Aiming to turn the museum concept inside-out, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum contains two miles of paths spread across 21 acres of desert, where animals such as sun-bathing lizards, bobcats, porcupine, and grey fox make their home. However, it is the fusion experience of a zoo, botanical garden, natural history museum, aquarium, and art gallery that has earned it a top-5 museum honor by TripAdvisor.
The museum's exhibits intend to display the shared natural habitats of plants, animals, and geology. As many as 230 native live animal species and 1,200 types of plants fill the museum's many exhibits, such as mountain lions, prairie dogs, and river otters, and nearly 20 endangered or threatened species. Birds of prey that roam the skies are the subject of a twice-daily seasonal presentation. The gardens feature over 56,000 individual plant specimens native to several biomes and ecosystems of the Sonoran Desert. Also exhibited is the skeleton of a Sonosaurus, recovered in southern Arizona.
After their stint outdoors, visitors can wander innovative indoor exhibits. Inside a cool, dark replica of a limestone cave glimmer more than 14,000 minerals and fossils, which includes a moon rock on loan from NASA. Amongst an underwater view of beavers' habitat and a venomous reptile presentation, the Warden Aquarium showcases the region's marine residents, and an art institute aims to promote conservation through dynamic visual art.
Membership in the Reid Park Zoological Society grants you and your family (two named adults and any children under the age of 18) full access to the zoo for an entire year (open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas). Being a card-carrying member opens up numerous doors, behind which lie benefit after benefit, and sometimes tigers. From June through August, you'll get early-morning entry to the zoo grounds—a calm, crowd-free time to view feedings and animal care firsthand, as well as a chance to lick and groom one's own fur in peace. The "Zoo & You" newsletter will arrive quarterly in your mailbox, keeping readers up to date on all zoo-related happenings. You'll also receive advance notice, discounts, and VIP entry to all after-hours events. If travel plans are in the cards, use your family membership as a veritable Jedi mind trick to receive discounts of 50% to 100% off at 165 different zoos and aquariums throughout the United States. Concerned number-noshers and pachyderm pals should also note that this membership donation is completely tax deductible, and that a portion of the donation will support the construction of Expedition Tanzania, the new, expanded elephant habitat set to open in the fall of 2011.
As the sun sinks below the Santa Rita Mountains, towering shade trees and adobe haciendas cast long shadows across Agua Linda Farm’s 63 acres. Over the years, this idyllic farm has nabbed attention from the press as well as visits from celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and John Wayne, who may have played hide-and-seek amid the rows of organic vegetables and flowers. In addition to a focus on sustainable agriculture, the farm strives to serve as a community hub. Farmsteaders Stewart and Laurel Loew host dinners, weddings, and scarecrow support groups in the adobe hacienda, and spark the imaginations of young horticulturists with family-centric spring and fall harvest festivals.
Though the calendar maintains that it's still the 21st century, the experienced cowfolk at MD Ranch take visitors back to the Wild West with horsemanship and equestrian knowledge that's been perfected across the centuries. Joining them is a herd of well-trained horses, who itch to take riders on vigorous romps across the Sonoran Desert landscapes of San Tan Mountain Regional Park. The only outfitters in the mountains, the ranch's seasoned guides lead experienced or first-time riders along desert trails, trotting past stately cacti on all-day and sunset excursions or galloping in search of far-off coyote choruses during intense ranch rides. The herd contains a wide range of horse personalities–from horses that are safe for even the most inexperienced riders to those with enough go for seasoned cowboys. On-site trainers work with steeds and riders alike, teaching students of all ages the techniques of English and Western riding as well as basic horsemanship and equine care skills.
A Town Pass at Rawhide lets weekend cow-wranglers saunter up to many of the Old West–themed attractions as many times as they like for a single day. Teach tots important human-donkey mind-melding techniques at the petting zoo, or let greenhorn lone-guns take a tottering ride atop a stout burro. More advanced cowpokes can attempt to drink a milkshake atop the Widowmaker mechanical bull, clamber up the Deadman's Drop rock climbing wall, or relax and leave the high-flying stunts to the daredevils at the Six Gun Theater, or by perusing the rambling thoroughfare's stretch of shops.
The San Tan Mountains form a majestic backdrop for Welcome Home Ranch, though it's unlikely visitors will spend much time looking at the scenery. Special events make trips to the ranch an exciting and ever-changing experience. Depending on the day, it might serve as a venue for rodeos, other competitions in the equestrian arena, or seasonal festivals. In the fall, the grounds brim with haunted houses, a corn maze, and plenty of pumpkins, which will turn back into horse carriages come winter.
One thing about the ranch never changes: its commitment to education. In addition to being a home for horses and livestock, Welcome Home Ranch doubles as an educational center, where students live, work, and learn under 24/7 direction from the program director. The curriculum––which might include everything from caring for pigs to rebuilding a shock absorber––can help students 18–34 turn their lives around.