Best Place to See a Snake 2012 | Living Collection | Sports & Recreation | Phoenix

Phoenix might not have a lot of things, like cool ocean breezes or soaring forests, but one thing we do have? Snakes and other reptiles. We're like a herpetological all-you-can-eat buffet.

To commemorate this, someone at ASU (nobody is exactly clear on who) started a massive collection of snakes, lizards, and other cold-blooded denizens of the Arizona desert. Since the 1960s, the collection has grown to contain nearly 45,000 specimens, all lovingly preserved and on display in the A Wing of the Life Science Center on ASU's Tempe campus. Whether you fancy a look at an albino western diamondback or a pickled Gila monster, this is the place to come. Though most specimens are preserved in tanks and glass jars, but some are, theoretically, open for handling by the public. If the hands-on exploration of herpetology isn't for you, there always is the electronic database, which lists most of the specimens in the collection, as well as where they were collected. Thomas Dowling is the man to speak to about seeing all the snakes. He's the interim curator and can be contacted via e-mail at [email protected].

Allow us to nip your first question right in the bud: No, the pair of Komodo dragons currently residing at the Phoenix Zoo are not related to the winged serpent of legend in any way. Nor do they breathe fire, although their bite is considered to be quite toxic. Sadly, the only commonality (other than the whole scales thing) is that, as a protected species, the Komodo dragon possibly could wind up being just as invisible as the mythical beasties. There are about 50 in captivity around the globe, which is probably one of the reasons Valley residents have turned out in droves to catch a glimpse at the bulky Indonesian creatures, who measure around seven feet long and are considered the largest lizards in the world. Well, they usually only see Ivan, the male, who's more social and often is found sunning himself on a rock in his half of their habitat located along the Tropics Trail. Gaia, his sister, is more of a recluse, preferring to hang out in the shade of her sleeping area. And though Komodos can be vicious — and reportedly have feasted on humans — Ivan seemed relatively docile, merely gazing at us through the Plexiglas while calmly darting his tongue out. Then again, they might've been sizing us up for a potential snack.

About 50,000 years ago, a chunk of rock the size of several freight-train engines fell from the sky near what is now Winslow, hitting the ground with a blast not unlike that of a nuclear bomb. In just 10 seconds, the explosion forged Meteor Crater, which is 4,000 feet across. That's kind of scary to contemplate. But also really nifty. We found the drive out to Meteor Crater well worth the long straightaway of Interstate 40, since we linked up the trip with visits to the Petrified National Forest and Homolovi State Park. But Meteor Crater, as far as holes in the ground go, is memorable — especially the intense wind on the crater's rim. The museum at the visitor's center is top-notch for a facility of its size, with dinosaur bones and a meteor video game that helps kids learn how easy it would be for their world to be destroyed by space rocks. We're just hoping that meteors don't strike twice in the same state.

You're going to need to pass a killer job application to see Arizona artist James Turrell's longest-running project. Turrell is an internationally acclaimed artist who works with natural and man-made light and environments to create ever-changing installations. His pieces have been featured in museums around the world, and since the '70s, he's been working on his biggest installation — inside an extinct, 400,000-year-old volcanic crater in northern Arizona.

But don't expect to ever see it.Turrell doesn't give public tours and has taken very few private guests into the evolving space to experience what he calls a "celestial vaulting." Because of the angles of the crater and the space Turrell has created, a viewer looking up sees the sky as a dome instead of a flat horizon, creating the feeling of being "on the edge of the Earth."Phases of construction have been ongoing since the '70s, but more than 1.3 million cubic yards of earth have been moved to shape the crater bowl, and construction continues in various tunnels and smaller spaces that utilize its natural angles and reflective surfaces to play with the light that trickles in. Don't bother trying to find it or access the entrance — the natural observatory is remote and very secure. Rumor has it, Turrell's looking for an administrative assistant for the project, but like we said, you're going to have to pass a few tests (and take a number in what's likely to be a long line of Turrell fans and artists) before you gain access.

There are a lot ultramodern things afoot (Air Traffic Control Simulator Lab, anyone?) at Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus, a 600-acre offshoot campus in southeast Mesa. The many professional and technical programs that characterize the Poly campus include a golf-management major with students to whom a golden golf swing means just as much as a great GPA. At the high-tech Ping Swing Analysis Lab, students can analyze their swing and harness the power of science to improve their skills. The lab, named after Phoenix-based golf equipment manufacturer Ping, resulted from a donation by the owners of Ping, the Solheim family. Ping also offers free tours of its north Phoenix factory and free walk-in fittings with their factory-trained professional club fitters.

Pressure has a way of bringing out the best in people. Take Scottsdale Community College engineering students Trung Dinh and Dmitri Mihailov, for instance, whose abilities to work under the gun helped them reign supreme at this year's Avnet Tech Games. The pair had five hours to design, assemble, and program a wheeled robot out of parts harvested from a Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0 set and race it through a complex obstacle course faster than their opponents. Dinh and Mihailov succeeded, beating out a half-dozen teams from other post-secondary schools and winning $2,000 for school. Teaching college students from tech-minded fields how to thrive under pressure and utilize their skills in real-life situations are the goals of the games, which are thrown annually at the University of Advancing Technology and award scholarship money as prizes. Seven different challenges are staged, including such trying tasks as constructing and tweaking a PC to have the fastest processing speed possible, building a solar-powered water pump from scratch, and assembling a data network using patch cables. (Virtual competitions involving crafting cell phone apps and other digital-oriented contests are held online and are open to students across the country.) Recruiters from Microsoft, Cisco, and other tech firms also attend, which adds to the intense atmosphere, because no one wants to pull an epic fail in front of a future employer. Luckily, no one's ever shorted out any electronics with flop sweat.

Taking a girl out to a fancy dinner doesn't mean you're going to make it to home base, and buying a lottery ticket doesn't mean you're guaranteed to win millions, but if there is one thing out there that's a sure win — even if your prize is just a couple of tasty fish — is fishing on a fish farm.

It's not real fishing by any stretch of the imagination, but if you're the impatient type who loves freshly caught rainbow fish, then a stop at this Oak Creek Canyon fish farm can't be missed. Buy your bait, grab a bamboo pole, find your spot and wait for the fish to start biting. It is like shooting fish in a barrel (minus the gun and all the messiness). Once you have your catch for the day, a member of the trout farm staff will clean your Ncorhynchus mykiss and put it on ice to take home, or you can buy a grill kit and cook your catch right at the farm.

For several weeks in both the spring and fall, make a detour off the trails at the Desert Botanical Garden and find yourself surrounded by butterflies. In fall, the assortment is rather limited, but still stunning, as you'll hang with black and orange monarchs. Spring brings more color. Either way, the humid, airy Marshall Butterfly Pavilion is paradise for both people and butterflies. When you leave, a garden volunteer will check you for hitchhikers.

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