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Sky Islands and Desert Seas

Where to experience sky islands and desert seas
Learn more about Sky Islands and Desert Seas

Where to experience sky islands and desert seas:

Visitors and residents can learn about sky islands and their surrounding deserts and grasslands in several areas around the Santa Cruz Valley.

Coronado National Forest includes all of the major mountain ranges—the Sky Island Scenic Byway (Mount Lemmon Highway) and the Madera Canyon and Sabino Canyon Recreational Areas. In the Santa Catalina Ranger District, the Palisades Visitor Center and Sabino Canyon Visitor Center have exhibits about sky island geology and natural history.

Sky island landscapes and wildlife can also be explored in Saguaro National Park (East and West Units), Catalina State Park, Colossal Cave Mountain Park, Tortolita Mountain Park, and Tucson Mountain Park. The natural histories and ecologies of sky islands and the Sonoran Desert are interpreted at Saguaro National Park, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and Tohono Chul Park.



Murray Bolesta/
Photo courtesy of Murray Bolesta/

Relevant maps and publications can be found at the Western National Parks Association in Oro Valley, and at many local bookstores and businesses that sell outdoor gear. Each year, the Ironwood Festival is held at the Mason Audubon Center and Tohono Chul Park hosts the Wildflower Festival.

Check out our Heritage Experiences map to see where else you can learn about the sky islands and desert seas within the Santa Cruz  Valley.
Learn more about sky islands and outdoor adventures!






Sky Islands and Desert Seas

Southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, northwestern Chihuahua, and northeastern Sonora are a landscape of wonder, beauty, wildness, and astounding biological diversity. This is the “Sky Island” region and the proposed National Heritage Area is its heart.

The southwestern Sky Island “archipelago” is unique on the planet, and is the only Sky Island complex extending from subtropical to temperate latitudes with a globally unprecedented array of plant and animal species of northern and southern origins. These mountain islands are among the most diverse ecosystems in North America due to their great topographic relief and location at the meeting point of major desert and forest biomes. This uniqueness results from several factors, including the region’s wide range of elevations, the convergence of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, the north-south trending mountain ranges that contain a mingling of species (many endemic) from the Rocky Mountains to the north and the Sierra Madre Occidental to the south, and two rainy seasons

Sky Islands are forested mountain ranges isolated from each other by intervening basins and valleys of desert and grassland, usually below 4000 feet in elevation. The basins and valleys in this Basin and Range Geological Province act as barriers to the movement of woodland and forest species at higher elevations, somewhat like saltwater seas isolate plants and animals on oceanic islands. The 40 ranges of the Sky Island system may be thought of as an “archipelago” connecting the “continents” of the Sierra Madre Mountain Range of northern Mexico to the south with the Rocky Mountains of the United States to the north.

A number of tropical and subtropical species inhabit this region, including the jaguar, coatimundi, Mexican long-tongued bat, elegant trogon, violet-crowned hummingbird, and banded rock rattlesnake. Eighteen species of bats, more than 400 species of birds, and about 100 species of butterflies can be seen here. Herds of the rare desert bighorn sheep survive in the most rugged and remote terrain. This is also one of the few places in the world where the saguaro cactus grows.

The Santa Cruz Valley is the only place in the United States where tourists can visit the sky islands and desert seas landscape and enjoy the exceptional scenic views and biological complexity in a National Heritage Area.

Read about the Sky Islands and Desert Seas theme in the feasibility study.


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