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Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Story by Gena Kittner
Photo by Karla Worthington
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum easily is one of my family’s favorite places in Tucson. The 98-acre museum is part zoo, part botanical garden, part art gallery and part aquarium. It attracts nearly 400,000 visitors a year and is a perennial favorite on many “best of” lists when it comes to Tucson attractions.
The drive alone to reach the museum is worth the trip, offering spectacular views of saguaro cacti that blanket the mountains.
In early September, I toured the museum with Josh Wheeler, 38, and his family of three to experience what a visit to the Desert Museum is like for someone in a wheelchair. Wheeler enjoys being outside, especially working in his yard, and has traveled throughout the United States and the world. He’d been to the Desert Museum once, several years ago.
The day we visited, it was a mild 84 degrees. While there are shady spots and several indoor exhibits, about 85 percent of the museum is outdoors, so come prepared. That means water bottles, hats and sunscreen.
Wheeler, a member of both the USA Wheelchair Rugby and University of Arizona Wheelchair Rugby teams, used a manual wheelchair for our tour and felt it did well. However, others might want to consider an electric wheelchair when visiting the museum depending on their personal strength, how long they plan to stay and how warm the weather is.
The museum itself maintains a small fleet of manual wheelchairs and a limited number of ECVs, which are available for rent at the front ticket window on a first-come, first-served basis, according to its website.
Upon meeting at the museum, Wheeler assured me there were plenty of handicapped parking spaces, some specifically made wider and labeled for vans.
Stops during our tour included the Cave of Minerals, a mountain lion, a black bear and a bobcat. 230 animal species and 1,200 types of plants span the 21 acres of various desert habitats.
Visibility can be a challenge for people in wheelchairs while visiting places like zoos or museums. Bars and fences around exhibits are high for safety, but this makes it hard for someone to see over them if sitting down.
For the mountain lion and black bear exhibits, vertical metal poles of varying heights create a fence that you can peer over and look through.
The Desert Museum estimates that 96 percent of its exhibits are viewable by wheelchair, according to its website.
Wheeler did have to perform a few “stretching arches” in his chair, lifting himself up to see an exhibit, but said overall the visibility was very good.
The paths throughout the museum are often unpaved with hard-packed sand, dirt and rocks. The are paved surfaces too, which the museum acknowledges on their website.
Wheeler described the paths throughout the museum as, “not perfect, but definitely doable.”
“Pretty smooth, really,” he said. “It’s not hard to maneuver safely.”
Wheeler’s wife Stephanie noted the paths throughout the museum were wide enough to accommodate two passing wheelchairs, which happened several times during our visit.
Gloves here are a must if using a manual wheelchair as the wheel rims get too hot to touch in the sun.
Paths throughout the Desert Museum grounds occasionally have inclines. Loren Worthington, who accompanied us in an electric wheelchair, noted, “If you don’t have a lot of function, you are going to need some help.”
Two exhibits at the museum have underground viewing: the Cat Canyon and the Riparian Corridor. The latter includes the river otter. The ramp entrance for Cat Canyon was clearly marked, but it took more searching for the Riparian Corridor ramp to see the fish and river otter. Better signage in these areas would be appreciated, Wheeler said.
After about two hours our crew was ready to go.
“Any hotter than this and it would start to be not fun,” Wheeler said.
Overall, Wheeler said his tour through the Desert Museum was very enjoyable. Exhibits were accessible and navigating the paths throughout the grounds, while a little taxing at times, went smoothly. It’s important to come prepared for the outdoor elements, but this unique outdoor space is what sets the Desert Museum apart from so many other attractions.
Gena Kittner is a freelance writer with more than 20 years of journalism experience. A Midwest transplant, Gena enjoys playing tennis and exploring desert life with her husband and two children.
Read more by Gena Kittner.