The crack in the giant rock led off into the distance, barely wide enough for an adult to squeeze through. My kids looked at me, their faces lit up by unrestrained joy and eagerness to explore. They were ready to dive into the crack and see where it went. As soon as I said yes, they wedged themselves in and began walking along till the crack ended at a 12-foot-high ledge. They stopped and shouted for me to come see where they were.
This happens again and again. My family seems to be addicted to rock cities. It’s an easy thing to become addicted to. Rock cities are made of rocks the size of houses that are filled with tunnels, cracks and climbing spots. They are irresistible. There is something about rock passageways that pulls you along them, always seeking to find a new place to explore. Up. Down. Through. Under. Rocks pull you in all directions.
They can also be terrifying. When my son was 3, he ran toward the edge of a rock as fast as he could go. All I could see was that the rock stopped and then there was nothing. Visions of falling boy flashed across my mind before we discovered that it was a 3-foot-high drop.
That led to the establishment of rock rules. No running on rocks. No standing closer than an arm’s length from the edge. If you want to watch something, stop walking. Stay together. We practiced these rules all spring, going to progressively larger and larger rock cities. When you start looking around, they are all over the place.
Rock cities are giant rocks that were previously hidden underground. They are exposed as the soil above them slowly washed away in rain and erosion. These rocks formed at the bottom of an ancient sea that once covered this part of the world.
Ice sheets a half-mile thick plowed over this area around 10,000 years ago, breaking up many of these rocks and leaving them behind as layers of gravel. Much of this gravel is dug up in local gravel pits. The rock cities around here are found south of where the glaciers ended.
Some of my fondest memories of camping as a kid were in making trips to rocks like these. As a young child, we went camping in Clear Creek State Park, where there is a rock city called “Beartown Rocks.” I haven’t been there since, but have dim memories of running down narrow lanes between rocks, scrambling to the tops of rocks and squeezing into narrow caves too skinny for the adults to get into.
Another place that I remember going to was Jakes Rocks, near the Kinzua Dam in Pennsylvania. The only thing I really remember from going there as a kid is the overlook. You can stand on this giant rock and see the reservoir stretching for miles off into the distance.
My wife and I took our kids there last week, now that they are pretty familiar with rock rules and no longer take off running across the tops of the rocks. We waited patiently at the overlook as tourists posed for photos in front of the view. Tiny boats on the water made v-shaped wakes and a fuzzy mist made everything surreal.
The best part of Jakes Rocks is that there is a never-ending variety of rocks to climb. Some are perfect for young kids to climb. Others are really only appropriate for teens and adults to scramble up. While we were there, there were people of all ages climbing, playing and having fun.
Another set of rocks just up the road from Jakes Rocks is Rimrock. These giant rocks feature work done by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in the Great Depression. Beautiful stone railings line the overlook and a set of stairs descends a narrow crack in the rock.
This is one of my favorite places to play with my family. There’s a rock we call the “rocking rock.” It’s balanced just right so that we can stand on it and make it rock back and forth. Many of the rocks are close enough together that it is easy to jump from one to another. Descending the steep, narrow staircase used to be a bit scary with kids, but now they are familiar enough with it that it is just fun. The air gets cool and damp as the rocks close in around you.
At the bottom, there are several large cracks in the rocks. We call them “air-conditioning cracks.” Cold air that is only 50-some degrees pours out of the cracks and cools everyone down on a hot summer day. A trail, of sorts, wraps around the rocks so you can climb up the other side. A new 1-mile trail that I haven’t yet taken descends to Kinzua Beach far below on the reservoir.
There are lots of rock cities in the area. Thunder Rocks is in Allegany State Park. Little Rock City is near Little Valley. Some rock cities are privately owned and have an admission fee. Rock City Park, just south of Olean, is a privately owned rock city that has been a tourist attraction since 1890. Panama Rocks Scenic Park is another privately owned rock city that features amazing rocks, caves and tunnels.
It would be easy and fun to create a rock city list for the summer and visit all of them. If you went every other weekend or so, you could easily see them all. Rock cities are an adventure for all ages and well worth the visit.
Jeff Tome is a senior naturalist at the Audubon Center and Sanctuary. He loves exploring the amazing natural places of the area and introducing new people to them as well. The Audubon Center is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Jamestown and Warren. Visit www.jamestownaudubon.org for more details.