Being Tourists in Tucson: Sonoran Desert Museum and Biosphere 2
March 7, 2016
We just wrapped up a whirlwind four night stay in Tucson and at the pace we're going, thought we better update the blog before everything was a total blur.
We really like Tucson and after almost a month in and around the city, it doesn't seem like we have even scratched the surface when it comes to exploring--which is good as we'll have some more time here later this month. There really is a lot to do in this city!!
For the next two weeks, we are traveling with our friends, Lee and Tracy, and we left Quartzsite with no campground reservations (gasp!) for our first time ever (except travel days). But....we did have a plan, well, several of them. Plan A, B, C and D--all various options of places to stay including a county, state and private campground and if all else failed, some BLM land. Plan A was a county park--Gilbert Ray--which doesn't take reservations and it has a limited number of sites that fit larger rigs. So, up at the crack of dawn, we left Quartzsite, arriving at Gilbert Ray around noon and were able to secure a spot for both of our rigs. Whew!! I know there are people out there that make no reservations, but honestly I’m not sure how they do it!!
The campground is on the edge of Saguaro National Park and part of Tucson Mountain Park (Pima county) and is really nice. It has a very natural habitat so basically the sites are carved out of natural desert terrain, which meant there was a lot of nature--cactus, etc--in between each of the spots. The roads are nicely paved, with most of the roads having nice curbs, which ended up being our nemesis as we parked the rig and then later when we dumped, but all in all, great campground.
Our spot before we parked
Our spot, with our rig stuffed in it!!
Nicely manicured park, with gorgeous views.
However the curbs....the d*#m curbs!!
On our arrival day, we did a little shopping and got settled in, and then started planning our field trips for the rest of our time in Tucson. Lee and Tracy had a commitment for Thursday, so that gave us a day to do some work and also some time to squeeze in my pre-op surgery appointment. That left really only two days for exploring, and our list was long. Really long. That meant edits and compromises which ultimately landed us with a fast-paced, but what we thought, a doable list of things to conquer.
We were wrong.
Day 1 plan: Sonoran Desert Museum, lunch at Saguaro National Park, then the Miniature Museum. Day 1 actual: Sonoran Desert Museum and a quick ride through the Park at sunset.
We had heard good things about the Sonoran Desert Museum, but at the same time, didn't have high expectations. Maybe it was the name--Sonoran Desert Museum. Desert Museum. A museum full of cacti? Hmmmm? I mean, seriously, how exciting could a desert museum be!?! Boy were we wrong and at the same time, pleasantly surprised. This place was awesome. It really is a cross between a botanical garden, zoo, art gallery, aquarium, nature hike and a museum, all wrapped into one.
The majority of the museum (85%) is outdoor and included two miles of walking paths through various desert habitats and interspersed throughout were various native animals. And the nice thing, the animals, while they were contained, it didn't feel like they were caged.
There were also 1,200 types of plants and we were right on the fringe of many of the cactus blooming. Another couple of weeks and this place will be even more spectacular! There also were two bird aviaries, one for random birds and one for just hummingbirds. Again, way cool!
And, while I've tried to capture the overall fantastic'ness of this place in pictures, not sure I did it justice....but at least you will get a small taste of what the museum has to offer…..obviously more than just cacti! And lesson learned, don't judge a book by its cover..... or don't judge an activity by its name!!
I tried grouping the pics into three groups--birds, terrain/landscape/plant and then animals.
First up...the birds!! Cactus wren....
A hummingbird nesting....
And a hummingbird gathering material for a nest....
And this was an unusual bird we ran into....a rather large, handsome one!!
Back to the hummingbirds....
A rather large roadrunner....
And another cactus wren....
And one last hummingbird in action....
Now onto the cacti and other flowers, etc.
And now..... some of the animals
And then we were done.....
Needless to say, we scratched our afternoon adventure and spent most of the day roaming around, taking pictures and just enjoying everything the museum had to offer. We did make the decision to sqeeze in a quick drive through Saguaro National Park around sunset.
Saguaro National Park
Our last day of field trips was again, packed. The Plan: Biosphere 2, then possibly the scenic drive around Mount Lemon or Sabino Canyon....but again we had to make some modifications to our schedule. One reason, our friends Gene and Eileen were in Benson and they were going to drive up to our campground for dinner, but in all reality, we may have over planned our itinerary just a tad.
So, our modified schedule: Biosphere 2, dinner with friends, sleep and depart in the morning.
Biosphere 2. I vaguely remember some news stories and media about the Biosphere 2, but didn’t recall many of the details. Biosphere 2 is located in Oracle, AZ, pretty much in the middle of nowhere and is about 45 minutes from Tucson, It took them around 3 ½ years to build this compound and decades to design (plus around 150 million dollars). While I could try to explain it, Wikipedia does a much better job than I can:
Biosphere 2 was originally meant to explore the web of interactions within life systems in a structure with five areas based on biomes, and an agricultural area and human living and working space to study the interactions between humans, farming, and technology with the rest of nature. It also explored the use of closed biospheres in space colonization, and allowed the study and manipulation of a biosphere without harming Earth's. Its five biome areas were a 1,900 square meter rainforest, an 850 square meter ocean with a coral reef, a 450 square meter mangrove wetlands, a 1,300 square meter savannah grassland, a 1,400 square meter fog desert, a 2,500 square meter agricultural system, a human habitat, and a below-ground infrastructure. Heating and cooling water circulated through independent piping systems and passive solar input through the glass space frame panels covering most of the facility, and electrical power was supplied into Biosphere 2 from an onsite natural gas energy center.
The grounds of Biosphere 2
For the first experiment, eight biospherions (four men and four women) were locked into this compound for two years--in the name of science—to run a closed-system experiment. The purpose of this experiement was to provide baseline data for designing structures for long-term habitation by humans in space, but for me, the people aspect of locking four men and four women in a confined space for two years seems like the real experiment.
The first group survived for two years in the sphere, but there were a few issues in that timeframe including some oxygen depletion and some failed crops which led them to breaking into the emergency food reserve and piping in some oxygen….but ultimately they all emerged alive and in one piece, which, in and of itself, should have deemed this a successful experiment!
Biosphere 2: Inside.
The Ocean...with wave machine
The Lung...which basically kept everything balanced.
Between the membrane and the round weight in the middle--20 tons.
Some of the experiments
And the belly of the beast was just as facinating filled with tunnels and complex equipment
And the greenhouse
The kitchen, where they all took turns cooking
And the Biospherions living quarters
Another group of seven went in for a second round, but seems there were some real issues from the beginning with the management group and the biospherions which ultimately led to an early end for the second round sealed experiment. After that, Columbia University spent several years managing the Biosphere and experiments, and now, the University of Tucson has taken over. All-in-all, a pretty fascinating tour.
Back at basecamp, Eileen and Gene came for dinner and we had a great time catching up. They are in route to Quartzsite, so was nice that our paths crossed, even if just for a quick dinner
Gene and Eileen....forgot to get a group pic!
They also brought their cavachon, Max, who was looking all perfect, and then there was Hobie, who has managed to collect a inordinate amount of desert dust, and was looking pretty shabby in comparison. Suffice it to say, Hobie definitely needs a little grooming attention!!
A picture of the two would just be an embarrassment…..
And as we were leaving, two small world collide stories—First, Tracy and Lee were at the dump station at the campground and ran into a couple from Keene, NH, where they lived prior to fulltiming. The couple started their adventure about two months after Lee and Tracy and actually had read about Lee and Tracy's story in the Keene newspaper. Nothing like connecting over poo!!
Then, as we were driving out of the park, I got a facebook message from Liz (Life with Dyna), who we met in Austin, that said they were right behind us. So we pulled over for a quick exchange of hugs and hopefully we’ll be able to connect with them for a couple of days when we return to Tucson.
Jake and Liz
So….whew! A couple of busy, fun-filled days. Before we left Quartzsite, Tracy warned of us of Lee’s “vacation” mode, and she was right….intense, but awesome! Next stop—New Mexico. Stay tuned for more adventures.
Tucson $$ Saving Tip: So those of you who "know" me, know that I'm all about a bargain, and on one of our previous stays, we discovered the Tucson Passport book, which is $20 and gives you a lot of two-for-one deals all over the city. This stop, we took advantage of two of the activities in the book, which saved us about $40, so the book has more than paid for itself.