Open areas

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So, I've taken it upon myself to allow my group to wander pretty much wherever they want. I've enough events planned to deviate from boredom, so the issue doesn't lie within my inability to keep them active. my issue lies within movement in an open area, for example...a desert. I have a desert area in my campaign and I've several Abeil hives to keep them occupied, but I don't want to immediately send them to the hives, or even railroad them into checking them out. However, since a desert is so open...how would I utilize movement? I've a path on the far left side of the desert that also leaves to a dragon cave guarded by some Janni, but again..I don't want to railroad them into that. So, what do I do?
I normally use NPC advice in those types of scenarios. The party might meet a caravan of desert-faring merchants headed the other way, and ask them questions about the terrain ahead - particularly where to find water.

Once the PCs know where to find water (several specific routes only), they must choose one of those routes if they want to traverse the desert. If they choose not to and go their own way, it becomes a skill challenge to survive the beating sun, make their supplies strech, and so forth.
In the desert your PCs are exploring this session, you have two points of interest: an area with abeil hives and a dragon's lair. Otherwise it's nothing but sand (for all intents and purposes).

Do you think your players would be upset if you just put them in either the hives or the lair in the middle of compelling action? Or would you imagine they'd much prefer the sand? 

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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"You see some interesting features off in the distance in these areas."

Honestly, if your players haven't been strictly punished for exploring, they'll be like "oh cool!"