Applying to graduate school with Courtney and Beaker


If personal narratives aren’t your cup of tea I totally understand if you want to skip this post and wait til I post something involving rocks (Road trip part 4 is coming soon, I promise!). I’m writing this post for those who stand where I stood in May 2013, struggling to define their academic goals and career path.

Tl:dr version: You aren’t alone if you don’t have any idea of what you want to do for grad school or careers straight out of undergrad. Take the scenic route, try out jobs, and ask a lot of questions!  And just like in any scientific endeavor if you fail, take a good hard look at your methods, gather a team, and try again.

If I hear someone say “You can do anything!” one more time, I will probably have an allergic reaction that causes me to sprint out the door and down the street while making small panicked noises like Beaker in the Muppets.beaker_meep__meep__meep__animated_badge_by_blue_staple_studios-d94gpzx

(possibly my spirit animal)

‘Tis the season for graduate school applications, so I thought I’d share how I ended up at Oregon State! It meant taking some relatively risky moves instead of the safer option of staying in one place, as if my true calling would one day show up on my doorstep if I was patient enough. This was nerve-wracking but rewarding and involved doing things like decamping to California for a seasonal job, or prying myself out of my introvert shell to cold-email dozens of people. Early in the process of thinking about graduate school, when I heard a well-meaning “you can do anything you want!” some part of my brain translated it it to “you should do everything, if you aren’t then you’re failing, and what if you miss an opportunity of a lifetime while you’re doing something else?”

Because of that fear of commitment, graduate school application was initially an intimidating process for me in my senior year of university. Grad schools require a different mindset than undergraduate programs to apply because the academic and personal fit between the applicant and advisor is so crucial. There’s no Princeton Review guidebook to give a tidy 1-100 ranking of schools. I didn’t even know how to formulate the questions to get help choosing a program then. I would have needed my advisor to dive inside my head and read my mind, which is still firmly in the realm of sci-fi. Talking to grad students at Vanderbilt, they made it seem so effortless to make up their minds about what subject they wanted to devote 2-6 years to. It flowed out of an undergraduate research project, or a natural interest, or something that “just made sense”.

It didn’t help that, by the fall of my senior year, the interdisciplinary major that I had designed to study climate change was revealing to me exactly how complicated that issue was and how it could weave itself through any narrative I looked at. Did I want to study paleoclimates, or atmospheric sciences, or environmental justice, or energy sustainability, or…..? Indecision froze me like a deer in the headlights.


Beaker trying to disappear

Several different possible paths occurred to me that spring of my senior year. I could go into private or public research, which would eventually require a higher degree and those mystifying applications to graduate school. I could look into becoming a park ranger, guide, or outdoor educator, based on both my academic and non-academic passions. I could go into the nebulous field of “consulting”, based on a conversation at an environmental careers dinner. So, I figured that it would be best to try them out.

To start off with I got a fantastic GeoCorps internship at Mammoth Caves National Parks, where I learned that being a park ranger involves unlimited outdoor time frolicking through natural science (and facilities maintenance), but also finding a new posting every six months and a best-case scenario of being promoted to a stable management job where I would be banished to an office.

Who needs free weights when I have a hammer drill and a 6-mile hike to the cave entrance?

With a bit of legwork I got a position as an intern at an environmental consulting firm where I learned the nuts and bolts of regulations and customer service, and how complicated it is to balance clients’ business interests and the environment.

C with tanks.jpg

After the terms of that internship came to a close I headed out to California to work for Naturalists at Large, where I learned that no matter how much I can geek out over geology, rock climbing, and birds, keeping classes of middle school students amused is not my forte, and neither is finding a new outdoor recreation gig every single season.

This process of elimination left grad school, probably earth science as a career, and my nature cravings as a side hobby.

While in California I had applied to Indiana University’s summer field school (and only that one field camp, because I still felt like relying on dumb luck), because I figured that if I were to go the grad school route I would need it. In a ringing endorsement for dumb luck I got in, and it changed my life. No, seriously. I was doing science! I didn’t have to worry about whether I was cut out to be an earth scientist, because I was doing the earth scientist things, and doing them well! Hiking around the Tobacco Root Mountains of Montana wasn’t half bad either.

Stream temperature experiment/pool party at the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park

In hindsight, field camp bumped me up to about 40% ready to apply to graduate school from 10%.

The next 20% was acquired over months of job applications, paper-reading, blog-writing, talking informally with professors and professionals, tutoring middle- and high- school students in earth science and English literature, volunteering with a USGS data analysis project, and getting hired full-time at the environmental consulting firm where I had interned. I went to visit professors at University of Pennsylvania, University of Delaware, and Johns Hopkins while living on my sister’s couch for a few weeks, which gave me practice talking with professors, a sense of how graduate programs were structured, and desensitized my anxious self to interviews. Volunteering as a data analyst with the USGS gave me an additional recommendation-letter-writer as well as experience with data analysis! Through all that, I narrowed down my impossibly wide interest to water issues stemming from climate change, leaning towards quantity instead of quality.

The last 40% was gained in four months of targeted cold-emailing of potential advisors, phone calls with those professors, obsessive research in my field, and a 2015 Geological Society of America conference where I walked up to random people and piped up “Hi, my name is Courtney, I’m currently working in environmental consulting, what do you do?” followed by a few minutes of listening, followed by “where should I go to graduate school to study how climate change and human use patterns affect water resources?”. You’d be surprise how well that works. It’s shockingly easy. If you had told me in my senior year of college that I would do that 15-20 times in a day I would have backed away quietly with a polite and petrified grin plastered across my face. Geologists being a friendly bunch, sometimes people told me “ask that guy over there, I’ve got no clue”, and most were happy to give me a lead or two.

I explored civil engineering, hydrology, geology, and geography masters programs. Because of my interdisciplinary interest, I ended up focusing on large state schools that had the breadth of faculty and funding to have created a dedicated working group for water resources. I had enjoyed creating my own major in college, but wanted the stability of an existing program to give my Masters degree more weight and to not have to explain it in detail to everyone I meet. Geography programs really stood out here – Vanderbilt didn’t have a department in this field, but I realized that it was pretty much perfect for me!

Based on all of these conversations at GSA and elsewhere, I figured out what angle I wanted to take on “water issues stemming from climate change, leaning towards quantity instead of quality” – geographical methods, instead of strictly hydrological or ecological.

Then I made a spreadsheet based on that info, and set about fleshing it out.

grad school spreadsheet screenshot.png

It has 34 rows, one for each potential advisor I contacted at twelve schools.

This might give the impression that I’m a naturally organized person who loves cold-calling, which isn’t the case. It’s challenging for me and sometimes prompts me to curl up in a blanket at 5:30 in the evening with soothing instrumental folk music. However, it’s the hurdle to get to science that I love and opportunities that I need, so I made myself the tools to get over it. I set a goal of four professors or current grad students contacted per week, and met it most weeks. I found out that no matter how many intelligent questions I think of before I call a professor, they will all fly out of my head once I’m on the phone unless they’re written on a sheet of paper in front of me, preferably in several eye-catching colors of pen. I have a wonderful sister who will reassure me that I’m a worthwhile person when I text her at midnight after hours of tying my thoughts in knots about an awkward conversation. Spreadsheets help me fish thoughts and information out of my brain, put them in words, and manipulate them in a useful way.

For example, University of Arizona took about 10 hours of research, 3 calls to current grad students, 3 calls to faculty, and a spreadsheet of its own to sort out the tangle of water research options and who teaches where.

u of a spreadsheet screenshot.png

Based on all that information, I narrowed my choices down to geography programs at five universities. That done, I had to make it easy enough for myself to keep track of the five applications that I would actually complete them and not forget anything. This meant another spreadsheet… and a whole lot of refreshing my email inbox.

apps spreadsheet screenshot.png

And after all this work, I got into exactly 0 schools in the spring of 2016. For reasons related to over-committed professors, funding cuts, and the fact the I applied to the most competitive programs in my field, I wasn’t judged to be a suitable enough fit to accept and fund. April was a pretty ghastly month for my mental state as I frantically tried to piece together another timeline for my life that didn’t involved driving off into the sunset towards a graduate program in August 2016.


Beaker’s file being tossed…

I allowed myself about two solid weeks of denial, self-pity, and comfort food, and then I reached out to some lovely friends who shut down the pity-party. We made a list of next steps:

  • Reach out to the schools to request a post-mortem of my application
  • Take the ASBOG exam to work towards professional development and freshen up my geology skills
  • Continue with my current job
  • Take a statistics course
  • Write appealingly nerdy things on my blog
  • Get a gym membership and start climbing again with my newfound free time
  • Restart the grad school search in August 2016, and try to focus it more on research
  • The silver lining: I now had an extra year to make myself that much of a better candidate.

In the fall of 2016 I reapplied to Oregon State and applied to San Diego State, University of Waterloo, and Southern Illinois University using the same tools and all that knowledge I had gleaned from potential professors/advisors in 2015. I had described a broader focus on my 2015 applications, but had focused my interested down to the geography of groundwater management during the 2016 applications. This 2016 specialization allowed me to better pinpoint potential advisors and make the case for how I could fit into their programs, and also probably made me look like a more committed candidate on my applications. I figured that if I had gotten into 0/5 schools in 2016, I might get into 1 out of 4 schools in 2017.

What did I do differently?

  • Reached out to professors earlier in the fall
  • Had a more defined research interest
  • Asked more specifically if they had research they could fund me for, or if not who in their department did
  • Posted on the Earth Science Women’s Network Facebook page asking for recommendations of schools with ambitious and possibly underrated groundwater faculty that weren’t on my radar
  • Stayed in closer contact with my letter-of-recommendation writers

In the spring of 2017 I won the grad school applicant lottery – I got into all! Four! Schools! All the important people in my life had to deal with text messages IN ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME HOLY MOLY.


Beaker playing “Ode to Joy”!

I hope that the takeaway of all this is that if you’re applying to graduate school, you need to talk to people. As many people as possible. This was my biggest obstacle when I first started applying – I didn’t want to bother anybody. Additionally, I was ashamed to ask for help even when I knew how to articulate my questions, as I thought it would make people think I wasn’t good enough to begin with. Eventually I learned that few people are bothered as long as I did research beforehand to avoid asking them to regurgitate the contents of the personal website for my benefit, which nobody has any inclination to do.

I found that academics, students, and professionals alike generally like talking about what they do and helping people out if they’ve got the time. An applicant can take respectful advantage of that to learn what’s out there. The worst anybody can say to you is “no”, and it’s almost never personal. It boils down to seeing if the professor is doing what you want to study and has funding, and then convincing them that they really do need your unique talents and brainpower.

And don’t worry if those talents change from conversation to conversation, especially if you have an insanely broad initial focus like I did. I settled on a messy process of deciding on a certain way of selling my skill set to a potential advisor so they would at least talk to me, using what I learned from that conversation to improve my focus, and then pitching that improved focus again or to another professor. Sometimes I talk about different research ideas with different potential advisers, just to see which one I enjoyed talking about the most. I had barely managed to pull together a coherent idea of a academic goal as I careened into the December 2015/January 2016 deadlines, and came up with the new and improved version 2.0 by December 2016.

If I have to pick a metaphor for finding my calling after college, it’s less like a package delivered to my doorstep and more like a Pony Express run to deliver a shapeshifting package to an address I can only find at the end of a scavenger hunt. But I made it, and you can too.

Happy trails!

If you want to pick my brain, to commiserate, a copy of my spreadsheets to use as a template, or advice for cold-emailing, let me know in the comments.


Road Trip Part 3: The Wasatch Range

Road Trip Part 1

Road Trip Part 2

Days 4 and 5: Salt Lake City, Utah

Of all the places for my car to start hemorrhaging power steering fluid, Salt Lake City turned out to be one of the better ones.  I dropped it off at the mechanic and then my cousin Scott distracted me with a trip up Little Cottonwood Canyon to one of his all-time favorite places – the Snowbird ski resort.


View from the top of Hidden Valley Peak!

Scott said he always enjoyed introducing out-of-staters to his hometown, but I hope that my constant stream of “oh my GOSH WOW” coming from the backseat on the way up the canyon didn’t get too annoying.  I mean, what’s a geologist to do? We passed glacial moraines AND fault scarps AND giant granite intrusions AND hanging glacial valleys AND massive thrust-faulted hodgepodges of sedimentary rock AND not to mention that view of Salt Lake to the west…

All this is possible because Salt Lake City and the adjacent Wasatch Range are perched on a unique boundary – the very eastern edge of the Basin and Range Province of the USA. Yep, you guessed it, it involves the Laramide Orogeny like everything covered in my last two posts, but also the Laramide’s fraternal twin mountain-building event. Meet the Sevier Orogeny.

Image result for sevier orogeny

(courtesy of the Wyoming State Geological Survey)

Both the Sevier and the Laramide  happened at roughly the same time (70-50 million years ago) on account of the same pressure (the subducting Farallon Plate). However, two areas of the USA responded differently to the pressure. In areas further east, such as Colorado, eastern Wyoming, and Montana, that pressure hit areas of the continental basement which had been weakened when the supercontinent Rodinia was ripped apart 750 million years ago (mya) and the Ancestral Rockies rose around 300 mya. The weakened continental basement rock buckled under the stress. Geologists refer to this as “Laramide-Style” orogeny, and I saw its results in the Colorado Rockies and the “basement-cored” ranges in the South Wyoming such as the Rawlins and Rock Springs uplifts.

The pressure from the colliding and subducting plate manifested differently further west (Utah, Western Wyoming and Montana) where the continental basement rocks had not been cracked by previous mountain-building or continental rifting. Here, the many layers of sedimentary rock deposited in the Cretaceous Seaway took the strain as the basement rocks got scrunched together. These thin layers cracked and thrust over each other like shuffled decks of cards, creating the thin-skinned “Sevier-Style” orogeny. This style is evident in jumbled, repeated bands of rock in the Wasatch range. The corresponding geologic map looks like one of those scribble-and-fill masterpieces that happened when I first discover MS Paint in 6th grade.

Snowbird geo

Geologic units on the Snowbird property (blue boundary) – note the repeated purple, lilac, and mauve bands of rock. These represent sedimentary units between 1 billion and 350 million years old! The yellow blobs on top are bulldozed bits of sediment from glacial activity ~15,000 years ago

The Western USA breathed a sigh of relief once the Farallon plate completely disappeared under the North American Plate around 50 million years ago.  The continental basement, full of north-south trending cracks and pent-up tension from the insistent force of the collison, relaxed westward and flexed downward along those lines of weakness.  A simplified version of that is shown in the diagram below…

Image result for basin and range formation

Image from the University of Georgia,

This had some peculiar consequences for Utah, Nevada, and bits of the surrounding states. You can see this from space!

Basin and Range

ESRI basemap + USGS physiographic province data.

The decompression of the earth’s crust caused a maze of roughly north-south trending valleys and mountain ranges. Additionally, it dropped this whole area to a level where water could not get over the Sierra Nevadas to the Pacific or the Continental Divide to the Atlantic.  The Basin and Range Province became a giant version of the Great Divide Basin where water can only flow into its local valley and evaporate, and the Great Salt Lake is the poster child.

The formation of the Basin and Range landscape isn’t anywhere near done, to the dismay of city planners in Salt Lake City. Utah’s capitol sits right on top of the fault zone where the Great Salt Lake’s basin is sporadically sliding down the edge of the Wasatch Range. This is evident along the edge of the mountains where you can see (geologically) recent fault scarps from the highway.

faults and landmarks

Everything right of the brown lines is rising, and everything to the left is sliding down…

My photo didn’t come out, so here’s a better one from TaylorScienceGeeks with yellow arrows pointing to the faults I saw from Hwy 215

In the Little Cottonwood Canyon part of the Wasatch Range, to add insult to injury, a giant blob of magma rose from the tail of the subducting plate 30 million years ago and punched through the already disheveled layers of sedimentary rock. Most locals refer to the rock as the “white” or “Temple” granite, but the smooth, bare cliffs are actually made of a relative of granite called quartz monzonite that has less quartz and a more even balance of two kinds of feldspar minerals. This massive batholith (geology-ese for “giant blob of magma), now unearthed by millions of years of erosion, is currently home to some world-class rock climbing routes and a Church of the Latter Day Saints top-secret genealogy bunker.


I couldn’t manage to get a good photo of the Little Cottonwood formation without the car door in it, here’s a beautiful one from (c) Scott

On the way back down the valley it was easy to see traces of the latest force of nature in the canyon. During the last glacial maximum 15,000 years ago, the road we drove on would have been under hundreds of feet of ice! Both Big and Little Cottonwood canyons were occupied by huge glaciers fed by precipitation fueled by the ancient Lake Bonneville, driven up the mountains by western winds, and dumped in the Wasatch Range as snow. As these well-fed rivers of ice scraped downhill they carved out the dramatic steep-walled valley that we see today. The piles of pulverized rock shoved ahead and to the sides of the glaciers remain at the mouths of the canyons and are now mined as construction fill. The same climate pattern bears out today, with a warmer average temperature and a smaller lake, as the powdery snow that Scott loves to shred down at Snowbird.


If you were wondering, the cable car ride to Hidden Peak is totally worth it, and not just for the thoughtful signs!

On Thursday, with my car still up in the air, Scott took my dad and me downtown to see the famous monument built out of Little Cottonwood Canyon’s quartz monzonite – The Church of the Latter Day Saint’s Temple Square.

When the congregation outgrew the original temple they moved to a giant structure that could hold 20,000 Saints at a time and has a forest on the roof! In order to avoid the weight of organic soils up there, the engineers used ground-up shale from the Wasatch Range to anchor the plants and  then pile on the fertilizer.


Scott and I with the guide


Pulverized shale “dirt”, at 1/3 of the weight of the real thing


Just as we were leaving the conference center I got the call saying that my car was ready to roll again. That afternoon we said goodbye to Scott and Salt Lake City, and headed north to a very different landscape indeed. Goodbye mountains, hello giant lakes of (cooled) lava!

Stay tuned for Road Trip Part 4: Snake River Plain and Columbia Gorge.


“Glad You Asked: How Was Utah’s Topography Formed? – Utah Geological Survey.” Accessed October 25, 2017.
“Little Cottonwood Canyon – Utah Geological Survey.” Accessed October 25, 2017.
“Wasatch! Part 1 – Geological Evidence of a Fearsome Fault.” The Trembling Earth (blog), May 8, 2013.
Eldredge, Sandra N. The Wasatch Fault. Vol. 40. Utah Geological Survey, 1996.
“Knowledge of Utah Thrust System Pushes Forward – Utah Geological Survey.” Accessed October 30, 2017.

Road Trip Part 2: Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin

Day Three: Boulder, Colorado to Salt Lake City, Utah

We headed out of Boulder early in the morning, and as my father drove first I clutched my thermos of tea and looked over the map for the day. I hadn’t ever looked at southern Wyoming with any interest before, but we were going to be driving through most of it. The mountain ranges and high plateaus in Wyoming were created by the same processes that created the Colorado Rockies: the Laramide Orogeny that elevated the American West between 70 and 60 million years ago. The atlas had the Continental Divide marked in bright yellow, and to my surprise it seemed to acquire a split personality just north of the Sierra Madre Mountains, skirt a vast empty area on the map, and then reunite south of the Wind River Range.

A few hours later I took the wheel in Rawlins, and signs announced that we were crossing the Great Divide for the first time today and entering the Great Divide Basin.

Day 3 itinerary


Welcome to the Great Divide Basin! A whole lot of flat sage brush 7,000 feet in the air…

If I had poured out my thermos onto the ground in Rawlins, it would eventually flow towards the Atlantic.

If I dumped that same tea out in Green River, on the western side of the Great Divide basin, it would flow towards the Pacific.

But if I poured it out by one of the many oil derricks dotting the Great Divide basin… it would go pretty much nowhere.

So why does the defining drainage divide of the continent have a hole punched in it in the middle of Wyoming?

Google was less useful than usual on this question, so I had to wait until I got my journal access through Oregon State (SCORE!) to do some serious database sleuthing. And even there I couldn’t find much – I guess there aren’t many scientists considering the middle-of-nowhere Wyoming. However I did find a 2010 article by Paul Heller, Margaret McMillan, and Neil Humphrey at the University of Wyoming and University of Arkansas that presented a potential cause.

These authors propose that the Great Divide Basin originally drained through Sand Gap, on the northeast side of the basin, to the Platte River around 50 million years ago in the early Paleogene period. (shown in figure 1 below) They based this on a comparison of bedrock elevations at the 4 most likely historic outlets of the basin.

Heller et al figure 1 captionHeller et al figure 1

The next crucial step is climate: The high elevation but relatively low relief of the Wyoming basins meant that they have gotten little precipitation throughout the past 50 million years compared with the neighboring high peaks to the east. This leads to a difference in erosion between the basin areas and the majority of the area of the North Platte River headwaters and watershed. More sediment was removed north and east of the Great Basin, causing the Earth’s crust to bounce back in those areas by a few hundred meters over millions of years. The science-y ways to name these processes are differential erosion and isostasy.

By around 10 to 8 million years ago, this uplift east and north of the Great Divide basin tilted the basin to the south just enough that water no longer had any reason to flow out of Sand Gap. Instead, it flowed into lakes with the basin itself and evaporated, causing the saline soil that confounded settlers’ effort to cultivate the area. Figure 6 from Heller et. Al, below, shows the direction of that tilt…

Heller et al figure 6Heller et al figure 6 caption

Going back to the tea theme earlier in the post, I found it easier to think about this in terms of a teacup (the Great Divide Basin) with a chip in the edge (Sand Gap) on a balance (the earth’s crust). This is a farfetched analogy, but hang with me here. In the beginning the balance is evenly weighted – tea is poured into the teacup and flows out the chip in the side, and there is an equivalent weight on the opposite side of the balance that keep the bar level.



However as weight is removed by the North Platte River from the northeastern side of the balance, the opposite side tilts down to the southwest. In this tilted position the bottom of the chip is at a relatively higher elevation than before, and with the cup being refilled less often than previously tea can no longer flow out of the chip. Instead it evaporates there and leaves behind residue, much like what I find on Monday morning when I don’t wash out my mug before leaving my grad student office on the previous Friday…

After almost two hours of driving through the basin we drove past the sandstone formations of the Rock Springs uplift and passed the *other* continental divide into the Green River Basin.



Around the Wyoming/Utah border we started descending from the Rocky Mountain plateau down into the Basin and Range geologic province. The western side of this plateau gets relatively much more rain, so we saw our first tree-covered mountains since Laramie earlier in the day!


Unfortunately, my valiant little Honda Civic had some seriously weird noises going on after we swerved and braked hard to avoid an accident that day.

The downside: We had to spend an extra day in Salt Lake City while a mechanic checked it out.

The upside: We have family there, and they had the time to take us up into Little Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch Range to play tourist.

More details about the fantastic landscape around the Great Salt Lake to come in Road Trip Part 3!

Source Cited:

Heller, Paul L., Margaret E. McMillan, and Neil Humphrey. “Climate-Induced Formation of a Closed Basin: Great Divide Basin, Wyoming.” Geological Society of America Bulletin 123, no. 1–2 (2011): 150–157.

Road Trip Part 1: Why are the high plains so flat?!

Day 1: Memphis to McPherson, Kansas

Day 2: McPherson to Boulder, Colorado

My father and I pulled out of Memphis early one Monday morning and I, having procrastinated packing into the wee hours of the morning, slept through Arkansas as he drove. I only woke up when the tail end of Hurricane Harvey dropped a solid curtain of rain on the car somewhere around Forrest City. I’ve already explored Arkansas’ landscape a bit in my Petit Jean State Park blog post, so I don’t feel too guilty about skipping it in this account.

I’m familiar with the Ozarks in western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, but the endlessly rolling hills of Kansas were a new phenomenon to me. The early pioneers weren’t exaggerating when they described a “sea of grass”!


With most of my geological education focused in Tennessee, Montana, and the highways between the two, I have to admit my knowledge of the Midwest was mostly limited to knowing it is FLAT. In Iowa this endless pancake of a landscape was bulldozed by glaciers, but what about the non-glaciated, pancake-flat parts of the Great Plains? What’s with them?

USF glacial drift mod

Glacial drift map from University of South Florida

It turns out that unlike areas where glaciers shoved sediment in from the north, the sediments under the High Plains of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado came from the west.  In order to understand these plains, we have to turn to their opposite – the Rocky Mountains. Luckily my dad and I were driving straight to them! We met my friend Alyssa for dinner on Day 2 in ground zero of the eroded source of the High Plains – Boulder, Colorado.

Boulder is perched right on the boundary between tilted layers of 315-70 million year old rocks rocks, and the masses of Precambrian granite continental basement that were uplifted during the Laramide Orogeny that reshaped the American West between 70 and 60 million year ago. In that period, the Farallon oceanic plate dove under the North American plate at an unusually shallow angle, resulting in volcanism unusually far inland.  Additionally, the friction between this subducting plate and the overlying continent formed the Colorado Plateau as it rumpled the North American plate like a rug on a hardwood floor. The figures below show the shallow angle of the Laramide Orogeny, a cross-section view through Boulder, and a map view of those tilted layers exposed in Boulder along with their names and ages.

Diagram from

cross-section view of Boulder….






diagram from

Map-view of exposed rocks in Boulder….

diagram from

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to go hiking with Alyssa in the foothills, but two weeks later my sister went adventuring with her in the Flatirons! Heather took tons of amazing photos including several in the Flatirons area where those tilted rocks are dramatically exposed


View of the Flatirons, (c) Heather van Stolk

sketchbook C in Flatirons

My wonderful sister brought me along in sketch form! I can’t wait to go there in person! image (c) Heather van Stolk

Nowadays we see those layers of sedimentary rock cut through and exposed at the surface, but originally they would have extended westwards and upwards to cover those older granite rocks.  However, over the 60 million years since mountains were uplifted streams have been hard at work eroding those rocks from the higher areas and washing them downstream to lower elevations. This effect is called a “sediment apron” of a mountain range.  The Rocky Mountains are enormous, so that sediment apron extends all the the way through central Nebraska! The diagram below shows the general process of the sediment removal from the mountains, deposition on the High Plains, and gradual erosion from the High Plains.


Schematic cross-section of the Colorado Front Range and adjacent High Plains (from Anderson et al., 2012, Figure 4). ‘LGM’ stands for “last glacial maximum”, when glaciers had their maximum impact on the North American landscape.

Cross section source here

This thick apron of sediment is the cause of the gradual, sloping rise up to the base of the Colorado Front Range of the Rockies. This area is in the “rain shadow” of the Rockies where precipitation is pretty scarce, and so the High Plains have not been as highly dissected by streams as the Cumberland Plateau which I am more familiar with and have written about on this blog. The relatively soft, homogeneous composition the sediment causes the High Plains area to be eroded gently and gradually by what streams there are.

I found a helpful introduction to the High Plains thanks to the writer at “In the Company of Plants and Rocks”, who did a great write-up of their trip through the high plains of Colorado.

In retrospect, the Plains landscape would be much easier to understand if we had been driving west to east instead. However after Boulder we had our sights on Salt Lake City and took the northern route across Wyoming to get there.

Up next:

Why is there a basin on top of the Continental Divide?

What’s with the colorful jumble of rock in the Wasatch Range?


I’m going to be a Beaver!

I promise that I haven’t forgotten about the blog. This summer has been crazy for multiple reasons, but most importantly because I’m preparing to move to Corvallis, Oregon in the end of August.

I’m starting a master’s program in geography to study groundwater resource management at Oregon State University!

Image result for oregon state university

The downside of the move is that my budget for out-of-town summer camping trips to see new rocks has been displaced by a budget for a Uhaul rental, Ikea furniture, and other elements of a 2,362 mile move.

The upside about this is that I get to take a 5-day cross-country road trip with my father, through some of the most amazing landscapes in the USA! Which should give me enough blog material for a long string of posts. My mother and sister, who both have experience driving cross-country with me to and from California, have already informed him that it’s best for our health and safety if he drives through the geologically interesting bits. Kansas, however, will be all mine…


Petit Jean State Park: the nerdy perspective

To minimize my off-topic rambling, I’m covering my trip to Petit Jean State Park in two posts: Petit Jean State Park: the outdoorsy view about the hiking, and this one to cover the geology we saw along the way! This second post one may make more sense if you read the first one before it.

“So in the beginning there were the Ninja Turtles, and then the extra Ninja Turtles, and then the volcano erupted and BAM! They got stuck!” That hypothesis spilling out of the mouth of the Boy Scout behind me on the trail seemed like a pretty logical idea actually, given that we were staring at a rocky meadow filled with fractured stone domes the size of small cars.


Let’s zoom back out for a moment.  We need some perspective to see what these turtles are made of, where they are, and why they’ve been able to hang around.

Geologically, Petit Jean State Park lies in the Arkansas Valley region of the state, sandwiched in between the faulted, tortuously folded rocks of the Ouachita Mountains to the south and the flat pile of sedimentary rocks that form the Ozark Plateau.

Arkansas geologic regions

Geologic regions of Arkansas – the park location is mark with a star. Yellow colors indicate unconsolidated sediment, greys and blues are conglomerates and igneous rocks, light green is sandstone, darker green is shale, and blue is limestone.

Because of this pressure from the south, the layers of sedimentary rock around the park are gently folded into shallow syncline ( U-shaped) and anticline (n-shaped) structures. The axis of these folds is perpendicular to the source of pressure, so the folds create east-west trending lines on the surface. Closer to the Ouachita Mountains the pressure exceeded the rocks’ ability to deform into folds; they broke along faults, like the Ross Creek faults on the right-hand side of the image below.

petit jean cross-section 2

Information taken from the Arkansas Geological Survey maps for the Atkins and Adona Quadrangles

The Pontoon Syncline creates the bowl-shaped plateau that the park rests in. From above, the plateau looks like the head of a bird overlooking the Arkansas River.

Petit Jean Mountain Bird

I couldn’t resist messing with the USGS topos…

This topography closely mirrors the underlying geology of the park, showing where the Arkansas River and Rose Creek have broken through the tough sandstone “cap” of the plateau. (Arkansas Geological Survey map of this view can be found here)

Petit Jean specific geologic map crop

The geologic map for the Adona Quandrangle below covers the southern part of the park, and highlights the trails that Jackie and I explored. In the zoomed-in box, you can easily see how Cedar Creek is carving back into the resistant Hartshorne sandstone that caps the plateau to expose the weaker Upper Atokan shale below. Click on this sentence to go to the Adona quadrangle map PDF courtesy of the Arkansas Geological Survey.

Detailed geology of Petit Jean

Nowhere in the park is the stratigraphy more defined than at Cedar Falls! There’s a clear boundary visible between the pale sandstone at the top of the falls and the darker shale at the bottom.




Up-close and personal with the contact between the Hartshorne sandstone and Atokan shale

During the early Pennsylvanian period when these sediments that would become these sandstone and shale rocks were deposited, central Arkansas was submerged under a shallow continental sea. The Atokan shale and Hartshorne sandstone are separated by an eroded gap in the record that erased years of sediments – an unconformity. Their composition tells a story of a changing depositional environment: it was in a coastal swamp or underwater and filled in with fine-grained muds from around 315 to 311 million years ago (mya), ended up above water either by uplift or a dropping sea level around 311 mya, and the re-covered by a blanket of sand deposited by meandering river systems and deltas from approximately 311 mya to 307 mya.

The sandstones and shales in this park are about 10 million years younger than the similar rocks I’ve profiled in Giant City State Park (Illinois Basin), and about the same age as those  I climbed on in the Red River Gorge area (Cumberland Plateau).  They all belong to the Carboniferous period from 299 to 359.2 million years ago.

NA early pennsylvanian crop annotated

Background paleogeographical of the Early Pennsylvanian Period map copyright of Colorado Plateau Geosystems.

The Carboniferous period is defined by huge jungles of ferns and early trees that flourished in the high oxygen levels, and then were buried to for the coal that now powers our industrialized lives (Carboniferous = Latin for “coal bearing!). You can’t find coal in Petit Jean State Park, but a few fossil traces of this era remain! The best-known fossil location in the park, along the Cedar Creek trail, was covered by an intermittent stream when we were there but signs along the Cedar Fall Overlook boardwalk also give visitors an introduction to the first drafts of trees that once grew here.


Beside the fantastic views from the top of the plateau, there are two smaller-scale geologic features that make this park awesome to explore: the “carpet rocks” and those “turtle rocks”!


Like sandstone rocks in the other two parks, the Hartshorne sandstone contains the dark, wavy, resistant iron formations called Liesegang banding. Unlike the other parks, though, Petit Jean sits on the northernmost fringe of rocks deformed by the rising Ouachita Mountains between 290 and 245 million years ago.  This pressure created geometric series of cracks in the sandstone, and when water enriched by tiny iron-rich hematite, goethite, and magnetite particles entered these cracks it left behind a cement stronger than the surrounding rock. As the weaker rocks are the iron-rich cement was worn away, it left behind the crazy raised pattern of the carpet rocks. Unfortunately the best examples were underwater when I visited the park, but here’s a photo from the Arkansas Geology website:

carpet rocks

You can also see subtler version of them in the cliffs in the first 1.5 “map miles” on the Seven Hollows trail (eastern part of the trail).


The most striking geological feature of this park isn’t found anywhere else – the turtle rocks! No real (or Ninja) turtles were harmed in their formation. The Arkansas Geological Survey blog describes them as:

“unique, mounded polygonal structures that resemble turtle shells.

The processes that generate “turtle rocks” are not clearly understood. One explanation suggests that these features were created by a process known as spheroidal weathering, a form of chemical weathering that occurs when water percolates through the rock and between individual sand grains. These grains loosen and separate from the rock, especially along corners and edges where the most surface area is exposed, which widens the rock’s natural fractures creating a rounded, turtle-like shape.

Additionally, iron is leached from the rock and precipitated at the surface creating a weathering rind known as case hardening. These two processes along with the polygonal joint pattern contribute to this weathering phenomenon.”



These turtles rocks exist at the very top of the plateau, and at the top of the ridges.  This is different than at similar sandstone “caps” on the landscape in temperate regions, like in the Red River Gorge, where the top of the formation is relatively smooth and even. Water is relentless in finding the most efficient path downhill and these turtle rocks, with their crazy honeycomb drainage pattern, defy shortcuts. My idea is that the turtle rocks only exist at the top of the because of the nature of stream drainage patterns, stream flow, and the speed of that flow.

It’s pretty intuitive that intermittently wet ditches feed into into small creeks, which flow into medium-sized streams, which combine to form rivers. On the quantitative side of hydrology this is represent by the “stream order” systems classified as 1, 2, 3…. where order 1 streams have no regular tributaries, order 2 streams have 1 tributary, etc. By definition, in a given watershed order 1 streams are at a higher elevation that order 2 streams (there’s no cheating gravity!), and the stream order increases with decreasing elevation.  By the the time water organizes itself into something that a hydrologist would give an order number it has carved out a regular depression in the terrain that it reliably flows through.

Reliable flow, though, would be lethal for a turtle rock. They only exist because the force of water can’t yet overwhelm the intrinsic weirdness of their structure. A little water emphasizes the shape of the rocks by removing small amounts of sand slowly enough that it doesn’t erase the maze of fractures and cracks that define the turtles’ shells. Because of this, they can only remain at elevations above the highest order 1 stream, where rainwater hasn’t organized itself into defined channels yet.

However they were formed, they give the landscape a surreal Dr. Seuss-ish touch that’s really delightful. And just down the trail from the turtles, there’s a patch of tafoni “honeycomb” weathering interspersed with Liesegang bands that reminds me of a village in “All the Places You’ll Go!”. I know it’s made by pockets of easily dissolved minerals like salt or chalked weathering out of harder sandstone and ancient iron deposits, but my inner eight-year-old sees a miniature cliff dwelling…


Petit Jean State Park crams so many whimsical rock formations, fossils, and cliff-top views into a relatively small piece of land. It makes for a wonderful field trip!

For more information on the park’s unique geology, check out:

“The Geologic Story of Petit Jean State Park”, a field guide written by Angela Chandler

The entry for Petit Jean Mountain on the Encyclopedia of Arkansas



Petit Jean State Park: the outdoorsy view

To minimize my off-topic rambling, I’m covering my trip to Petit Jean State Park in two posts: this one about the hiking, and Petit Jean State Park: the nerdy perspective to cover the geology we saw along the way!

My friend Jackie and I had been trying to put together a camping getaway for a few weeks. On the recommendation of Jackie’s friends, we finally made the commitment and the three-hour drive to head west to Petit Jean SP, near Morrilton, Arkansas. It’s hard to tell from the campsite map but Jackie and I both would recommend camping in the secluded, shady Loop C and Loop D campsites over the wide open Loop A and B sites. Not that we could tell when we finally made it to the park at 11 pm.

Walking along the paths of Petit Jean State Park feels like someone took all the most gorgeous parts of four or five similarly sized parks and spliced them together into a highlights reel. Around every corner there’s a jaw-dropping view, a waterfall, a thundering 90-foot waterfall, a rock shelter, or an adorable little brook, and every patch of turtle rocks is more turtle-y than the last.  Jackie and I thought her friends were exaggerating as they described it but they sure weren’t!

You can find a full map of the trails here and of the campsites here on the park website. I went crazy in MS Paint to create the version below:

Petit Jean Annotated trail map

Petit Jean State Park has the distinction of being the first state park in Arkansas, founded in 1923 and endowed with lodges and trails by the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. On Saturday the two of us linked five of those trails in the park into an 8-mile loop.


Jackie playing with her new camera’s settings at the overlook at the trailhead behind Mather Lodge

We started down the Cedar Falls trail early in the morning, hoping to beat the crowds. Several families were already heading downhill, and we ran into my next-door neighbors too. Small world! The trail is rocky but obviously the Civilian Conservation Corps put a lot of hard work into it – the path has dozens of rock steps. It’s beautiful too, as it follows a rocky little creek.


Cedar Falls was worth every bit of the hype. Torrential rains on the Thursday and early Friday before we arrived meant that the falls were flowing at full blast! Look for the people in the photo below for scale…



By the time we left the falls at 10:30, we felt like salmon struggling upstream as we squeezed past a solid line of families bound for the waterfall. Back at the bridge, instead of heading back up to the trail head we took the Cedar Canyon trail west. A few hundred feet past the intersection with the Cedar Falls trail we might have been in our own personal jungle – not another person in sight! This shady trail follows the creek down the valley, with some beautiful views of the flowing water, giant fallen boulders from the cliffs, and lizards hanging out on the rocks. Definitely wear long pants if you want to hike this one – the poison ivy was lush and thriving, but so were the wildflowers. We stopped at a convenient flat rock by the stream to have lunch, which we shared with a flock of very small blue butterflies.


blue flowers

(Jackie’s photo)


Technically, the Cedar Canyon trail dead-ends into the Boy Scout Trail at a sturdy set of stepping stones across the creek. However the massive rainstorms on Thursday and Friday which made the waterfalls so spectacular also raised the creek above the level of the stepping stones. So we got wet. The water was freezing cold and actually pretty refreshing in the noonday heat.


The Boy Scout trail from the stream back up to the road is steeply uphill and an excellent leg workout. On one of our breaks to get some air back into our lungs, we met this little green tree frog taking a siesta!


Jackie’s new camera is amazing for close-ups!!

The Seven Hollows trail is a dangerous place to go with a photographer and a rock-climbing geologist. The trail map said it was a 2 to 4 hour hike– we spent almost 6 on it. We hiked it backwards according the the trail map (counter-clockwise), which turned out to be perfect timing. Most of the families and other hikers we passed hiking to Cedar Falls did that trail as an out-and-back and then drove to the Seven Hollows trailhead to hike it clockwise after lunch. In the first mile of the trail we passed several exhausted-looking groups, and then we pretty much had our own personal trail! That first bit of our hike on that trail (Map miles 4 to 3) descended into one of the seven hollows the trail is named after – 50-foot cliffs rose on either side of the trail, full of hidden caves and swallow nests. It was so peaceful with the burbling stream at our feet and the birds singing. Not to mention, that mile is all downhill.

After “map mile” 3, the trail started to rise into the pine trees and sandstone clearings on top of the ridge. Jackie was so patient with me, because I’m the kind of person who wants to climb every boulder that I safely can, and there was no shortage of boulders.

The one downside of this trail is that it easily becomes a stream in wet weather like we had in the days before our trip, and especially from our “backwards” perspective the path that looks the nicest may actually be incorrect. Jackie and I spent an idyllic (and flat) ten minutes strolling down what turned out to be a trail to private property before noticing the absence of blue blazes. We retraced our steps to discover we should have taken the left-hand fork: the nearly vertical, soaking wet, bare rock face that was actually the trail. Oops.

That slippery slope is totally worth it, though because it leads to the highlight of this section of the trail: The Grotto. You reach it via a narrow, rocky spur off of the main trail that opens up into a rock shelter and cascade that look like a scene straight out of The Land Before Time.


I took a side trail up above the falls, and found a whole herd of turtle rocks!


After the Grotto, the trail turns back uphill has we climbed up the last ridge that the trail crosses before heading north to the trailhead. The peak of this part of the trail has more sandstone clearings and beautiful views to the southeast.

Jackie and I were in a hurry, though, to reach the last big landmark of the hike – a natural bridge. It lived up to the expectations! We hung out there for a while, refueling with trail mix and exploring all the nearby rock formations. For more on how arches like this are formed, you can check out my Red River Gorge post here. Same process, different sandstone!


can i climb it full view

Contemplating whether I was feeling rash enough to free-solo my way up to the top of the cliff by the arch. I decided I wasn’t. It was SO tempting though.

There aren’t any more landmarks noted on the park map after the natural bridge, but if you keep your eye out there are two caves in the sandstone cliff on between the bridge and the trail head. After the two caves, at about “map mile” 0.5, there’s a well-beaten path that appears to dead-end in a cliff wall. If you take a sharp left at the “dead-end” and are comfortable scaling a short 5.4 climb, there are some spectacular turtle rocks up top and you can see for miles. The golden late-afternoon light and our haze of exhaustion made it really seem magical. Jackie and  obviously need to hike more often so 7 miles doesn’t turn our legs to jelly.



The only downside of the Seven Hollows trail is that it ends in a long uphill climb whichever direction you do it in.  Another mile up the trail we basked for a while in the evening sun, like two very tired lizards, on top of the rock formations at Bear Cave before making the last 1/2 mile push to the end.


^ The view from the top of the Bear Cave area, and Jackie climbing down

We celebrated with soda and junk food at Mather Lodge around 7pm and then drove back to Bear Cave for a great tour of the area with interpreter BT Jones and 53 other visitors. It was definitely worth it to hear the stories of the pioneer days of the area and to make a giant echo off of the walls of Cedar Creek Canyon.

We slept very well that night, and threw out the pipe dream of waking up to see the sunrise. We got up just early enough to pack up camp and start the Cedar Creek loop trail bright and early at 8 AM, when we had it all to ourselves! This trail is has a brochure that indicates that it’s a self guided tour (you can find it here), but Jackie and I couldn’t find stops 3, 4, or 5. The entire trail look like Middle Earth in the early morning light, it was really magical.


Jackie at a beautiful place for a snack break


The leaning rock along the Cedar Creek trail


Textbook-perfect ripple marks in the sandstone on the southern leg of the trail

After lingering on this loop for an hour and a half, we piled back into the car for a driving tour around the overlooks in the park.


Jackie at the Cedar Falls Overlook. Not only is it beautiful but it’s handicap accessible too.


At the M.A. Richter Memorial Overlook you can see all the way to Mount Magazine, the highest point in Arkansas, 50 miles away!


Jackie enjoying the view at the CCC Overlook


The CCC shelter at the CCC Overlook – there’s a lawn to the right of it that would make an absolutely perfect picnic spot.

We had one last hiking stop – the trail down to the Rock Cave archaeological site. It winds through a phenomenal field of turtle rocks…


There must have been dozens of them!

exploring the rock house

You could easily fit a football field inside this rock shelter, no joke. (Jackie’s photo)


One of the several Native American paintings in the shelter, drawn with red iron oxide paint over 500 years ago.

Jackie and I had one last stop as we headed out of the park: Stout’s Point and Petit Jean’s gravesite.

The name of Petit Jean Mountain and its park have a sweet and possibly even true backstory. The area was first explored by French traders, and the story goes that one of these traders had a particularly devoted sweetheart. Unbeknownst to him, who would have forbidden her to come if he knew, she sneaked onto his ship in the guise of the cabin boy “Petit Jean”. Her disguise held up and she was able to at least be close to him until the story took a tragic turn as they headed up the Arkansas river. She came down with a sudden illness, and only as she was dying did those caring for her discover her secret. Her last wish was to be buried on top of the magnificent lookout she saw from the river, and her grieving trader carried it out.

That lookout is now called Stout’s Point, after the Episcopal minister who led the effort to settle the mountain with white pioneers.

view from stout's point

The view of the Arkansas River from Stout’s Point


Jackie and I didn’t want to leave the park – we agreed that we needed a break in the space-time continuum to add another day to the weekend. Unfortunately we had to face reality and head back east, but now Petit Jean State Park has two more passionate promoters!

CCC overlook both of us

All of Jackie’s photos are cc Jacqueline Arevalo