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Over the Sonoran
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

Get the facts behind the frame in this online-only gallery. Pick an image and see the photographer’s technical notes.

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Map of Sonoran Desert

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Article and Photographs by Adriel Heisey

Sculpted by wind and water, this intriguing North American desert reveals itself from aloft.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Simple, open, and slow—that’s how I like to fly. After years as a corporate pilot I grew frustrated with the speed and confinement of large planes, so I built my own. My Kolb TwinStar is lightweight (450 pounds/200 kilograms), low speed (35 to 75 miles an hour/55 to 120 kilometers an hour), easy to fly (I steer with my feet and right leg so I can hold my camera with both hands), foldable (I trailer my plane to shooting locations), and exposed (the engine is behind the wings, and I sit out in front, with no enclosure). Alone in the sky, dangling my feet in the wind, I feel as if I can reach out and touch the places I photograph. Even so, learning to love the Sonoran Desert wasn’t easy for me. When I moved to Tucson five years ago, I had just left my job as a pilot for the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, where for more than a decade I had flown over red-rock canyons, spires, and buttes. The Sonoran’s worn, repetitive features can’t match the topography of the Four Corners, but there’s something about the transience here—the way a sudden shower can transform the place overnight—that grew on me. As I explored the Sonoran from above, I learned that it is unique among North American deserts. It has an extensive coastline. It’s warmer than the continent’s other deserts. Much of it receives both winter and summer rain, so it harbors a surprising wealth of plant species. And it can be crowded. The population of Tucson’s Pima County has tripled in the past 40 years, recently passing 800,000. I’ve had a hawk’s view of the ways humans have left their mark on the Sonoran—suburban sprawl, off-road driving, mining, grazing, woodcutting. I want to share my unusual way of seeing the desert before any more of it changes.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic Magazine.

Watch this interview with author/photographer Adriel Heisey as he shares his bird’s-eye view of the largest active sand sea in North America.

Video 1: Introduction
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Video 2: The Inspiration
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Video 3: The Plane
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Video 4: More Details
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In More to Explore the National Geographic Magazine team shares some of their best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Despite rumors to the contrary, saguaro cactuses are not vanishing. There have been plenty of scares: false reports about a bacterial disease, a rumored decline in the young saguaro population, an apparent decline in the number of pollinating bats, a mysterious condition called “epidermal browning” (once thought to have been caused by air pollution), and tales of cactus poaching. But the Sonoran’s flagship plants aren’t threatened by extinction. The number of young saguaros may be increasing. For more fun facts about the saguaro and other desert plants and animals, visit the website of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, one of the nation’s best regional museums and zoos.

Flight Over Four Corners
Interested in getting a bird’s eye view of the Four Corners region? This site features pilot and photographer, Adriel Heisey, aboard his self-built and self-operated aircraft as he captures the region with his stunning photographs. Hop on and get a first-hand account of his experiences.

Sonoran Desert National Park Project
What can you do to help protect the Sonoran Desert ecosystem? Explore the Sonoran Desert National Park Project website, which includes “Leave Something Behind: A Citizens Proposal,” a short article by Charles Bowden, first published in Esquire December 1999.

Interhemispheric Resource Center
“The New Face of Northern Mexico’s Nature Preserves,” an article by Serge Dedina on Mexico’s Sonoran Desert parks and preserves, appears on the BorderLines website. BorderLines is a monthly bulletin on U.S.-Mexico border issues—a topic vital to managing the Sonoran Desert’s natural wealth.

Biosphere Reserves in Action: Case Studies of the American Experience
The U.S. State Department explores the history of three Sonoran Desert biosphere reserves in the U.S. and Mexico.

National Audubon Society
Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan’s 1999 article in Audubon, “Land of Contradictions,” describes Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a unique Sonoran Desert Preserve.

Adriel Heisey Photography
Interested in knowing more about photographer Adriel Heisey and his new book, Under the Sun: A Sonoran Desert Odyssey?


Hartmann, William K. Desert Heart: Chronicles of the Sonoran Desert. Fisher Books, 1989.

Hayden, Julian D. The Sierra Pinacate. University of Arizona Press, 1998.

Heisey, Adriel. Under the Sun: A Sonoran Desert Odyssey. Rio Nueo Publishers, 2000.

Lazaroff, David Wentworth. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Book of Answers. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press, 1998.

Phillips, Steven J. and Patricia Wentworth Comus, eds. A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert. University of California Press and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press, 2000.

Zwinger, Ann Haymond. The Mysterious Lands: A Naturalist Explores the Four Great Deserts of the Southwest. University of Arizona Press, 1996.


Delano, Marfé Ferguson. Desert. National Geographic Books, 1999, 1-60.

Arnosky, Jim. Watching Desert Wildlife. National Geographic Books, 1998, 1-34.

“A Violent Eden.” National Geographic TV/Video, 1997.

Parfit, Michael. “California Desert Lands: A Tribute to Sublime Desolation.” National Geographic, May 1996, 54-79.

Rinard, Judith E. “It’s Hot. . .Really! Treasures of a Desert Park.” National Geographic World, Dec. 1995, 24-27.

Vesilind, Priit. “The Sonoran Desert: Anything But Empty.” National Geographic, Sept. 1994, 36-63.


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