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Earth Notes: Geology By Bicycle

Kurt Refsnider

Geologists know there’s no better place to see Earth’s history laid bare than on the Colorado Plateau. Prescott College professors Kurt Refsnider and Kaitlyn Boyle make the subject come alive for their students in a novel way—from the seat of a bicycle. 

Every other fall they offer “Geology Through Bikepacking,” a course where students take multi-day mountain bike trips across the Plateau and into Colorado.

Pedaling twenty-five to forty miles a day, and carrying their own supplies, they learn firsthand how the region’s landscapes came to be.  

The course starts with the 1.7-billion-year-old story of continent building amid igneous and metamorphic rocks in Arizona’s Bradshaw Mountains. There, the proto-geologists navigate steep trails and loose old rocks.  

On up to Flagstaff, with its relatively youthful volcanic peaks and slippery cinder trails. Then to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, exploring ancient marine limestones and visiting welcome springs on the Kaibab Plateau.

Toasty trails in Utah’s Canyonlands present the riders with colorful, sedimentary layers of Triassic and Jurassic age, cut by the Green and Colorado rivers.

The cycling scholars grind on into the mountains of southern Colorado—amid autumn colors and high peaks scoured by ice-age glaciers.

A final, exhilarating, twelve-mile descent leaves everyone with giddy grins and aching legs—along with academic accomplishment and a distinct physical appreciation for the region’s astounding geology. 

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