Best of Tucson 95

Best Place To Astonish Guests

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
2021 N. Kinney Road

READERS' PICK: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Tucson's own world-class paean to the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert, has a problem. Or did have until this year. Its outdoor location is its chief virtue most of the time--you can see the coyotes and cougars and desert tortoises more or less in their natural habitats--and its downfall during the summer. Tourists may still clamor for entry, but the locals, sensibly attuned to the searing heat of summer, stay away in droves.

The ingenious solution is to open the place at night. This year for the first time, the Desert Museum was open for three hours every Saturday evening, July through September. The nighttime hours did more than just eliminate that little problem of strolling desert trails in 110-degree heat. Under cover of darkness, visitors saw a whole lotta things just not available in the day: They got an easy entrée into the busy night life of free-roaming desert creatures. Bugs, for instance. Each week, docents set up a sheet lit with black lights. The little critters were irresistibly drawn to the lights and visitors got an up-close and personal look at spiders' fluorescent eyeshine and the glow of scorpions.

Over by the beaver pond, the obliging docents gently--and temporarily--snared bats in a net as they swooped down to the water. At another station, desert toads scurried about under a ramada. Even the snakes, somnolent by day in their glass cages, were on nighttime alert, slithering up and down the glass panes.

Here and there on the dimly lighted trails, docents had some of the regular animals out. One week, you might catch an owl program--and perhaps be lucky enough to hear the captive owl hoot to a free-flying companion in the night sky. Another time, you might get a chance to pat a fat garter snake. Or you could peer through a telescope. One week a docent pointed out craters on the moon and the constellations lighting up the summer sky. Even the museum's minerals got a chance to shine, glowing in the darkness with the help of still another set of black lights.

A big part of the evening's allure is just the opportunity to safely stroll the desert at night, kids in tow. Altogether, it's quiet and low-key, kind of like the soft summer nights that bless Tucsonans who regularly roast by day. Next year, the museum staff plans a little more action: more lights on more of the trails and animal habitats.

Admission to the museum, 2021 N. Kinney Road, is $8.95 for ages 13 and up, $1.75 for ages 6 to 12, free for under 6. Ask about year-round passes. Regular daytime hours are 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week. For more information call 883-2702.
--Margaret Regan

READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP AND STAFF PICK: The visitor's mouth is agape as she feasts her eyes on the monsoon sunset seeming to emanate from Gates Pass itself. Casting dramatic hues of pink, purple, orange and yellow that melt into the velvety blues and grays of the desert floor, the sun sinks below the Tucson Mountains. But it doesn't disappear before gilding a hillside of saguaros with radiating gold, so they appear to have been frozen in time by some character in a fairy tale. Rain soaks our guest, but no matter. "I could move here just for this," she says. We know.

CAT'S MEOW: Take those out-of-town visitors from Michigan, Maine and Georgia to something they don't get to see a whole lot of: rivers with not a dribble of water. "That's a river!?" they'll scream all the way home, alternating between question and statement as they try to convince themselves. Or suggest a picnic at the Rillito River one day. Get the picnic basket, blanket and some buckets and watch their faces as you lead them down a sandy path to an even sandier river. Spread out the checkered cloth, pour the wine and sit back and say, "Now this is what rivers were meant to be." We guarantee they'll tell that story back home.

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