Geology of Death Valley Earth Science 35DV

Instructor: Jeff Tolhurst, Ph.D.
Sugar Pine 119 and Fir 6
Office Hours:
TuTh 8:20-9:40am in Sugar Pine 119; W 8:20-9:40 in SUG 119 and M 5:00-6:00 pm in Fir 1 or 6 or by appointment
(209) 588-5235 office (+ msg); (209) 588-5104 (fax)
Course Credit:
2 semester hours
Day and Time:
Tu 6:00-7:30 pm
SUG 119 and Field
Geology by Frank H. T. Rhodes, published by St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY, 10010,

Group Photo 2011 Sunset in Death Valley 2006

Field Trip Forms
Spring 2004 Field Trip Group Photo
Spring 2006 Field Trip Group Photo

Objectives: Given information on the geological history as well as the main geologic processes that have occurred, and continue to occur, in Death Valley, you will be able to describe how Death Valley has been shaped it into what it is today.

Procedures: We will meet two times: 1) in class (Tuesday, January 26th from 6-7:30 pm in SUG 115); and for the trip (Thursday through Sunday, February 4th-7th). The pre-trip meeting will cover information on what to bring, what to expect, and what to turn in for credit. We will also cover some information on the geological background of Death Valley to prepare us for the trip. A trip itinerary will be given.  THIS IS A MANDATORY MEETING - IF YOU ARE UNABLE TO ATTEND YOU MAY NOT BE ALLOWED TO GO ON THE TRIP.

Note: Campground fees will be approximately $10 for the three nights and will be collected before we leave Thursday morning.  I will also check to see that you are adequately prepared for the trip.  If you are not prepared, you may be have to be dropped from the course.

Campground Map
Campground Information Link

Park Regulations

  • Reservations MUST be made at least 4 days in advance.
  • Pets must be leashed. Campers are required to clean after pets.
  • Picking up of firewood is not permitted.
  • No firearms or fireworks allowed.
  • Entrance fee of $20 per vehicle per 7 days
  • Camping is limited to 14 days per calendar year.
  • Furnace Creek only takes reservations for the dates of Oct 15, 2009 - Apr 15, 2010. From Apr 16, 2010 - Oct 14, 2010 this campground is on First come, first serve


    Tent camping only. No camping units are permitted Reservations are taken from October 15 through April 15,: sites may be available on a first come-first served basis outside the reservation season. Coyotes and Ravens frequent the area. All food and litter must be put away There is a limit of 1 to 4 tents per campsite. Campers must have Entrance Permit before camping. Available at any contact station

  • Itinerary:

    Day 1 in Death Valley
    Day 2 in Death Valley

    Thursday, Feb. 4th We will meet at the dorms on campus so that you may have a place to leave your vehicles for three days. Loading time will begin at 7:30 am and we will leave shortly thereafter, once all heads have been counted and gear loaded into the college vans. We should arrive in Furnace Creek Campground by dark. We will set up camp, then those interested may join me for an optional moonlight hike in the sand dunes by Stovepipe Wells.

    Friday, Feb. 5th: After breakfast, we will load into the vans by 8am. We will head to Ubehebe Crater, our first stop for the day. There we will examine some of the recent volcanic processes that have helped to shape Death Valley. We will spend approximately an hour and a half at the crater. Next we will head to the mouth of Titus Canyon to observe evidence of erosional processes. We will take a short hike up into the canyon, so bring some sturdy shoes. We will eat lunch either at Titus Canyon or at Stovepipe Wells, before heading up into Mosaic Canyon to observe the cut and fill saga evident there. After exploring Mosaic Canyon we may spend some time roaming the Mesquite Sand Dunes, where wind is at play in nature’s sandbox. Our final stop for the day will be to observe the Salt Springs pup fish habitat. We will end the day at Furnace Creek at the campground.

    Saturday, Feb. 6th: We will head south from Furnace Creek to Dante’s View, where we will have an overview of Death Valley National Park. We will then head to Zabriski Point to observe some of the geological features evident there. The following stop will take us to Gower Gulch to do to observe some human influenced changes in Death Valley. We will then stop at Ventifact Ridge to study how wind erosion shapes and influences the area. We will stop at the Devil’s Golf Course to see first hand examples of the high evaporation rates in the area. Finally we will make a stop at Badwater, the lowest spot in the U.S. Here we will see evidence of evaporation, another dominant process that is acting on Death Valley. If time permits, we will visit an exposure of a fault scarp along the east side of the valley. Here we will study active tectonic processes shaping the National Park today. We will return to the Furnace Creek Campground by dinner time. You may enjoy the restaurant, shower, pool, and other facilities there.

    Sunday, Feb. 7th: We will pack up and leave by 8:00 am Sunday morning. There will be two stops along the way back. We will tour the visitor center at Furnace Creek before we leave the area. There are quite a lot of interesting displays to look at as well as additional resources and information for your next trip to Death Valley. The second stop will be a brief one along the Garlock fault, outside of the park, on the way back toward Highway 395. We should arrive back in Sonora, on campus, by 8 or 9 pm.

    What to Bring

    -- clothing for both very hot and very cold weather
    -- food - three meals a day (click here to see the food suggestions)
    -- cooking/eating utensils
    -- a sleeping bag that will protect you to temperatures as low as 25-30 degrees
    -- air mattress/pad
    -- a tent
    -- flashlight or headlamp
    -- sturdy hiking/walking shoes
    -- sunscreen/chapstick
    -- sunglasses
    -- a hat
    -- toiletries
    -- money for things at Furnace Creek/Visitor Center
    -- a field journal (to be turned in for credit) with pens, colored pencils, erasers, etc.
    -- camera (8 photos minimum required)
    -- any medications you may need

    -- other

    What to Expect:

    Expect cold nights and warm days. The weather is usually nice there this time of year, but it can range from very hot to very windy at times, to very cold at night.  Click here to see the current weather conditions in Death Valley:    Historically the temperature has gotten down to freezing this time of year and at the same time it has also been in the hundreds! Death Valley only averages around 1.71 inches of rainfall per year, so the chances of us getting rained upon are small. It has happened before though! Also expect a chunk of time to be spent driving. Death Valley is a bit far and it’s a big Park once we get there. We should also have access to the swimming pool and showers at night, so you'll be able to get some of the geology off of you . . . You will be camping, so expect whatever goes along with that . . .  We haven't seen any snakes or scorpions on our trips yet, but they've probably seen us!!  Also, you should keep your food locked up during the day since we've had problems with varmints while we're gone geologizing...

    What to Turn in for Credit:

    In order to assess your learning, I'll ask you to keep a learning log for the trip. You will be expected to turn this in to me at the end of the trip. This log should document the things you would like to learn before the trip as well as why you are taking the class. You should also enter into your log the things you learned about: 1) Death Valley National Park’s Geological History; 2) volcanic processes; 3) evaporation; 4) erosion; and 5) tectonic processes (faulting and folding). You will be asked to make an entry at each stop on the trip as well as add an additional entry at the end of each day, reflecting on what happened during the day. A final summary of what you learned on the trip (4-5 pages) will be required for full credit. All work will be due (in my mailbox) on Monday, February 22nd, by 6:00 pm in my faculty mailbox in the Manzanita building. To summarize, the learning log should include:

    1. a description of your background with a PHOTOGRAPH of yourself

    2. a field log entry at each stop along the trip of observations and new material learned

    3. an entry in your field log at the end of each day reflecting on what your overall impressions of the day were

    4. a 4-5 page overall summary of the trip including what you learned about:
           1) the main tectonic processes observed on the trip;
           2) the different geologic hazards observed;
           3) an overview of the geology of the whole trip that we observed;
           4) 8 photographs documenting important geologic phenomena;
           5) 3 hand-drawn diagrams (or computer generated by your own hand)
               depicting important geologic processes or phenomena observed

      The summary will include a 4 page minimum, 5 page maximum, type-written report. The 8 photographs may not be included on the 4-5 type-written pages. They must be referred to in the text, but each must be placed on a separate page. Also include 3 separate diagrams in the report – these, too, must each be placed on separate pages.

    Grading Scheme:

    A = satisfactory completion of 1-4 above with strong demonstration of understanding of geological concepts encountered on the trip; appropriate use of photos and diagrams to support concepts in the paper; paper is well organized (i.e. includes an overview of what will be discussed, a main body explaining primary concepts, and a summary/conclusion). Also, appropriate conduct and behavior expected of a college-level geology student will be factored into your grade.   (Click here to read the Student Code of Conduct from the Columbia College Catalog)

    B = completion of summary without all photos and/or diagrams; less than 4-5 pages; not type-written; field log incomplete; lack of comprehension of geological concepts observed; poorly organized paper. Also, appropriate conduct and behavior expected of a college-level geology student will be factored into your grade.

    C = completion of field log; no summary turned in or summary, but no field log; poor comprehension of geological concepts observed; poorly organized paper. Also, appropriate conduct and behavior expected of a college-level geology student will be factored into your grade.

    D = attendance on field trip only; no field log turned in; no summary turned in. Also, appropriate conduct and behavior expected of a college-level geology student will be factored into your grade.

    F = no attendance or left trip early and did not turn any work in. Also, appropriate conduct and behavior expected of a college-level geology student will be factored into your grade.

    Note: I have had to add these statements based on past student behaviors: 

    1) All campgrounds we stay in ask for quiet after dark.  If you (individually or  in a group at the campground) have to be asked to be quiet after 9 pm your grade will be dropped.  If you have to be asked again your grade will turn to an "F" and you will fail the course;

    2) NO SMOKING during field lectures and activities.  If you cannot adhere to this requirement you should not sign up for - or drop - the course.  I'm serious about this - you can't smoke in class, so don't smoke on my field trips.

    That having been said, I hope we all have a good trip! Feel free to contact me at the phone number or email address above if you have any questions before or after we leave.


    Each student must turn in: 1) a field notebook; and 2) a 4-5 page summary report with photos and diagrams and earn a passing grade in order to obtain credit for the course. Also, future field trips depend on us - our behavior and conduct should allow future geology students to enjoy what we get to. So please consider the rights of others, within our group as well as from other groups, on this trip (i.e. in terms of cleanliness, noise levels, seating, etc.). No alcohol or drugs are permitted on the trip. Please be ready to go each morning with a sack lunch in hand no later than 8:00 am. Our objective is to learn as much about Death Valley's geology as we can in the time permitted.

    I hope we all have a good trip! Feel free to contact me at the number or email address above if you have any questions before or after we leave.


    1) A Trip Through Death Valley's Geologic Past (The Magnificent Rocks of Death Valley) by Kenneth E. Lengner
    2) Geology of Death Valley National Park: Landforms, Crustal Extension, Geologic History by Martin G. Miller and Lauren A. Wright
    3) Road Guide to Death Valley National Park by Barbara and Robert Decker
    4) Geology of the Great Basin by Bill Fiero
    5) Death Valley's Titus Canyon and Leadfield Ghost Town: History, Geology, Plants, Animals by Ken Lengner and Bennie Troxel

    Geology of Death Valley Web Links:

    Prehistoric Timeline

    Geology of Death Valley
    More Geology of Death Valley