City of Mesa, AZ

The Primal Desert Next Door

Land of Black Volcanoes and White Sands

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The primal desert next door is the land of black volcanoes and white sands located at the north end of the Gulf of California, approximately between Ajo, Arizona and Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), Sonora, Mexico. In Mexico the land is protected within the Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve and in the United States by the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The area is easily identified in satellite photos of the region.

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Visitors enjoy the murals of volcanoes, dunes and vegetation in the exhibition.

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The area is part of the basin and range province of southern Arizona and northern Sonora.  Discover the processes that create the basin and range formations.

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The basin and range structure is formed by faulting, which causes lowering of valleys, called grabens, with the ranges (horsts) remaining in place. Turn the wheel and see horsts and grabens forming before your eyes.

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Volcanic craters are characteristic of the landscape.  Molina Crater is 149 meters wide and 30 meters deep.  Photo Bob Sharp.

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Volcanoes are formed when molten rock, called magma, comes to the surface of the earth.  If there are no obstructions or other forces applied to them, volcanoes may be shaped as cones.  Here, visitors crawl through a replica of a lava tube.

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Winds sculpture the sands into spectacular dunes.  The dune fields of the Gran Desierto de Altar cover about 4,800 square miles.  Much of the sand comes from the Colorado River, which carries the particles from the Colorado Plateau and Grand Canyon and deposits them at the top of the Gulf of California.

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Young scientists explore the formation of dunes.


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The area is known for its namesake Pinacate beetle, living here in the terrarium. In the exhibition, see images of local flora and fauna, including amphibians and reptiles, birds, arthropods, mammals, wildflowers, cactus and trees.

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Sidewinder, the rattlesnake Crotalus cerastes, named for its sideways locomotion.

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Teddy Bear Cholla.  Courtesy Arizona Sonora Desert Museum.

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The area seemed so foreign and forbidding, Apollo astronauts trained here, 1965-1970. Apollo 14 Commander Alan B. Shepard (second from right), Apollo 10 lunar module pilot and Apollo 17 Commander Eugene H. Cernan (far left), X-15 pilot and Space Shuttle Discovery Commander Joe H. Engle (second from left), and geologists Richard H. Jahns (far right) and James T. Gutmann (center). Image (S70-29573) SAL, NASA, Johnson Space Center.


At the opening, Larry Marshall and Clark Blake sign copies of their book on which the exhibition is based, Land of Black Volcanoes and White Sands, which is available in the museum store.  Photo courtesy of Peter L. Kresan.



53 N. Macdonald
Mesa, AZ 85201

(One block north of Main Street in downtown Mesa. Take US 60 or 202 to Country Club Drive, go to Main Street, and proceed one-half mile east to Macdonald) - View Map



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