"I like leading this hike because—even though it is a short, simple hike in a fairly ordinary place—every now and then it turns out to be a transformative experience for a few students," says Asimow (right). "It is the moment they connect the joy of being outdoors with their ability to make detailed observations of the natural world and the way that we can tell stories that explain those observations. In other words, they find in their heart that they are geologists. Everybody else gets some exercise and fresh air and good views, and those are all important, too."
The trail is strewn with what appear at first glance to be crushed eggshells, but they're actually, as Asimow explained, fragments of bivalve fossils. These tiny shells are essentially identical to the ones found along the beach a few miles away. This is because the hill was once flat and the site of an ancient riverbed, and has been thrust upward by plate tectonics for the last 200,000 years, getting taller at about 3 to 5 millimeters per year.
Beyond these gulches (carved by water drainage, explains Asimow) lies the city of Ventura, and farther inland, the city of Camarillo, hometown of late Caltech geologist Robert P. Sharp (BS '34, MS '35). Sharp was renowned for taking students on field expeditions and opening their eyes to what could be learned about natural processes using simple observations. The tradition of short, fun, informative field trips carries on today in Caltech's Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences and includes the annual frosh camp hike.
The natural scenery was just a few miles away from where the students were staying in Ventura. Though only a few students in the class of 2021 plan to be geology majors, sign-ups for the hike were completely full.
This year, Caltech's freshman orientation took place on September 18 and 19 in Ventura, California. Over the two days, students from the class of 2021 attended talks about the Honor Code and academics, met deans and resident associates, and participated in elective activities such as a boat design contest and a geology hike.
Paul Asimow (MS '93, PhD '97), the Eleanor and John R. McMillan Professor of Geology and Geochemistry, has led the annual geology hike for 10 years, with increasing attendance each year. With panoramic views of the Channel Islands, the Ventura River Valley, and the Santa Clara River Valley—weather almost always permitting—the 1.5-mile trail is located in the hills above Ventura and passes through fossil-rich rocks and landforms testifying to the extremely rapid uplift of those hills and the nearly-as-rapid resulting erosion.