A pit stop geological tour of the West Coast of America!

This summer, Sam, Ben, Brad (Ben’s brother) and I decided to go on a road trip around the West Coast of America after Sam and Ben had finished taking part in the Exploration Science Summer Intern Program at the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) in Houston, Texas. To find out what they got up to during their time at LPI see their blog posts entitled “Manchester, this is Houston. Do you copy?-Part 1” and Part 2. During our travels around Nevada, California, Arizona, and Utah we witnessed some beautiful scenery not to mention a lot of geology! Here I show some of our geological highlights during our travels.

State map

A map detailing our route (blue dashed line) and major stopping points (red stars) around some of American’s western states:  Nevada (NV), California (CA), Arizona (AZ), and Utah (UT).

Death Valley (CA):

Our trip started in Las Vegas (NV) where we rented a car and headed out to our first stop, Death Valley. Despite not having a very welcoming name or climate (124°F/51°C!!), Death Valley contains some spectacular sights such as Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point, Devils Golf Course, and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.



Sam and I struggling with being pale redheads in the 124°F/51°C heat!


Badwater Basin is the site of a salt flat that sits 86m below sea level and is the lowest point in North America. The main inflow to the basin is the Amargosa River however, the river bed is mostly dry as the river flows underground for most of it’s length. Zabriskie Point offers a great view of the landscape which makes up Death Valley. The rocks present at Zabriskie Point are composed of sediments from the Furnace Creek Lake and lava from a nearby, now extinct, volcanic field. Devils Golf Course is a large salt plain in the Mojave Desert within Death Valley. The salt formed when Lake Manly dried up, leaving behind minerals that had dissolved in the lake water to form the jagged landscape that is present today. The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are a beautiful sight of ~30m high relatively stable sand dunes.

Badwater and Zab

The salt flat in Badwater Basin (left). Zabriskie Point (right), light brown rocks represent the sedimentary deposits and the darker brown rock on top is lava.

Devils golf course and sand dunes.png

The salt deposits in the Devil’s Golf Course (left) and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (right).


Yosemite (CA):

The 2nd stop on our road trip was Yosemite National Park. However, due to a wildfire (the Ferguson fire) most of Yosemite was closed. Fortunately for us the main road through the National Park had re-opened by the time we got there meaning we could at least get to drive through the park! Granitic rocks dominate most of Yosemite’s landscape which were formed ~120-80 million years ago. The landscape in Yosemite today which forms the main tourist attractions (such as Half Dome and Glacier Point) has been modified by glaciations that started ~3 million years ago. Despite not getting to see some of the well-known sights in Yosemite, we were lucky enough to see a baby bear which more than made up for the lack of geology!


The smoke from the Ferguson fire obscuring most of Yosemite (top). Sam, Ben, and I posing for a typical geologist photo (bottom left). The baby bear we spotted (bottom right).


Meteor Crater (AZ):

Since Sam, Ben, and I are all planetary scientists, one of the major highlights of our trip was getting to see Meteor Crater. It’s diameter of almost 1 mile and depth of more than 550 feet makes it a spectacular sight! The crater was formed ~50,000 years ago by a nickel-iron meteorite. The largest discovered fragment of the meteorite that formed Meteor Crater is the Holsinger meteorite which we were able to view and touch in the Meteor Crater visitor centre! Also, during the Apollo era, the crater was used as a training ground for future astronauts!

Meteor crater.png

Meteor Crater (top). The Holsinger meteorite (bottom left). Meteor Crater selfie (bottom right).

Monument Valley (UT):

The next stop on our road trip was the impressive landscape on the border of AZ-UT where Monument Valley is located. Monument Valley’s distinct rock formations were formed by wind and water erosion of sandstone, creating the buttes present today. Whilst here, we also visited the famous Forest Gump point!

monument valley.png

Monument Valley’s characteristic butte structures (top). Sam posing at Forest Gump point (bottom).


Grand Canyon (AZ):

And the grand finale of our road trip was… the Grand Canyon! The canyon is ~277 miles long, ~10 miles wide and a mile deep. The Colorado River has exposed ~2 billion years of geological history (hence why geologists get so excited about it!)! The bottom of the canyon contains the oldest rocks (2 billion year old Vishnu schists) and the top contains the youngest rocks (~230 million year old Kaibab limestones). In between there are a sequence of sedimentary rocks, which create the distinct layering seen in the canyon.

grand canyon.png

The Grand Canyon with the Colorado River (top). Grand Canyon selfie (bottom).


Overall we all thoroughly enjoyed our 2 week road trip! There is still a lot more to be seen on the West Coast so we hope to fit even more geology road trips in at some other point in our PhD’s but for now it’s back to work!

Thanks for reading!

About aimeesmith1995

I am a 2nd year PhD student at The University of Manchester studying the formation of chondrules in the early Solar System. I experimentally reproduce chondrules in the lab using a furnace to determine the temperatures and cooling rates required to form the various types observed in chondritic meteorites.
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