West Texas: Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, Big Bend

Neil Haywood, Kevin Hefferean
University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point
Geology/Geography 393: Field Trip - Southwestern USA

Intended Audience: Geology and Geography undergraduate students


Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Big Bend National Park

Use one or more stops from this trip as stand-alone field experiences in other courses.


Extended experiences of the geology, biology, climate and human interactions with the arid lands, mountains, and caverns in the Chihuahuan Desert. This is an opportunity to acquire and practice with a variety of field skills and instrumentation, including GPS orienteering, field mapping, ground truthing, and sampling documentation. This also is service learning; all data we collect is real and we share with the National Park Service and other land management agencies.


The trip lasts fourteen days, between early and mid-January, and includes ten days on-site. Except during highway transit, all nights are at campsites. Up to ten students each in either Geography or Geology can participate; all students must have at least one prior introductory course in some kind of environmental science.


Vary by trip and discipline. Prior classes have focused on collecting geologic or vegetative spectral reflectance data for use with satellite imagery, identifying correspondence between vegetation and terrain/hydrologic features, mapping dispersion of exotic species, evaluating landscape change through reconstructive photography, and evaluating hazard/impact vulnerabilities from human visitation.


The trip strategy is to experience the contrasting landscapes of high-elevation, low-elevation, and subterranean environments that now receive primarily recreational land use. Students sharpen field observation and navigation skills by conducting activities in environments unfamiliar to most Midwesterners. The trip design is also opportunistic; sufficient flexibility exists in the itinerary that if unusual events occur, we can divert to them. Past examples include observing powerful solar flares at Mc Donald Observatory, wildfire climatology, desert flooding, and dialogues with Park personnel about career prospects. Guadalupe Mountains serve well for physical conditioning and training; Alpine, TX is a useful reprovisioning/laundry point mid-trip; Big Bend is the intensive field investigation site.

Notes and Tips:

Guadalupe Mountains: 1) Course waiver for entry fee (not campground) available by applying at Pine Springs Visitor Center, 2) Fossil hunting outside the Park exists along Highway 180 right-of-way at 13R 0525535 3532652, 3) Sand dunes gate key available at Pine Springs Visitor Center-unlocks BOTH gates-drop off at Del City Ranger Station, 4) Pine Springs Campground ($8/site) at mouth of canyon tends to be quite windy at night, and tents MUST be on site platform; has restrooms and potable water but no showers; NO fires!, 5) Park uses Mountain Time, 6) McKittrick Canyon/Permian Reef Visitor Center road gate locked at 4:30 PM Mountain Time (citations if inside overnight without permit).

Carlsbad Caverns: 1) No fee waivers, 2) regular $6 visitor pass tour takes ~2 hr; extended $9 lower cavern tour another 3 hrs but daily quota filled first-come-first-serve, 3) cave climate always 11ÂșC and 98% relative humidity, 4) very good botanical trails north of parking lot, 5) pre-Columbian rock shelter exhibit along entry road at 13S 0553483 3560758.

Fort Davis, TX: 1) camping at Davis Mountains $10/site+$2/person; has showers and full facilities; firewood available with host, 2) Mc Donald Observatory ($9/person with student discount) has daytime solar viewing on weekends, night star party viewing (weather permitting) on Tuesday/Friday/Saturday, 3) good family Mexican restaurants in Fort Davis, 4) Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute ($5/person) 5 mi southeast of Fort Davis on Highway 118 has vegetation and mining exhibits.

Alpine, TX: 1) laundry, groceries, vehicle repairs available, 2) Big Bend Museum on Sul Ross State University campus (library building).

Big Bend: 1) Apply for research permits on-line (enable free entry, but obtain entry sticker at gates or visitor centers), 2) camp in fee ($12/site) campgrounds (Rio Grande Village, Basin, Cottonwood) if arriving after 5 PM (Park uses Central Time), 3) free Backcountry campsites (no facilities) must have first-come-first-serve permits from Panther Junction Headquarters; can book class groups for full week, 4) Park Research staff very helpful and well worth a courtesy visit (behind Panther Junction Visitor Center; call first), 5) NO fires!, 6) flatten tents when unoccupied, and NEVER keep food in them (javalinas, bears), 7) always travel in pairs minimum and carry 3 liters of water minimum for day hikes, 8) cell phones generally do not work, 9) gas is available only at Rio Grande Village, Panther Junction, and Terlingua (NONE at Castolon!).

Assessment and Evaluation:

Close continuous interaction between instructor and students on-site provides participation grade (30%), field notebook (guidelines on-line with additional instructions on-site) due after trip is another 30% of grade, post-trip presentation (virtual field trip, poster, etc.) is 30% of grade; remaining 10% is for pre-trip meeting attendance and in-transit performance. Many students have used data from these trips for subsequent senior project courses and public/professional presentations.

Materials and Handouts:

Most background materials are available at the course homepage. This site changes each year with the addition of new visit objectives and research locations. Each student also receives for their field book a UTM-gridded map of geology for Big Bend derived from Maxwell's 1966 original (a supplement in Maxwell 2001), and a second UTM-gridded shaded relief map showing all campsite and ranger facilities; I created all three maps using DeLorme XMap GIS Editor. I make available the hardcopy references below for perusal during the 28-hour highway transit to the Parks.


Arnberger, Leslie P. 1982. Flowers of the Southwest Mountains. Tucson, AZ: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association. 139 pp. ISBN = 0-911408-61-4

Barnes, Virgil E. (Director). 1995. Van Horn-El Paso Sheet, Geologic Atlas of Texas 1:250,000. Austin, TX: University of Texas, Bureau of Economic Geology

Bishop, A. C.; Woolley, A. R.; and W. R. Hamilton. 1999. Cambridge Guide to Minerals, Rocks, and Fossils. New York: Cambridge University Press. 336 pp. ISBN = 0-521-77881-6

Bowers, Janis Emily. 1993. Shrubs and Trees of the Southwest Deserts. Tucson, AZ: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association. 140 pp. ISBN = 1-877856-34-7

Dodge, Natt N. 1985. Flowers of the Southwest Mountains. Tucson, AZ: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association. 136 pp. ISBN = 0-911408-65-7

Elmore, Francis H. 1976. Shrubs and Trees of the Southwest Uplands. Tucson, AZ: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association. 214 pp. ISBN = 0-911408-41-X

Hoare, Robert. 1996. World Climate. http://www.worldclimate.com/ Jameson, John. 1996. The Story of Big Bend National Park. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. 196 pp. ISBN = 0-292-74042-5

MacLeod, William. 2002. Big Bend Vistas; A Geological Exploration of the Big Bend. Alpine, TX: Texas Geological Press. 255 pp. ISBN = 0-9727785-0-0

Maxwell, Ross A. 2001. The Big Bend of the Rio Grande. Austin, TX: University of Texas, Bureau of Economic Geology, Guidebook 7. 138 pp. ISBN = 0686293150

National Park Service. Big Bend National Park. http://www.nps.gov/bibe/index.htm

National Park Service. Exploring the Backcountry. http://www.nps.gov/bibe/backcountry/bkcontry.htm

National Park Service. Guadalupe Mountains National Park. http://www.nps.gov/gumo/index.htm

Newcome Jr., W. W. 1999. The Indians of Texas; From Prehistoric to Moderns Times. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. 404 pp. ISBN = 0-292-78425-2

Pearson, John R. (ed.). 1998. Hikers Guide to Trails of Big Bend National Park. Alpine, TX: Big Bend Natural History Association (Paragon Press). 30 pp. ISBN = 0912001003

Pearson, John R. (ed.). 1980. Road Guide to Backcountry Dirt Roads of Big Bend National Park. Alpine, TX: Big Bend Natural History Association (Paragon Press). 30 pp. ISBN = 0912001011

Ragsdale, Kenneth B. 1998. Big Bend; Land of the Unexpected. College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press. 281 pp. ISBN = 0-89096-811-X

Seaverns, Ken and Ken Hoagland. 1999. Road Guide to Paved and Improved Dirt Roads of Big Bend National Park. Alpine, TX: Big Bend Natural History Association (Paragon Press). 30 pp. ISBN = 0912001010

Wauer, Roland H. and Carl M. Fleming. 2002. Naturalist's Big Bend; An Introduction to the Trees and Shrubs, Wildflowers, Cacti, Mammals, Birds, Reptiles and Amphibians, Fish, and Insects. College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press. 185 pp. ISBN = 1-58544-156-2