The Sonoran Desert: The Perfect End-of-Summer Destination
Don’t miss the vibrant colors and lively landscape of late summer in Tucson, Ariz.
For the perfect end-of-summer escape, it would be easy to imagine yourself on a sunny island in Greece or perhaps cruising gently down the Danube. But what if I told you that for this season’s last hurrah, you may actually want to soak up that sun on a desert, not a beach?
The Sonoran Desert, which covers parts of Arizona, California, and Mexico, is an anomaly among deserts. Drawing moisture from the Sea of Cortez, the unusually fertile land teems with life. A desert by name alone, the 110,000 square mile expanse is a rainbow patchwork of acacia trees, towering saguaros, prickly pear cactus, and rippling, deep-hued mountain ranges.
But here’s what most people don’t know: In late summer, prompted by the heavy monsoon rains of August, the lush green plains reach a dazzling climax. Locals in Tucson, Ariz., swoon over what they call the region’s “second spring,” a time to soak up the colors, smells, and tastes of the land before winter puts a kibosh on the whole thing.
Whether you’re showing up to watch butterflies dance among the wildflowers, to sample the region’s up-and-coming wineries, or to sip a cocktail made from a cactus, here are a few of the best places to see America’s prettiest desert come to life (again).
A hummingbird takes advantage of Arizona’s second spring inside the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. (Photo: Joe Parks/Flickr)
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Panoramic views of Saguaro National Park and the Tucson Mountains surround the 21-acre Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is made up of an intricate network of paths that connect vibrant cactus gardens, a crystal cave, an aquarium, and a zoo inhabited by mountain lions, black bears, and a Mexican wolf. It’s enchanting any time of year, but come late August, the landscape literally explodes with greenery. See butterflies (attracted by the second blooming) and hummingbirds silently flit through the Pollination Gardens, or wander the Desert Loop Trail to find ocotillos full of shiny leaves and creosote bushes that are extra fragrant after the heavy rains.
After the sun goes down, the museum’s terrific late-night series, Cool Summer Nights, encourages visitors to stay past the usual closing hours to watch scorpions glow under black lights, or to try out a night photography class under the starry sky. For the last installment, over Labor Day weekend, there will even be a bat presentation with bat-themed cakes prepared by local bakeries.