During the course of this 90-minute adventure tour, you'll explore the Colossal Cave, a miles-long system of underground "dry" caves, which means there is not enough moisture for formations to continue growing, and you won't need any special shoes or suction-cupped foot gear. With nothing more than a hardhat and headlamp, you and a small group of fellow spelunkers (7–12 people) will climb and squeeze through narrow tunnels and subterranean passages revealing exquisite stalactite and stalagmite formations. A knowledgeable guide talks about the cave’s history (it had been used for centuries by prehistoric peoples) and legends (it was a bandit hideout in the late 1800s).
As they enter the massive brick building, visitors pass the Watercarrier, a curved bronze statue that lends a first glimpse at a staggering collection of ancient and modern Native American works. Established in 1893, the Arizona State Museum celebrates and records Southwest Indian cultural history with more than 3 million objects, including a collection electrified with more than 25,000 pieces of woven basketry, more than 300,000 catalogued archaeological artifacts, 500,000 photographic negatives and original prints, 90,000 volumes of rare titles, 6,000 maps, 1,500 feet of archival documents, and more than 1,000 sound recordings. The collection forays out onto the museum floor in exhibitions such as Ancient Architecture of the Southwest, where striking photographs frame some of the crumbling archaeological ruins of 1,000-year-old cliff dwellings set against a rugged desert landscape while tastefully photoshopping out the ancient satellite dishes. The Pottery Project spans 2,000 years of Native ceramics with more than 20,000 whole pieces and a lab for hands-on pottery testing. Using artifacts, life-size dioramas, and film, Paths of Life explores the history and contemporary lifeways of ten Native cultures, including those of the Yaqui, O?odham, Apache, Navajo, and Hopi.
Museum staff further engage visitors in events that range from talks with museum curators and Native artisans to learning expeditions, which invite guests to tag along with museum and university archaeologists to survey nearby sites, immersing them in the scientific dig experience nearly as effectively as watching Indiana Jones with your nose to the screen. Educational outreach for public-school and university students immerses them in camps and workshops. At the Native Goods museum store, visitors browse a stock of books alongside basketry, jewelry, carvings, and textiles crafted by artists from Yaqui, Hopi, and other nations.
A small group of explorers stands beneath an open dome of night sky as pinpricks of starlight glitter against the expanse's dark blues and blacks. Each spot of light even seems to look much clearer from here—likely because the group is standing 9,157 feet above sea level. At the Stewart Observatory inside Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter at the mountain's summit, scientists guide visitors through the use of gear such as a 32-inch Schulman telescope—the state's largest public viewing telescope—to probe the far reaches of space to learn about celestial phenomena and take in magnified images of the universe just above.
Days and nights at the center bring a slew of learning experiences to budding astronomers. Accompanied by University of Arizona scientists, Discovery Days lead explorations of topics such as tree rings, hummingbirds, and meteorology, frequently beckoning students into the surrounding outdoors. During nightly SkyNights programming, groups summit Mt. Lemmon for a five-hour evening of dining and stargazing at the observatory. One-on-one time with heavenly bodies comes courtesy of Astronomer Nights, wherein site staffers grant singles or pairs lodging, private access to the Schulman telescope, and the chance to contribute directly to the field upon discovering a supernova, nebula, or handlebar mustache on the man in the moon.
Periodically, the scientific team also expounds on specific topics, such as digital celestial imaging, with the public in multiple-day workshops. Each participant builds on the Stewart Observatory's list of achievements since 1970, which include furthering infrared astronomy, surveying the moon for Apollo lunar landings, and searching for near-Earth asteroids.
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.
There’s little left in Tucson to suggest that back in the mid-19th-century the city served as the Southwest’s hub for highway robbers. But it's a fact that the area hosted a string of stagecoach holdups and served as the starting point for Wyatt Earp’s infamous vendetta ride. At the Arizona History Museum, relics stand testament to this harrowed past, including an original Concord stagecoach, not unlike those whose occupants were forced to surrender their valuables to roadside brigands. The museum doesn’t only explore infamy, though; it illuminates all the forces that took part in Tucson’s transition from Paleo-Indian hunting ground to Spanish colonial outpost to the commercial center it is today. Exhibits cover this vast span of time creatively, including a full-size replica of an underground mine that provides a glimpse into early-20th-century working conditions, hands-on exhibits that recall the day-to-day lives of Native Americans, and archaeology displays that detail the surrounding environment's history over the past 4,000 years.
The International Wildlife Museum is a nonprofit institution that works to support various worldwide conservation efforts. More than 400 living and taxidermy-sustained species, plus illuminating exhibits and habitat re-creations, wow crowds of mammal fans and reptile skeptics alike. Visit the Scaly, Not Slimy! reptile exhibit with a significant other to bask in the romantic aura of the naturally top-hatted debonair tortoise, or pick up a family membership to get a year of unlimited museum access, two complimentary guest passes, and discounts on everything from museum programs to items in the gift shop.