Biosphere 2, Rainbow Forest, & Curious Nature — Arizona 💚 Plants

Hidden Gems Alternative Travel Guide — Part 3

5 min readMay 12, 2021

After the year we’ve all had, choosing a vacation destination can feel like an impossible task. Should you visit a desert, a rainforest, marsh, savanna, or an ocean climate? There’s so much we haven’t seen! So many options, so little time?

Why not visit all of the above? At once?

North of Tuscon and just south of the middle of nowhere stands a self-contained mini-Earth. This 3-acre glass house is a tourable science experiment devoted entirely to ecosystems and plants.

Lots of plants.

Biosphere 2 is home to over 3,500 species in five different biomes, each carefully tended by a team of scientists and researchers bent on conservationism.

The coral reef exhibit (my favorite) is the second iteration of the ocean biome. Thanks to human damage and the onslaught of climate change wild reefs are dying off at a record pace. Biosphere 2’s team of scientists is studying coral in this protected environment with the hopes that there can be some restoration. Fingers crossed.

The desert biome is filled with scrub and grasses with clay and sandy soil. See-through viewing tubes allow visitors to watch root growth. Without pollinators, the plant dynamics are shifting — some plants are dying while other plants (saltbushes, I’m looking at you) have completely taken over. The evolution of the plant life here has given rise to some seriously impressive scientific studies.

An indoor rainforest in the middle of Arizona? Why, yes! Biosphere 2 is home to massive, towering trees, bananas, bamboo, vines, coffee, and even a cloud forest. A cloud forest! Indoors! In Arizona! I don’t know about you, but I’m impressed.

The history of Biosphere 2 (as opposed to Biopshere 1 [aka Planet Earth]) is pretty interesting, too. 30 years ago, eight scientists locked themselves inside the complex with the aim to be completely self-sufficient for two solid years. Not only did they conduct extensive studies and learn about the ways extreme biology that can exist in a greenhouse, they uncovered a serious psychology lesson, too.

Can you say cabin fever?

Over the two-year experiment, the eight scientists developed a hatred toward each other while they physically wasted away. Plants died, there was interesting sabotage, and much more. Their vitriol even made the plants sad: O2 levels dropped even as the flora flourished.

Most considered the experiment a failure, but did they give up? No! But they should’ve. A second team locked themselves inside… but they only made it five months. Yikes.

Then with the wild card of humanity out of the picture, Biosphere 2 languished for a decade. The University of Arizona saw the value of the greenhouse in 2007, took over, and currently uses the space as a controlled experimental location, an educational hub, and super cool tourism spot.

It’s a popular school field trip for Arizona’s K-12 population, but unless your kids are really into plants, this probably won’t beat Tucson’s Funtasticks Family Fun Park or the Reid Park Zoo.

Today’s Biosphere 2 is a bit pricey and not very interactive, but remember that the admission fees fund scientific programs. Important ones. Coral reefs and rainforests. Need those.

Is Biosphere 2 still too big for you?

Photo by Art and Soil Bangalore on Unsplash

Not to worry, Phoenix’s Curious Nature conveniently keeps its flora and fauna in tiny jars.

It’s a bit like Biosphere 2, but less alive. Admire an impressive skull collection, assortment of geodes, seashells, and mounted insects. See exotic plants, excellent taxidermy, and so-called “wet specimens” preserved in jars.

With the exception of air plants and other live botanicals, everything at Curious Nature is dead as a doorknob. It’s all ethically sourced, of course, so don’t feel bad if you want to bring home a salamander in a jar. I’d rather go with the air plant, but that’s just me.

That’s right, Curious Nature is a shopping destination for people who love nature, but aren’t so great at keeping it alive.

Prefer your outdoors to be… outdoors?

If you like plants but aren’t a green thumb, you can’t go wrong with the Rainbow Forest.

It’s somewhere in between Biosphere 2 and Curious Nature: a wild landscape left to its own devices, yet preserved in death.

Though the landscape looks generally barren now, the fallen trees belie the lush forest that once stood in the middle of this desert. After 225 million years, the massive logs have since petrified, littering the paleontological significant ground. It’s about as close as you could get to living in the Triassic.

If you’re lucky enough to get close to the logs, you may see why they call it the Rainbow Forest. As the wood turns to stone, the chemical composition changes from supporting life to becoming an actual stone. The red comes from the wood’s iron content, blue from chromium and cobalt, yellow from manganese, and black carbon — all chemicals that naturally occur in living plants.

Neat, huh?

The Rainbow Forest is just one part of Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, an outstanding park and museum with loads of fascinating history dating way way back.

If you have time, stop at the Agate House: a pueblo made from petrified wood. The house itself dates back to about the year 1050 and is composed of fossils. A n̶e̶w old take on the log cabin, perhaps?

So whether you prefer your plants contained, teeny-tiny, or ancient, Arizona has something that’s sure to spark your imagination.

This is the third stop on our tour of America’s best-kept travel secrets. Some will be big, some will be tiny, but all of them will be out of the way. Learn more about the project here.




I write a lot (shocking, I know) and it's usually about animals, travel, outdoorsy stuff, and of course, writing.