NAGT > Teaching Resources > Teaching in the Field > Field Trip Examples > Geology of National Parks: a survey of introductory geology taught as a 4-week field trip

Geology of National Parks: a survey of introductory geology taught as a 4-week field trip

Linda L. Davis
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Intended Audience: This trip is designed as a general studies course for those without any background in science. Yet, it welcomes science majors. Freshmen to Seniors, even alums can take the course. It would work very well as a summer institute for middle and high school teachers.


Big Bend Ranch State Park, TX
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM
Saguaro National Forest, AZ
Zion National Park, UT
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Yellowstone National Park, WY
Glacier National Park, MT
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

May 20th and 21st
Travel to Big Bend Ranch State Park, ~2100 miles travel/42 hours
May 22nd
Fully unpack and hike around the campsite. Drive back to Presidio for groceries and breakfast? Regional Geology of the Bofecillos Mountains and the Park—at Ranch right after lunch
May 23rd, 24th, 25th
One group will hike the Rancherias Trail Loop: 19 mile hike and v. rigorous; The other group will hike the Oso Loop, maybe visit Ojito Adentro, Barton Warnock Education Center, Fort Leaton State Historic Site, do a topographic orientation exercise.
May 26th
Travel to Carlsbad Caverns (Artesia: 41 miles away). Check into motel; laundry; dinner in town, after bats! That afternoon, we will drive over to Carlsbad Caverns to tour & watch the bats exit the cave.
May 27th
Check out of motel. Drive to Tucson and Mt. Lemmon—Saguaro National Forest, ~530 miles to Saguaro; Travel to Zion by way of Saguaro National Park
May 28th
Geologic Exercise on Metamorphic Core Complexes
May 29th
Saguaro to Kanab on way to Zion National Park
May 30th
Zion National Park - Angel's Landing. Study the ancient sand dunes in the Navajo Sandstone. Describe different sedimentary rocks and differentiate ancient depositional systems.
May 31st
Grand Canyon National Park - North Rim. Short hike and geologic time exercise- no rigorous hiking. Evening- ready packs for big hike. 1st night Lecture in the evening on the glory of the regional geology
June 1st
Big hike down the canyon. A 3 day event for 2008.
June 2nd
Hikes going across and up to the South Rim (less elevation difference than N. rim)
June 3rd
Van Shuttle and or pickup. Out of the Canyon, meet up with other group.
June 4th
Travel to Page, AZ for motel room and laundry and phone calls home.
June 5th
On to Yellowstone—via Tetons (introduce Basin and Range or Overthrust Belt)
June 6th
Yellowstone, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone—hike in north country, discuss mining and ore deposits associated with volcanism.
June 7th-8th
2 day project: Volcanism at Yellowstone: Hot spots and mantle; caldera mapping and aerial photo work, volcanic rock descriptions
June 9th
Travel to Bozeman, MT on way to Glacier National Park
June 10th
Drive to Glacier National Park - Examine glaciers, Hikes on their own.
June 11th
Do the shrinking glacier exercise, calculators needed!
June 12th
2nd geologic exercise—Precambrian Sed rocks, mainly non-metamorphosed!
June 13th-14th
Drive to Rocky Mountain National Park
June 15th
Study of Alpine Glaciers and the formation of the Rocky Mountains and the Laramide Orogeny
June 16th
June 17th-18th
Travel home

If the group has money, then one can stay in housing/hotels/cabins at each place. This takes some of the strain off and lessens the physical difficulty. It also allows more time for lectures, observations on the outcrop, group discussion, and grading! For high school students, I would say that more than one faculty member is needed: there are "disasters" and "crises" about 3 times a day. So, someone has to take care of the individuals in trouble, and someone has to teach and lead.


The main goal of this class is to illustrate first hand how exciting and beautiful science, and in particular, geology is. Too often all we can do is teach the introductory classes in a lab, and the students look at endless minerals and rocks - and the older we get, the more we forget how dull this is. But, taking people outdoors, to glorious natural labs, like our National Parks, shows them at an early stage that science/geology is not dull, that the basic principles in the field are very interesting. And, it engenders a very real respect for the outdoors, nature, and those who study the rocks. It is one small way to bring majors into a department from a wide variety of backgrounds.


The field trip IS the course: a 6-credit GNM (general studies in the field of Math and Science)course. The first year, 15 students came, and this year I have 22 signed up. There are physical difficulties: camping for 4 weeks, light to strenuous hiking (strenuous by choice), cramped traveling in vans. Accessibility is always a problem on hikes in the National Parks. What may be *necessary* is a chaperon for those with extra physical needs, because the instructor cannot devote much time to one student - all may be inexperienced and afraid, or too bold and need to be watched. Danger does abound out there. Sleeping on the ground for 4 weeks is fun, but gets old, and can be difficult.


The basic goals include: teaching introductory geology outside of a "stuffy" classroom; using observational abilities and teaching observational acuity more than memorization of data; to use dramatic exposures to illustrate and examine structures such as sand dunes, ripple marks, folding and faulting, volcanic terrain versus a volcano. Also, field trips are the perfect place for informal discussions that seem so forced in a classroom, so I do much more teaching through discussion and example in the field. I also send them to the outcrop to observe, sketch and explain before teaching fundamentals.


The course/field trip was designed so that the students would be awestruck by some of the most magnificent areas in the US. To combine travel, hiking and camping with introductory geology, I had to plan essentially one lecture per park, one geologic exercise per park and two to four hikes per park to choose from. So, much of the learning has to be on the fly, while hiking and driving, and at the campsite. A very good idea of what I wanted to get across in each park was set up, and then creativity to use what I had at each park or campsite was necessary. Formal work was reduced, and I developed a strong belief that the entire trip is a very valid educational experience, and as important as the transfer of geologic information in a formal or informal style. They need to be excited about learning and to see the value of geology.

Notes and Tips:

The thing that would make this the easiest would be to have a fund that you could use to make campsite reservations, especially, back-country reservations for the Grand Canyon, 6 months ahead of time. I have to wait until students are signed up with a deposit, and that is late in the Spring. So after submitting a detailed itinerary, it is very likely to change because I have to make reservations after the summer course is approved. The entrance fees to most parks can be waived if it is an educational trip - but this must also be done 4-6 weeks in advance - otherwise the cost of the trip goes way up.

Assessment and Evaluation:

The trip was wildly successful as attested to by the verbal comments from the students in the field and the online evaluations (IDEA online, which the students did right after we returned to campus). Additionally, by word of mouth, almost an entire sorority joined up to go this year (I had emphasized that this was a safe trip for those who had never camped, who were afraid to, and who wanted to learn in an encouraging environment)! By word of mouth, 23 students have signed up for this year's trip because they heard that it was such a fantastic experience.

For assessing the students, most assignments entail describing rocks on the outcrop or rocks in hand specimen, drawing/sketching rocks, and evaluations of geologic processes. Occasionally, there are additional quizzes or other assignments.

Materials and Handouts:

Course Syllabus (Microsoft Word 76kB Apr18 08)

I have each student write a 5-page paper before we leave on the trip. They pick the park, and I guide them to appropriate references. They pick any aspect of geology (sometimes ecology) to use to help the group learn more about that park. These are collated and bound and brought to the field. Each person presents their "research" in the appropriate place on the trip. When things go awry, such as injuries, heat exhaustion, etc., I use books such as "The Monkey Wrench Gang," or John Wesley Powell's works so that they can read on their own while not joining in with the "regular" assignments. We use any and all maps I can find.

References to Supplement Field Guide:

Davis, L. L., 2007, Introductory geology for non-majors disguised as a 4-week Geology of National Parks field trip course. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, Vol. 39. No. 6, p. 543