Spring Break 2012: The Desert Southwest Posted on April 11th, 2012 by

Professor Laura Triplett and 16 Gustavus students just returned from a week exploring geologic wonderlands in Utah and New Mexico.  Every year, one of our Geology profs takes the students in GEO 212:Evolution of the Earth on a spring break fieldtrip, and all other geology majors are welcome to come along.  We camp, hike, drive, and generally geek out about the natural world around us.

Our first day was a long haul across the midcontinent to Denver.  The students indulged Laura as she made a few drive-by visits to her field sites on the Platte River in Nebraska.  On Day 2, we drove up into the Rockies, only stopping briefly – too briefly! – to admire the chilly peaks.  We did a short but breath-taking hike up to an outcrop of the Lava Creek B tephra, an ash that was erupted from the Yellowstone Caldera 640,000 years ago.  Later that afternoon, we arrived in Utah and turned south into the desert, where we followed the Colorado River as it winds through a spectacular canyon just south of Arches National Park.

The next day, Dr. Joel Pederson (’90, Geology) and Dr. Carol Dehler, both geology profs at Utah State University, gave us an orientation to the rocks of the region.  The intermittent snow flurries didn’t deter us from climbing up onto a beautiful old terrace of the Colorado River, now perched high above the modern channel.  Joel told us about his work dating these terraces to measure rates of downcutting by the Colorado, in this region he describes as a “bulls-eye” of erosion.  Later, we shivered through a parking lot picnic lunch before looking at the classic faulting exposure at the entrance to Arches.  We hiked to Delicate Arch, and managed to not get blown off the cliffs by the wind.  We finished the day by driving down into the Needles District of Canyonlands, where a group of Gustie backpackers led by Andy Hagen had been keeping our campsite warm for us.

We spent two full days in Canyonlands, hiking up and down the beautiful slickrock landscape.  We talked a lot about erosional processes, and also measured sand dune directions in the Permian-age sandstone to determine the wind direction in that long-ago time.  Edward Abbey is right: the desert southwest has a tremendous silence and majesty about it.  But tick tock, we had to move on.

After four days in the desert without showers we were feeling so rough, so we stopped in Monticello UT for quick (and expensive!) showers.  Then, we drove to New Mexico.  We were all shocked when we first drove across the dramatic Rio Grande chasm.  Now that’s a rift!  We camped in the rift valley, enjoying fine hobo dining and thankfully avoiding all hungry migrating bears.

Friday, we met up with Carol and Vic Hogsett at their home near Los Alamos, NM.  Carol, pka Carol Mooney, taught at Gustavus in 1992-1993 as part of a program that brought earth science teachers to campus for a year of education and outreach.  Carol led us on a fantastic daytrip through the Valle Caldera in the Jemez Mountains.  We collected pumice, weird obsidian, and ~300-million year old fossils from the Madera Limestone.  That night, Carol and Vic hosted us with REAL New Mexican chili (aka “Frito pie”) brownies and lemon bars, and lots of fascinating conversation.  After a peaceful night camped out in their yard and on their sofas, they led us to the Harding Pegmatite Mine.  Basically, I can’t even find words to describe that place.  Let me just say that we all came home with bags full of rocks, and the caretaker, Mr. Gilbert Griego, was the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic “non-geologist” geologist I’ve ever met.

Finally, we turned for home.  Jon and Julie Oien, parents of Rachel Oien (’13, Geology and Environmental Studies), had invited us for Easter dinner, and we descended on their beautiful home and delicious home-cooked food like a swarm of locusts.  At least, friendly and grateful locusts.  Spring-breakers, now let’s hear from you!  Comments below:



  1. Lance Erickson says:

    This trip was a great experience! The information that we learned from Joel Peterson, Carol Dehler, and Carol and Vic Hogsett really added to the subjects that Laura introduced us to. My favorite part of the trip was just the overall scenery of Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. A return trip is definitely in my future!

  2. Rachel Oien says:

    The trip was amazing! My favorite day of the trip was the hike through Lost Canyon. We were able to see where two watersheds were coming together although it looked like a glacial horn! It was a wonderful opportunity and I learned a lot!

  3. Andrew Choquette says:

    This trip was so much fun! To be able to learn about geology while hiking through Canyonlands and Arches was fantastic. I really liked how we were able to see so many rock layers wherever we went. That is something that we normally don’t get a chance to see in Minnesota.

  4. Carol Hogsett says:

    What a great trip you all had and to my favorite places in the world! Canyon Lands, Colorado, and of course New Mexico. It was such a pleasure to be able to host geologists in our home and to show you the geology that is virtually in our back yard! We hope that when you come back through New Mexico in the future, you look us up and we will show you more exciting geology, indian ruins, and paleo-astronomical sights. I am glad that the authentic red chili on the frito pie was a hit! Love those frito pies! And I love the GAC Geology Shirt that was sent to me. Very cool. carolhogsett@msn.com