The best way to understand and appreciate our beautiful Sonoran Desert is to visit the Desert Museum. It’s not a museum exactly, but rather more like a combination botanical garden and zoo. Watch any of the videos provided below for a sneek peek at what to expect while visiting. To visit other parks and gardens in our area click here. For more ideas of Things to do with Kids see our article here.
It’s the first place we recommend newcomers visit and everyone, adults and children alike, loves this truly unique destination. It’s big and mostly outdoors, so wear your hiking shoes.
The Desert Museum has a coffee bar and two good restaurants. The Ironwood Terraces is a self-serve grill with everything from cheeseburgers and pizzas to vegan wraps and salads.
The Ocotillo Café is fine dining. We suggest you make a reservation. Weather permitting, ask to be seated on the patio.
The drive from Tucson over Gates Pass to the Desert Museum is an unsurpassed scenic drive though the Sonoran Desert. Take your camera. Stop for a grand view from the parking area at the top of the pass.
While you are there:
- Spend a leisurely day visiting the plant and animal exhibits.
- Listen and learn from the knowledgeable docents.
- Go to: “Live and on the Loose” demonstration.
- Enjoy the Art Gallery. Take a Class.
- Don’t Miss the Raptor Free Flight Show!
- Enjoy a good lunch at the cafeteria or Ocotillo Cafe’
- Take in one of the Behind the Scenes Tours
About 2 miles down the road from the Desert Museum is the Saguaro National Park Visitors Center.
I know this is odd, but there are two Saguaro National Parks – East & West. In between is Metropolitan Tucson. If you only have time to visit one, go West.
Pictured here is an unusual rainy day in April. Most Tucsonans wish we had a few more rainy days. Six inches in spring and six inches during the monsoon season is supposed to be normal. We haven’t had normal in years. We have family living in the Northwest. They just laugh when we talk about our drought. They say they will send us all the water we’re willing to pay for.
Suggestion: get directions and a map at the visitors center. Then head out to explore the most exquisite desert in the world.
Picnic at the Signal Hill picnic area and walk 1/4 mile to the top of the hill to photograph your party with the petroglyphs, thousand-year-old Hohokam images. DO NOT TOUCH THEM, PLEASE!
Then drive the back roads through the Saguaro Forest to Picture Rock Road and head back to Tucson. A lovely day trip in the great out-of-doors. Click here to see the route.
Visitor’s Center: 2700 N. Kinney Rd. Visit the Website
This back road is one of our favorites, partly because it’s practically in our back yard and because it’s so indicative of the Sonoran Desert. Here in Saguaro National Park West you will be driving through a forest of giant Saguaros. And, within an easy quarter mile hike, you can get up close and personal with ancient Hohokam petroglyphs.
From Tucson, take Speedway west from the I-10 Freeway (A). After a few miles, Speedway merges with Gates Pass Road which takes you over the Pass, down the other side (steep) and eventually to Kinney Road.
At Kinney Road, you’ll see a sign for the Desert Museum. Turn right and head for the Desert Museum. Two miles past the Desert Museum is the Red Hills Visitors Center (B). Park and go in. Watch the brief orientation movie, get a map, and ask the Park Ranger or docent about current road conditions on Bajada Loop Drive. Usually, this graded dirt road is passable in a standard sedan.
The Bajada Loop begins at Hohokam Road, one and a half miles west of the Red Hills Visitor Center. Leaving the Red Hills Visitor Center, turn right onto Kinney Road. Follow Kinney Road 1.6 miles to the loop’s entrance on the right.
Soon you will come to the Signal Hill Picnic Area (C). Stop. Have a picnic. Climb the little hill to the north. The petroglyphs are at the top.
The Loop ends where Golden Gate Road meets Sandario Road. To return to the visitor center, turn left onto Sandario Road. Continue 0.2 mile to the junction with Kinney Road. Turn left. The visitor center is 2 miles ahead.
Rather than turning back to the Visitors Center, you have the option of continuing on unpaved Golden Gate Road (D) for about 5 miles to paved Picture Rock Road (E). To get back to the City, turn right and go over the pass. As you get out of the hills, the road straightens out and you will soon see a sign for Ina Road. Turn right on to Ina and it will quickly take you back to the Freeway (F).