Desert Life, Southwest Art & A Couple of Fires: More Tucson

Is it a zoo, a botanical garden or a natural history museum? The 98-acre Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, with 242 animal species and 1,200 plant families, is described on the website as a “fusion experience:” an unparalleled composite of plant, animal and geologic collections with the goal of making the Sonoran Desert accessible, understandable and valued.

In other words, it’s about the overall desert ecosystem – the interaction of the plants and animals with their physical environment. Popular with both locals and tourists, this not-a-museum-in-the-usual-sense is the top-rated Tucson attraction on Trip Advisor. And it’s a cool place to spend a day meandering through the exhibits and grounds.

I captured a few “good-enough” photos of the animals.

We were also lucky enough to catch a mountain lion posing in a sunny spot.

The small aquarium features creatures that live either in the Colorado River or in the Sea of Cortez, like these colorful garden eels.

The Desert Museum was founded by self-taught naturalist William H. Carr in 1952, with help from its first benefactor, Arthur Pack, conservationist and editor of Nature Magazine. It’s located about a half hour’s drive west of downtown Tucson, a few miles beyond Gates Pass in the Tucson Mountains. A couple of views from Gates Pass:

The museum’s trails offered expansive views . . .

. . . as well as close-ups of cacti and other desert vegetation. We’re slowly learning the names of a few plants.

We even had an “aha” moment while visiting the agave display. Agave plants look similar to aloe plants, and there are hundreds of varieties of both.

What did we learn?

  • Agaves are a “New World” plant native to the Americas. Aloes originated in Africa and are an introduced species in the Sonoran Desert.
  • Agaves are a member of the asparagus family. Aloes are not.
  • Agaves are generally larger and “spinier” than aloes, with sharp leaves.
  • Agaves (shown in the photo below) produce a single flower on a long stalk. Aloes have a cluster of blossoms.
  • Agaves die after they flower. Aloes continue to flower year after year.
  • Agaves are used to make tequila and mezcal. Aloes produce a gel that is useful in treating burns and other skin conditions. (This part wasn’t really new to us.)

The Desert Museum gets two thumbs up from these two visitors!

Ettore DeGrazia was an artist and all-around interesting guy, most famously known for burning about 100 of his paintings in the Superstition Mountains in 1976 as a protest against inheritance taxes that his children would incur when he died.

Photo credit:

He passed away in 1982 with hundreds of his paintings still intact, some of which are hanging in his studio/gallery/museum and available for public viewing. Here is a small sample.

An interesting variety of styles – not everyone’s cup of tea.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 10-acre property that houses the gallery has its own story. The first building to be completed on the site was the Mission in the Sun, dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe and to the memory of Padre Eusebio Kino, an early Spanish missionary.

The main building housing DeGrazia’s studio and gallery dates back to 1965 and features cozy rooms, cactus flooring, exposed wood beams, rafters and unique artistic finishes.

Much larger than it appears from the outside, the cute visitor map below shows the layout of the entire property.

The outdoor areas displayed the same attention to detail as the interior spaces.

Our visit to the DeGrazia Gallery was nice – a fun way to spend a couple of hours and learn about this interesting man.

Catalina State Park

Ettore DeGrazia’s small fire to destroy his artwork in 1976 was intentional and, as far as we know, contained. The 2020 wildfire in Catalina State Park, however, was not. Caused by a lightning strike, the Bighorn Fire burned 120,000 acres in the Santa Catalina Mountains, including 30% of the state park’s 5,500 acres of desert foothills and canyons.

It was only a 20-minute drive from our rental house to the park, so we decided to check it out.

It’s a popular place! Even on a weekday, we had lots of company on the Canyon Loop Trail – hikers, dog-walkers, horseback riders, mountain bikers and trail runners – and on the short Romero Ruins Trail. I’m guessing this park would be beautiful in the springtime when wildflowers are blooming and the stream is flowing more vigorously, but in the dead of winter? Not much to see. It was, however, nice to be outdoors on such a beautiful day.

Effects of the 2020 wildfire were evident all along the Canyon Loop Trail.

Amazingly, the effects of the fire to date on the 5,000 saguaros estimated to live in the park may be less dire than originally feared. Many were damaged but are still alive – time will tell if they survive long term.

Well, that wraps up the second article from our four-week visit to Tucson. With much more to come – I hope you will join us next time!

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1 comment

  1. Great captures! Wonderful collection!


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