Forward Thinking

Spring 2014 Issue

Vacation Like a Geologist This Summer

Vacation season is just around the corner, and Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Jennifer Elick has some suggestions for your travel plans. In December, she appeared on the Travel channel as an expert on the underground coal mine fire in Centralia, Pa. It’s a must-see for geologists like Elick, but if an abandoned mining town doesn’t make your family’s destination wish list, perhaps a trip to see the geologic wonders of our national parks is in order. Here are some of Elick’s top picks:

Zion National Park, Springdale, Utah

Elick recommends the park “just for sheer beauty alone,” and suggests taking advantage of the hiking trails for particularly gorgeous views. “It’s a great example of how uplift and erosion can really sculpt a landscape,” she says.

Petrified Forest National Park, Holbrook, Ariz.

“One that’s really surprising to me and absolutely beautiful is the petrified forests,” says Elick. “You get to see an ecosystem that was preserved by volcanic eruptions.” The petrified wood in this park is from fallen trees that are about 200 million years old. Fun fact: Some of the logs are from ginkgo trees!

Death Valley National Park, Death Valley, Calif.

Elick calls the park “a great example of extensional tectonics, meaning that the landscape is breaking apart,” and says it has a number of features that “geologically, are really quite fascinating.” These include a lake that exists for only a few hours before evaporating, sand dunes, salt flats and volcanic craters.

Sunset Crater Volcano, Flagstaff, Ariz.

The Sunset Crater Volcano is actually a national monument, not a national park. Nonetheless, Elick highly recommends it. “Lava flows extending from this volcano had been colonized by all sorts of plants and visited by all sorts of animals. It was so neat to see- the lava frozen as rock, but also how organisms had started to colonize the fractures that had developed, all the little areas where the lava or rock had broken apart.”

Elick also has some general guidance for park visitors. “Always pay attention to the hazards,” she says. Tune in to the park’s radio station if there is one. Otherwise, be on the lookout for bulletin boards containing similar information.

Also, remember one of the most important rules of park vacations: Don’t take anything from the park. If you want a souvenir, buy one from the souvenir shop. “The parks are meant to be there for everyone, and you shouldn’t take anything from them except education,” she advises.

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