READERS' PICK: The Sonoran Desert stretches from southern California and Arizona down to Mexico, to include most of the Baja and half of the Mexican state that shares the desert's name. You only need to travel about 10 miles west of downtown Tucson to get a fair sampling of all its natural wonders--animal, vegetable and mineral. This unique living museum nestled in the Tucson Mountain basin, at the foot of Saguaro National Monument West, opened in 1952 and has been steadily expanding and improving ever since. The world-renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum now houses more than 300 species of native wildlife, from mountain lions and rattlesnakes to an entire aviary of hummingbird species. A $175,000 grant awarded this year from the Nina Mason Pulliam trust will establish a state-of-the-art veterinary facility on museum grounds to further improve what is already considered one of the top zoos in the country. Nearly two dozen major exhibits span 20 acres (featuring an astounding 1,300 varieties of desert flora), and are connected by two miles of desert paths winding indoors and out for one incredible tour of zoological, natural-history and botanical components. All exhibits are wheelchair accessible. New this summer (besides June's crop of prairie dog pups), an interactive exhibit called "Ancient Arizona" gives visitors a glimpse of the area as lush primordial forest, when the recently discovered Sonorasaurus, a 20-ton brachiosaur, roamed what is now southerly Sonoita. Fossils of the giant reptile, plus artist renderings and a chance to dig for replica fossils, bring some of the excitement of this 1994 discovery home, particularly for school groups and families with children. The museum is open every day of the year, with extended Saturday night hours June through September. Take Speedway Boulevard west over Gates Pass, veering right on Kinney Road. The museum is on the left. There's truly nothing else like it, anywhere.
READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: The Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave., cashed in with a series of crowd-pleasing blockbusters this year. Kicking off the season was Patanias: A Legacy in Silver and Gold, a tribute to a Tucson family of longtime jewelers. Reflections: Pre-Columbian Inspiration in Mexican Silver Design was another popular, craft-oriented show. Sunlight and Shadow: American Impressionism, 1885-1945 was a paean to the pretty. The season ended with a sumptuous show of Third World Art, Affinities of Form: Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. If local critics were concerned that the museum was dulling its cutting edge, the TMA did offer up a handful of smaller shows that were more challenging. Chris Rush: Lost Portraits was a New Directions show that exhibited the local artist's austere portraits of disabled and dying children. Curator Joanne Stuhr put together an interesting historical exhibition, Adolph Gottlieb and the West. Chronicling the painter's 1930s extended visits to Tucson, the exhibition argued that the harsh desert landscape helped lead him into abstraction. A small 19th-century show, Roads Less Traveled: American Paintings, 1833-1935, was hardly flashy but its dark forests and shimmering hillsides nevertheless delivered insights into the nation we were becoming.