You might think it’s crazy to visit Tucson in August, but it can be done without overheating or oversunburning. Benefits – sights are less crowded and hotels are less expensive. No other benefits that I can think of. Oh, wait. You also get the docents and parking lot to yourself. Total bonus.
Son #2 and I went to Tucson to see my cousins. One cousin is foolish enough to live there (don’t get upset Tucson friends, you have to admit it’s way too hot in summer), and the other flew in from D.C. We decided to drive because we have air conditioning. And because I didn’t realize it was a 12, not 8 hour drive. I should have trusted you Google Maps.
No matter your means of conveyance (that’s gotta be old western talk, right?), you’ll want to visit the following three places:
The largest privately owned air museum in the U.S., it has over 300 military, civilian and commercial aircraft. In the main hangar you’ll see a variety of planes, ranging from a Lear Jet that was owned and flown by the first woman to get type-rated in a Lear, to a homemade Bumble Bee plane that took the record for world’s smallest plane in 1984. Two WWII hangars (Pacific and European) are dedicated to the history and aircraft from the war. The SR-71 Blackbird spy plane and B-29 Bomber are spectacular, and made doubly so if you can get a docent to tell you their stories.
My favorite was the 390th Memorial Museum hangar, as I’m a history buff way more than an aviation fan. The POW exhibit and memorial plaques were especially moving.
More than half of the planes are outdoors, so we did a quick walk around due to the heat. You can take a tram tour of the 80+ outdoor acres, but we didn’t want to spend an hour sitting on the tram. We did find a number of Air Force One (so fancy) planes, plus a bunch of commercial planes from defunct airlines (remember TWA and PanAm?).
In the early 90s, scientists were sealed up inside the biosphere for two years to measure survivability in a contained environment. Now owned by the University of Arizona as a research facility (mostly for climate change studies), it’s still a contained environment with a rainforest, desert, ocean, and their support systems – air flow “lungs”, energy center, water & life experiments.
We learned that preventing ultraviolet light (for human benefit) was detrimental to the bees and coral, both of which died out. We also heard that the trees were flopping over until the researchers realized they needed wind, which then had to be created. We also found out that the immense amount of concrete supporting the biosphere absorbed so much of the oxygen while curing that oxygen had to be pumped in via the “lungs” so the scientists could survive. And according to my cousin, the second scientific “two-year sleepover” only lasted 6 months partly because the scientists didn’t get along. He also told me that one of the scientists was caught ordering take-away pizza. I don’t know if it was thin or thick crust. And in case you’re wondering, Biosphere1 is that big blue thing – earth.
Wake up early and get to this (mainly) outdoor museum when it opens at 7:30. Not only will the animals be awake, but it’s cool enough for you to remain outside for several hours. Not cool, just cool enough, by which I mean tolerable upper 80s, lower 90s. I think we were the very first visitors of the day, which meant that the docents were happy to talk to us for as long as we wanted. Some of the museum is like a zoo in that the animals are in outdoor enclosures that separate them from us. As you can see from my photo collage, we saw all kinds of critters. The mountain lion paced back and forth in front of us for quite a while, rubbing against the viewing glass. I am pretty sure he was purring.
Along the pathway, we saw some commotion with a squirrel and several museum workers. They told us that a squirrel was protecting its nest from a poaching rattlesnake. We made the mistake of asking where the snake was. So, yeah, about 2 feet in front of us, in the grass. Not separated from humans. After we backed way up, Karl the Docent with the Animal Grabbers drove up in his golf cart and plucked the snake up and put it into a box, on its way to a part of the desert where humans did not necessarily wander.
The Desert Museum also has an aquarium, botanical gardens, walking trails, aviaries, a cave/ geology center, art center, and demonstrations. Eighty-five percent of the museum is outdoors, so we had hats, sunblock and lots of water. And by 10:30 a.m. we were back in the car and on the road home to California.