Holly Mirales ’26 took part in Field Studies in the Desert Southwest with Hamilton Geosciences faculty during winter break. Read about the research trip below.

From Phoenix to Flagstaff, our caravan of three white vans trundled down interstates and bumpy dirt roads. Pulling off to the side, a stream of 34 people would rush out onto roadside outcrops, hand lenses strung around our necks and field notebooks in hand.

This was the Field Studies in the Desert Southwest course, a continuation of the Seminar on the Geology of the Southwest. Professors Catherine Beck, David Bailey, and Kris Kusnerick had spent the semester teaching us about the geology of Arizona. For two weeks over winter break, we travelled around the state seeing that geology in person.

Geosciences Professor Cat Beck instructs students in the field.
Geosciences Professor Cat Beck instructs students in the field.

Arizona is a state with a rich and varied geologic history. On our journey, we saw metamorphic core complexes in mountains like Mount Lemmon, expansive rift basins, cave systems at Kartchener Caverns, fossils in Petrified Forest National Park, and, of course, the Grand Canyon, one of the most awe-inspiring and informative geological formations in the world. Other sites included Saguaro National Park and Meteor Crater.

At each location, we would get up close to the rocks and make observations about them, trying to determine what they were and how they formed. The professors allowed us ample time to come up with our own ideas before sharing facts about the formations with us. Throughout the trip, we synthesized what we had seen thus far to develop sequences of events and deepen our understanding.

Another aspect of the trip was examining the connections between geology and humans. At places like Queen Mine, Wupatki National Monument, and Biosphere II, we saw this in interactions ranging from mining and research to settlement and farming.

On the trip, we not only looked at geology but interacted with it. At Peridot, we harvested pieces of the mantle from the piles of glistening green olivine that make up the mine. We hiked past the first two layers of the Grand Canyon, observing the Kaibab Limestone and Toroweap Formation. While visiting the Petrified Forest, we searched for fossils, finding clams and bone fragments in the mud and sand beneath the colorfully banded mesas of the Painted Desert.

Expect Opportunity

Ensuring all students have equal access to all that Hamilton offers is our most enduring value. That’s why we have funds that enable you to do things like conduct research with your faculty mentors, on- and off- campus.

Throughout the trip, our cohort got to know each other and our professors better. Besides our geological activities, we explored areas like Sedona and Flagstaff together. Our professors were open for discussions and sharing their knowledge and experience in not just course topics, but in other aspects of geology and life in general.

 To see the beautiful sights of Arizona, from the golden sunrise reflecting on the oranges and browns of the Grand Canyon to the mighty Saguaro cacti towering over the desert landscape, was an incredible opportunity. Experiencing the geology in person breathed life into it, vivifying all we had learned before.

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