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Touring the Earth

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grand canyon

The Grand Canyon at dusk: a destination for all types.

Photo (c) Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

One of the wonderful things about geology is that wherever you go, there the Earth is. And hundreds of vacations are possible for the geology enthusiast.

Three Levels of Geotourism

Some destinations are more geological than others, naturally. In the United States, places like the Grand Canyon, or Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Cave, might come to mind. These are fun for the whole family, and they're on any geologist's life list. Elsewhere in the world are scores of other geoheritage sites. But the working Earth scientist, once past the marveling stage, will feel frustrated by the guardrails in front of the rocks—protection that these world treasures really need.

There are plenty of less-known places for geologists, rockhounds, and other landscape-watchers to get out in the field, free to kick stones and put their hands in the dirt. Cities themselves, like New York and San Francisco, are of geological interest. Or consider Las Vegas, the most artificial city you could imagine—just a little ways out of town is the great Mojave National Preserve with all the desert you can take.

And then there are places that are rewarding to the geologist and probably very few others. For instance, Siccar Point, on Scotland's eastern shore, and "Hutton's Section" in Holyrood Park in Edinburgh, are two localities associated with James Hutton, the father of geology. If you're a scientist you may find yourself deeply moved to be there, but the kids will be fidgeting. The Jurassic Coast of southern England would be more congenial, not just because there are beaches and pubs and other diversions but also because this area is world-renowned for its dinosaur fossils, something that everyone can relate to.

Geocultural Geotourism

But there is a deeper experience to be had, one that involves not just spectacle and not just science, but the mineral wealth of the land and the communities that arise from it. Australia has its spectacular Blue Mountains, a destination not far from Sydney that happily marries mining history, outdoor recreation, Earth science, and breathtaking vistas. In Slovenia is the renowned Karst region of caves and stonecutting, inhabited for thousands of years. In the United States there is the iron mining country of the Midwest, and the gold rushes of the American West and the silver rush of Nevada left marks on the landscape and the culture of the region, marks that go with the geologic attractions like ice cream and cake. These are what the Geoheritage movement and World Heritage Site systems are about.

A particularly far-reaching example is to be found in Malaysia, in its province of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. In Sarawak's national parks are enormous caverns and dramatic examples of karst land and mud volcanoes as well as world-class tropical forests. But northern Sarawak was built on petroleum, too, and the city of Miri preserves its original oil well in a park on Canada Hill. The combination of geologic forces that created this area and its resources is like nothing in the whole western hemisphere.

A geologist and a software firm have collaborated on a CD tour of this region that doesn't skimp on these tourist attractions, yet it includes much geological detail, including outcrop diagrams and stratigraphic sections, that will have the family geologist out of the car and onto the rocks. If you have any interest in this region, the CD will serve as both a foretaste and a memento of your visit.

The producers of the Sarawak CD are taking their geotourism a step further, with a proposal to turn some significant localities into "outcrop museums." By educating both visitors and local tour guides about the rich geologic underpinnings of northern Sarawak, the producers hope "to help proliferate the knowledge, understanding, appreciation and enthusiasm for these rocks and for the environment around us."

Then there's the really hardcore geo-vacation, like designer Tom Mallard's bicycle trips through the high Nevada desert retracing the paths of the pioneers. His travelogues are some of the best I've seen on the Web, and he pays attention to the rocks, too. The book Hard Road West has a similar approach more suited to a driving trip, written by a geologist and extremely tempting.

PS: Here are five different ways to get the ultimate hard-core geological experience.

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