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A Walk on Arizona's Wild Side

By: Elena Acoba

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May 1, 2012

Whether you venture into the wild or visit an urban habitat, Arizona offers just the right animal viewing experience for you.

About the author

Elena Acoba

Elena Acoba

Since moving to Tucson in 1988, freelance writer Elena Acoba has enjoyed traveling to the four corners of Arizona. Her favorites spots in her adopted state: the natural wonders and the rich historical sights.

Arizona holds an abundance of unusual and majestic wildlife in a variety of ecological settings: from spiny lizards, great hairy scorpions and ladybugs to elk, eagles, and buffalo.

Here are five ways you can get up close to Arizona’s watchable wildlife, on your own or with a group.

On your own

Arizona’s millions of natural acres teem with wildlife, and northern Arizona provides wildlife watchers with one of the most biodiverse regions in the United States. The dense population of trees in the Tonto and Coconino National Forests is the perfect canopy for adventurers to escape the desert sun and search out fascinating critters

The Lamar Haines Memorial Wildlife Area north of Flagstaff sports herds of elk and mule deer, as well as a long list of year-round resident birds that include Mexican-spotted owls and northern goshawks.

A little farther north, just west of Highway 89 is the House Rock Wildlife Area. Home to one of two locations in Arizona where one can see state-managed bison herds, this area offers a rare glimpse at the majestic creatures that once roamed much of the western United States.

Western Arizona is characterized by sprawling desert plains and towering mountain ranges that form ideal habitats for some of the state’s most interesting desert-dwelling creatures. Don’t be fooled! There is plenty of life to see out here.

The Kofa National Wildlife Refuge just southeast of Quartzsite is the state’s second largest wildlife preserve. The rugged Kofa Mountains are home to a fairly large population of bighorn sheep, while the basin below is inhabited by badgers, desert tortoises, and kit foxes.

Bill Williams River Wildlife AreaBill Williams River Wildlife Area / Credit: Virginia Lattion

For a wetter experience, head to Alamo Lake State Park on the Bill Williams River where you can spy waterfowl, shorebirds, Sonoran mud turtles, Great Plains toads, and other wetland animals.

Much like the lands of western Arizona, the southern part of the state is largely desert with occasional mountain ranges that punch through the desert floor to create vastly different ecosystems.

One such area is the Sky Islands, which turn red-orange with ladybugs every summer. Scientists from around the world travel here to study its impressive list of animal species that include cougars, black bears, blue herons, and desert owls.

A blue heron takes flight in the Sky Islands of ArizonaA blue heron takes flight in the Sky Islands / Credit: Cochise County Tourism Council

You don’t even have to venture into the wilderness to see wildlife. Bats take nightly summer flights from beneath bridges in north Tucson and from the Maricopa County Flood Control tunnels in Phoenix.

On safari

If you prefer more guidance in your wildlife exploration, knowledgeable guides can take you to nature’s best sites for spying Arizona’s critters.

Sierra Vista’s Southwest Wings Annual Birding and Nature Festival in August (and their smaller "Spring Fling Festival" in May) schedule field trips to see birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and bats all over the state.

Further north, Arizona Safari Jeep Tours in Sedona will get you up close and personal with deer, turkey, and bobcats among Sedona’s beautiful red rocks.

For an even smoother experience, hop aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad out of Clarkdale and listen as narrators point out eagle nesting sites and likely places in the Verde Valley to see great blue heron, javelina, and hawks from the train.

Along Arizona’s paths

Pack your camera for one of these leisurely strolls that often promise great wildlife spotting in the summer.

Lovers of creepy crawlies will want to head to San Tan Mountain Regional Park south of Chandler. Throughout the summer and into October, rangers guide the curious on nighttime scorpion scavenger hunts to seek out the interesting arthropods.

Take a free, scheduled walking tour at Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior to see lizards, dragonflies, songbirds or aquatic birds that reside among the exhibits of desert ecosystems.

Did you know? Arizona contains over half of North America’s bird species, and Sierra Vista in southeastern Arizona is widely considered the hummingbird capital of the world (yes, world)! Throughout the year, the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory hosts hummingbird banding sessions during which staff and volunteers capture, band, measure, and release these tiny travelers as part of a long-term study. There is no cost to observe.


Binoculars aren’t required for the close views offered by Arizona zoos and wildlife parks. Many also present all-ages shows and educational activities.

Find bighorn sheep, coyotes, rattlesnakes and other fauna native to northeast Arizona in Window Rock at the Navajo Nation Zoo and Botanical Park, the only American Indian-owned and operated zoo in the country.

A mountain lion relaxes on a rock at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum in TucsonA mountain lion relaxes on a rock at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson

Head south and get lost in a collection of 300-plus animal species and more than 1,300 native plants at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, complete with regularly scheduled live demonstrations.

Or cruise among the critters in your car at Bearizona near Williams or while riding in safari vehicles at the Out of Africa Wildlife Park in Camp Verde.

Find animals from around the world at:

Watch and learn

You learn much from simply watching animals go about their business. For deeper insight, check out these summertime events.

The Annual High Country Hummers Festival in July near Springerville-Eagar focuses on capturing and banding hummingbirds. Learn the proper techniques of taking beautiful pictures of these flying jewels and sit in on lessons on bird identification given by professionals.

Live animals highlight the hands-on presentations at the White Mountain Nature Center, a nonprofit educational organization in Pinetop whose focus is teaching the surrounding communities how to better care for their natural resources.

Regardless of how you plan to experience the natural wildlife of our state, Arizona offers a substantial amount of opportunities to learn and explore for all ages. Just remember to bring a camera!

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