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Caves and canyons: Applying geology to the world around

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – What started out as a General Education requirement at Bethel College turned into one of the best experiences of my life.

As a freshman, I decided to take Geology for my January interterm class. I thought it would be the best way to get a physical science credit since my relationship with chemistry has never been very good.

After two weeks of four-hour-a-day class, we loaded a 15-passenger van and set off for Texas. As we drove, we discussed the geology around us. We described the different levels of rock in road cuts, what time period they were from and what caused them to form in the way they did.

Our first major stop was at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. These caves are the largest in the United States. Unlike most caves that resulted from running water and streams, Carlsbad Caverns were formed by sulfuric acid. There are at least 300 known caves in the system.

It took us three hours to walk through. Looming stalagmites and dangling stalactites surrounded us. Three-hundred-foot-tall ceilings towered above, with splashes of light dancing on unique limestone forms. The Big Room is 8.2 acres wide with features such as the Land of Giants, the Bottomless Pit, Mirror Lake and Doll’s Theater. The vast expanse of it all was incredible.

The next day, our drive took us to Big Bend National Park in Texas. We drove up into the Chisos Mountains and down into the basin where we stayed at a lodge. For the next three days, we hiked and observed geology all around us. The Chisos Mountain range was formed by volcanic activity so rocks like ryolite, andesite and limestone were apparent.

The first day there, we hiked up Lost Mine Trail, 4.8 miles round trip. We learned about the plants in the area and at the top saw a great view of the valley and Casa Grande, a peak in the middle of the Chisos range.

Our second day there led to three hikes: to Grapevine Hills, to Boquillas Canyon and to Hot Springs. The Grapevine Hills were created by much chemical and mechanical weathering. Huge pieces of rock had broken off from the mountain sides and had tumbled down into the valley below. Wind and water had rounded the edges of the rocks creating grape-like forms. This trail ended at Balanced Rock, an extremely large boulder balanced on two tall skinny rocks.

Boquillas Canyon runs along the Rio Grande separating Mexico from the United States. Our last hike that day was to the Hot Springs. These naturally warm pools of water can reach temperatures of 106 degrees Fahrenheit. We spent that afternoon relaxing in the springs while watching the Rio Grande roll by.

We all decided to go on the 14.2-mile hike around the Chisos Mountains on the third day. It was rainy and windy as we climbed our first three miles. We entered a gorgeous meadow and then climbed higher to the South Rim, which overlooks a desert floor that was once under the ocean. The cliffs drop nearly 5,000 feet at a steep angle which makes for a spectacular yet nerve-wracking view.

We continued on the Southeastern Rim and down to Boot Springs. Soon there was the option of hiking two extra miles up the highest peak, Emory Peak, standing at 7,825 feet. As we rose in elevation, the temperature dropped. Soon it was snowing and a strong blast of cold wind was everywhere. While my legs were unbelievably tired, I still climbed upward.

At the top, low clouds obscured our vision of the mountains below. On the way down, being the invincible college students that we were, we decided to try and travel 4.2 miles in only an hour. I came to realize that when you run down a mountain, you don’t run out of breath since the altitude is lower, creating more oxygen. However, sad to say, we made it down in an hour and six minutes. That night I went to bed early and slept very well.

Our last day at the park took us to Tuff Canyon, made of volcanic ash; Mule Ears Peak, two tall volcanic dikes; and Santa Elena Canyon, a slot canyon with a pretty view of the Rio Grande.

We then drove to San Antonio for an afternoon of shopping, eating and relaxing on the River Walk. Our second to last day of the trip, we hiked up Enchanted Rock, a large piece of solid granite with feldspar crystals and various fractures and dikes. We ate lunch on the banks of the Blanco River and hunted for fossils of shells, tube worms and mussels, before driving back to Bethel the next day.

Overall, I discovered many new things about geology and how Earth is formed. Applying what I learned in class to the real world outside was an amazing experience. Along with getting to know everyone in the class really well, I found the beauty in rocks and in nature. It was a wonderful trip that I will remember forever.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

Audra Miller is a freshman from Hesston. Other members of the class Geology, taught by Richard Zerger, professor of chemistry, were: Anthony Gonzalez, Newton; Laith Hasan, Halstead; Julia Miller, Hesston; Will Nagengast, Lawrence; Donna Schulz, Newton; and Kristin Unruh, Goessel.

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