Field Geology of the Desert Southwest

J Term Course: GEOL 275 Field Geology of the Desert Southwest

Course Overview

This course emphasizes mastering basic field techniques for collecting and presenting geologic data in a field notebook through use of a Brunton compass, a Jacob staff, and a GPS receiver. Students will complete several small mapping projects during the course. The field destinations for this course vary from year to year. However, the most common version of this course visits geologic features in the deserts, mountains, and gorges of West Texas and New Mexico. Both of these regions provide spectacular examples of a wide variety of geologic phenomena to observe and document. (LAB).

Basic Course Information

  • A 21 day field course (17 days of exciting field activities + 4 travel days) offered every 3-4 years during January Term.
  • Visits 3 geologically important national parks (Big Bend, Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks), as well as the Franklin and Christmas Mountains
  • Limited to 20 students.
  • Coordinated and co-taught by Dr. Eric Johnson, along with another GESC faculty member.

Highlighted Activities

  • Examine an area of the country affected by uplift from major mountain-building events from the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras of time.
  • Hike through spectacular canyons and mountain trails.
  • Examine a world-famous fossil reef.
  • Learn to how to make accurate field observations and map exceptionally well-exposed geological features.
  • Search for fossils of dinosaurs, petrified wood and ancient sea-life.
  • Climb ancient volcanoes on horseback.
  • Explore one of America’s largest and most beautiful caves.

Course Trip Fee

A reasonable student fee covers: 1) van transportation once in El Paso, TX, 2) all trip lodging, 3) 3 meals daily once in El Paso, 4) all program-related activity fees, and 5) a share of the lodging, meals and transport costs for the faculty (standard for all off-campus J-Terms). Students are responsible for independent travel arrangements and costs to/from El Paso.

Physical Requirements

All students must be physically capable to participate in lengthy day hikes – often over steep, uneven, and rocky surfaces. All participants should expect long days in outdoor settings (in a variety of weather conditions) and live together in cabin-style lodging.

Academic Requirements

  1. All students must enroll and successfully complete the 1-credit pre-trip orientation course (GEOL 274) to be offered during the preceding Fall semester.
  2. J Term course grades are based on: A) participation and behavior during the trip (5%), B) field notebooks maintained consistently by each student throughout the trip (30%), C) an individual oral presentation researched and organized during the pre-trip course (15%), D) a short oral exam on field techniques (10%), and E) group-generated geologic maps of designated field areas (40%).

Sample Trip Itinerary of Activities

Actual activities subject to change due to booking availability, changes or delays in travel, time available, weather conditions, and volcanic conditions. Actual travel dates, flight numbers, departure times, and lodging providers included in later course itinerary, when bookings are complete.

El Paso, Texas and Vicinity

  • Day 1: Independent Air travel; Meet course leaders in El Paso, Texas. Lodging in El Paso, Texas
  • Day 2: Day trip to Franklin Mountains (Field identification of metamorphic and intrusive igneous rocks / Precambrian and Early Paleozoic history of western Texas).

Terlingua, Texas and Big Bend National Park

  • Day 3: Van transport from El Paso to Terlingua, TX. Lodging at the Terlingua Ranch Lodge. Geologic and topographic map reading review; Student Presentations.
  • Day 4: Chisos Basin and the high country – hike to the Window and Basin Loop Trail (Geographic, geologic and ecologic overview of the park); Student presentations.
  • Day 5: Chihuahuan Desert along Ross Maxwell Drive: Sam Nail Ranch and Burro Mesa Pour Off (mapping the Burro Mesa Fault), Sotol Vista (interpreting landscape features), and a hike to the Mule Ears (Field identification of volcanic rock types / volcanic stratigraphy). Student presentations.
  • Day 6: Chihuahuan Desert along Ross Maxwell Drive: Tuff Canyon (Identification and mapping of volcanic features), Castolon Village, Santa Elena Canyon (Field identification of carbonate rocks/Cretaceous marine stratigraphy/Tectonics of the Mesa de Anguila uplift). Student presentations.
  • Day 7: Chihuahuan Desert: Persimmon Gap and Dog Canyon (Outcrop-scale mapping /distinguishing deformational features from the Ouachita and Laramide orogenic events). Discussion of Chihuahuan Desert biota. Student presentations.
  • Day 8: The Grapevine Hills and the Paint Gap Hills (Identification of igneous intrusive rocks, their weathering, and erosional features / Mapping the remnants of a laccolith).
  • Day 9: DAY OFF
  • Day 10: Ernst Valley in the Caballo Muerto Mountains (Cretaceous stratigraphy / identification and mapping of faults); Trip to the Rio Grande Village and Hot Springs (volcanic-derived geothermal heat).
  • Day 11: Tour of Christmas Mountain geology on horseback / examination of dinosaur fossils in the Christmas Mountains.
  • Day 12: Lost Mine Trail, Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park (mapping of volcanic units); Introduction to Christmas Mountains field mapping area.
  • Day 13: Major field mapping project (Dark Canyon in Christmas Mountains).
  • Day 14: Major field mapping project (Dark Canyon in Christmas Mountains).
  • Day 15: Major field mapping project (Dark Canyon in Christmas Mountains).
  • Day 16: Finalizing at Terlingua Ranch.

Carlsbad, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas

  • Day 17: Van transport from Terlingua, Texas to Carlsbad, New Mexico. Lodging in Carlsbad.
  • Day 18: Guadalupe Mountains National Park – Hike up the Permain Reef Trail at McKittrick Canyon (Systematic examination of carbonate platform to basin sedimentology and paleontology/ Delaware Basin development)
  • Day 19: Examination of limestone at the entrance to Walnut Canyon (Permian carbonate platform strata); Tour of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park (Karst formation).
  • Day 20: Van travel from Carlsbad to El Paso with stops at Delaware Basin road cuts and Guadalupe Pass of Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Examination of deep basin strata). Lodging at El Paso, Texas.
  • Day 21: Independent air travel from El Paso to “Home.”
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