Tucson and is open every day of the year. Hours are from 8:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. from October through February, and 7:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. from March through September. The entrance fee is $9 for adults.
While this is in fact a "museum," don't be confused by the name. The facility is out in the open and feels more like a zoo or a park. It includes almost two miles of paved and dirt paths through 21 acres of desert.
WHAT YOU CAN PHOTOGRAPH THERE
The hardest thing about this location is deciding what to photograph. Should you spend your time shooting in the cactus garden or the hummingbird aviary? Do you first go through the pollination garden filled with bees, butterflies and moths, or visit the several exhibits of mammals, including black bears, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, wolves, bob cat, fox and coyote? It will take several visits to take in all of this.
Docents - trained volunteers - wear white shirts and are available throughout the Museum to answer your questions and to give demonstrations. One docent enthusiastically shared his Mexican Boa snake with me, while another held a screech owl and explained the differences between the many species of owls.
While there is much to photograph, don't become so enamored with the various subjects that you forget about making your best images. Backgrounds and people will be your biggest challenges. Tripods are allowed everywhere, but signs advise photographers to be mindful of the other visitors. Put your lens right up to the birdcages so that the cages are so out of focus they can't be seen in your final photo. Avoid photographing the animals in dappled or spotty light (where parts of the animal are in shade and other parts in light). Like many zoos, the animals often are sleeping around corners where they are difficult to photograph so talk with trainers, docents and museum staff to see when they feed the animals. This is when they will be most active.
TIPS FOR SHOOTING THERE
You also have to practice your technique. For example, the hummingbirds move fast as lightening, so it's impossible to follow them to shoot. Instead, look where they roost or feed, set up your shot for the best background, and then patiently wait for the hummingbirds to return - they will. While the light is best both morning and afternoon, the animals are more active early in the day. Be careful to avoid the bright background where the mountain lion likes to perch. Note that the Desert Loop Trail, home to the javelina and coyote, is a relatively steep and hot trail.
You'll want a long telephoto lens in the range of 300-400 mm to frame the wildlife. An extension tube or telephoto/macro will allow for close focusing of the hummingbirds. For the full compliment of images, add a wide-angle lens for the few landscape shots and a macro lens for the cactus garden.
In addition to the birds and mammals, the Desert Museum has excellent reptile, invertebrates and underwater exhibits, as well as a mineral display. The light in these areas is inadequate for photography, however.
The heat of the desert makes it a difficult visit to the Desert Museum in summer. In October during my visit, the noonday heat was tolerable with a hat and sunglasses, but the temperatures were more comfortable during the early morning and late afternoon. One docent advised that April is the best time to visit for desert flowers, but she tells her friends to visit in March when it's cooler.
For more information, check the website at www.desertmuseum.org, or call 520-883-1380. The address is 2021 N. Kinney Road, Tucson, AZ. To get there, take I-10 to the Speedway Boulevard exit and go west for about 10 miles. Note that Speedway Boulevard turns into Gates Pass Road along the way, and be sure to stop at the two scenic view turnouts there. Turn right at the dead end onto Kinney Road, and drive for three miles. The Desert Museum will be on your left. If you arrive via the Tucson airport, signs will direct you to the Desert Museum by way of Highway 86. I found this to be the longer and less efficient approach, but you see more of the beautiful Tucson Mountain Park this way. Also use this route if you are carrying a trailer, because the Gates Pass Road is steep and winding as it travels over a mountain pass.
The Desert Museum provides a tremendous abundance of wonderful photographic and educational opportunities in one place, and is worth many visits.
Food: There are four food facilities on the Desert Museum property, ranging from a snack bar to casual fine-dining. No picnicking is allowed inside the property due to the presence of animals, but a small picnic area is available just outside the entrance. Additional large picnic areas are located throughout the Tucson Mountain Park, including the San Juan Carlos picnic area adjacent to the Desert Museum on Kinney Road.
Lodging: Since the Desert Museum is close to downtown Tucson, there are lots of places to rent a hotel room. Convenient hotels include the Four Points Sheraton Hotel (800-843-8052), the Marriott University Park Hotel (520-792-4100), and the Red Roof Inn (520-744-8199). The Gilbert Ray Campground (RV friendly) is located on Kinney Road about two miles southeast from the Desert Museum (take a right turn when leaving the Museum).
Other Necessities: Restrooms, shaded rest areas and water fountains are scattered conveniently throughout the Museum, including on the relatively long, hot Desert Loop Trail. The Museum has two gift shops stocked with a supply of batteries, film and other necessities. Bring a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen and comfortable, sturdy shoes. Pants will keep the cactus needles at bay, especially if you venture into the desert for that sunset shot. The closest gas station and convenience mart are located four miles southeast (a right turn from the Desert Museum exit) on Kinney Road.
Caution: The sun can be harsh and the air is dry. Drink lots of fluids. Also note that pets are not allowed in the park because of the wildlife, but do not leave them unattended in your car. Wildlife, including snakes, lizards and coyotes, can roam throughout the Museum's grounds.
Other Local Areas of Interest: The Saguaro National Park (http://www.nps.gov/sagu/), another significant member of the Sonora Desert, borders the Tucson Mountain Park. Famous for its giant saguaro cacti that sometime reach heights of 50 feet, the Park offers several hiking trails and scenic drives that provide access to great photo opportunities. The Old Tucson Studio, where many cowboy movies have been shot, is just southwest of the intersection of Gates Pass Road and Kinney Road. On your way to the Desert Museum via Speedway Boulevard, you will pass The Wildlife Museum, full of stuffed animals from around the world. A couple of visitors to the Desert Museum told me that the Colossal Cave located in Vail, Arizona (about an hour drive from Tucson), which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is a must see. www.colossalcave.com
Copyright 2005 Carolyn E. Wright
--- ABOUT THE AUTHOR ---
Carolyn Wright is a professional photographer with an active portrait, event and nature photography business. Shooting for 25 years, her award-winning images have been used in books and corporate marketing materials. Her wildlife photos will be included in the upcoming book, "Captivating Wildlife - Images from the Top Ten Emerging Wildlife Photographers" by Scott Bourne and David Middleton. She also is working with Scott Bourne on "Wolfscapes," a photo book documenting the beauty and strength of wolves. Her wildlife images can be viewed at http://www.vividwildlife.com..
On the faculty of Olympic Mountain School of Photography, Carolyn's passion is enhanced when teaching photography. She enjoys writing and speaking on the subject, as well, and is a regular columnist for PhotoFocus, an online magazine for serious photographers.