READERS' PICK: Take your guests on any desert trail and you take your chances on whether you'll find any spectacular desert dwellers or fantastic flora to show off that particular day. Take them to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and those guests will get a generous taste of the desert's potential -- up close and any time of year. This is not your typical museum; in fact it's sometimes difficult to tell where the 21-acre museum stops and the real desert begins. The musky scent of javelina wafts on the breeze, hummingbirds dart from penstemon to ocotillo blossom, and longhorn sheep wink away gnats while they loll atop rocky bluffs. The museum staff continue to make improvements, the most recent of which include a desert waters exhibit, pollinator gardens, and spacious new enclosures for coyotes and javelinas. Check out the "invisible fence" around the 20,000-square-foot area for javelina on the new Desert Loop Trail. We like to visit the Desert Museum at night in the summertime, when docents go out of their way to show off the nocturnals -- bats, owls, scorpions and snakes. A telescope is usually set up for sky gazing, and one can borrow florescent lights to examine rocks for trace minerals. The lighting along the two miles of pathways is minimal, and the night air is refreshing. Last time we were meandering there under the stars, guests were not only dazzled, they were terrified. The museum staff had to close off one of the paths because an enormous rattlesnake had decided to stretch out across the Desert Loop Trail, apparently unaware of the elusive museum boundary.
READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: Gates Pass, Speedway approximately five miles west of I-10. There's no more glorious place to watch a desert sunset than Gates Pass, high in the Tucson Mountains. Since 1883, when Col. Thomas Gates first improved the trail to get to his Avra Valley mine, it's been a showcase of natural delights. You can stay around the paved, disabled-accessible ramada and read about the history of the area, its geology and wildlife while watching the sunlight fade from another day. There are several hiking trails and hillside vantage points that'll make you feel like you're alone at the end of the earth. Kitt Peak and the distant Camobabi Mountains are visible more than 40 miles away on the horizon, above the twinkling lights of Old Tucson and the Tohono O'odham Nation. Parking can be at a premium, especially on weekends, so get there early to enjoy the best free show in town, then watch the lights of Tucson come on as you head back down the hill.