A slice of the wild and a lesson in nature combine at museums and animal parks

Is it a zoo or a museum? Yes to both. The San Diego Zoo and its Safari Park long ago shattered the mold for the cat-in-a-cage attraction. Now other visionary organizations are pushing the limits, putting nature on display more naturally, then adding a pinch of Smithsonian. If you're traveling the West this spring or summer, treat yourself and the kids to a genuine close encounter of the critter kind — educational benefits no extra charge.

-- Ken Van Vechten

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 2021 N. Kinney Road, Tucson; (520) 883-2702, http://www.desertmuseum.org

Why it's cool: It's not musty or dusty, and it doesn't feature other people's plundered treasures.

The experience: Paved and graded paths loop through the diverse biotic communities of the lively Sonoran Desert. Javelina, beavers, raptors, creepy crawlies, coyotes, hummingbirds and zillions of cactuses, yucca, trees and wildflowers are among the flora and fauna presented in native repose. Neat stuff on Earth history and geology as well.

My fave: The Mountain Woodland section reminds us that this desert is packed with towering uplands that push 10,000 feet in elevation and teem with bear, deer, cougar and wolf.

Second nature: Saguaro National Park and Tucson Mountain Park are adjacent; bring a bike, hiking shoes or both.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row, Monterey; (831) 648-4800, http://www.montereybayaquarium.org

Why it's cool: The feeding-time frenzy in the million-gallon open-sea exhibit makes it the Super Bowl of aquariums.

The experience: The aquarium is a laboratory and living tribute to the bounty of the bay and the Pacific, which meet here with great verve — a literal, pulsing crossroads of onshore, near-shore and deep-sea communities.

My fave: No one can ignore the adorable sea otters, particularly orphan Kit who was raised by surrogate mother Mae and is now learning to be a surrogate mother herself.

Second nature: 17-Mile Drive. Stop often. See Kit's cousins. Don't miss the books-on-a-shelf-like assemblage of slumbering seals near Cypress Point.

High Desert Museum, 59800 S. Highway 97, Bend, Ore.; (541) 382-4754, http://www.highdesertmuseum.org

Why it's cool: The drippy Pacific Northwest and the high-and-dry vastness of the Western basin collide in Bend. When that happens, good stuff goes on in terms of habitat and animals.

The experience: There's a good bit of human history going on here, including living reenactments of early homesteading and logging life. Local animal stars include Thomas the otter — whose river-like habitat includes aboveground and underwater viewing areas — bobcat and lynx, desert tortoises and porcupine in habitat-appropriate enclosures, all linked by a network of paths and walks.

My fave: Although I bought an Ochoco the Bobcat T-shirt, I am in awe of birds of prey. Falcon hawks, eagles, owls and kestrels are in the house, and the raptor show is a must-see.

Second nature: Newberry National Volcanic Monument, with lava tubes, obsidian flows, a mountaintop exploded by Mother Nature, hiking, Cascade vistas and some wicked-good fishing at Paulina and East lakes.

The Living Desert, 47900 Portola Ave., Palm Desert; (760) 346-5694, http://www.livingdesert.org

Why it's cool: Two continents, one ticket, no TSA.

The experience: If you like your zoological experience about equally split between desert — wolves, eagles, Gila monsters — and the dry spaces of Africa — cheetahs, giraffes, zebras — you're in luck. The grounds are easily walked, and there's a narrated tram tour.

My fave: Communing with the peninsular bighorn sheep is the keystone of this place, and you can have fun with the kids playing the spot-the-unmoving-rock-colored-animals-in-the-rocks game.

Second nature: There's a good five-mile hike out the back of the facility that includes some scrambling, a healthy climb, great valley views and a covered picnic spot below Eisenhower Peak.


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