It doesn’t take long once you arrive at New York’s Letchworth State Park to see why this vast preserve merits its nickname, “Grand Canyon of the East.” One of the most dramatically scenic areas in the eastern United States, the Genesee River roars through a humongous gorge that extends the 17 mile-long expanse of the park, over three major waterfalls between cliffs as high as 600 feet, surrounded by lush forest.
Ever since I saw a poster of Letchworth State Park while riding the Long Island Railroad, I said, “Where is that!” So when our plan to camp and hike in the Southwest fell apart this year and feeling safe staying within New York State which has so scrupulously monitored and imposed safety conditions to contain the coronavirus, we sought out a comparable adventure driving distance from home: Letchworth is just south of Rochester in western New York in appropriately named Wyoming County.
Our camping trip was made all the more special by staying in the campground within the state park that had only just reopened (private campgrounds, such as Kampgrounds of America, koa.com, are also available in the area) – so we could cook our dinner in the most spectacular settings – dinner with a view and be in prime places for the early light. (I booked our stay mere minutes after the website, reserveamerica.com, reopened reservations.)
During the two full days we were there, we hiked the most scenic, marquee trails: the Gorge Trail (#1), 7.6 miles following along the rim in the southern portion of the 17-mile long park, and the next day, the Highbanks Trail (#20), 4.5 miles along the rim and through forest in the north part of the park. Indeed, these hiking experiences were reminiscent of hiking the Rim Trail along the southern rim of the Grand Canyon.
Letchworth State Park, (voted best attraction in New York State in 2017) is a geologic wonder. Its main attractions are three waterfalls (and if you visit in the late afternoon, you may well see rainbows over the Middle Falls) in the southern section. The trails take you to the most popular, scenic overlooks, which people can drive to, so they can be bustling with visitors (when we visited, people seemed to be respectful of wearing masks and keeping distance). This is another reason why camping in the park is such an advantage – the driving tourists tend to arrive at mid-day, so you can get out early and have these spectacular scenes almost to yourself.
If you do the hike early in the morning, do it from north to south. It’s out-and-back, so to avoid doing the 7.6 miles twice (that is, 15 miles), you can leave a second car or a bicycle at the end (as we did).
The park is huge, about 17 miles long (it takes about 20-30 minutes to drive from the campground to the Upper Falls along the Park Road which is narrow, winding and rolling with dips and rises) to the Upper Falls area. Indeed, the park is so narrow that the hiking trails are just alongside the road, separated in most instances by curtains of trees.
The Gorge Trail, in the south, brings you to the most spectacular views – Upper Falls and Middle Falls in quick succession, then Lower Falls. The real surprise is coming upon Wolf Creek waterfall and a bridge with a painterly scene. Along the way you come upon these stunning stone look-outs at Inspiration Point, Archery Field Overlook, Great Bend Overlook, Tea Table lookout, which also have stone tables and BBQ set-ups.
The Highbanks trail in the north section doesn’t have the awesome waterfalls, but is very special in its own way, providing the expansive vistas that evoke awe over just how enormous and winding this gorge is (respect for Mother Nature’s power) and why Letchworth has been dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East.” Here, the hike brought us into stunning woods where the forest itself makes a painterly canvas.
We started at the absolutely stunning overlook at Hogs Back (where we parked our car for the hike), going south about 2.5 miles, then reversing and going north from Hogs Back, you walk along the ridge, sometimes almost hanging over the gorge, until you come to the Mt. Morris Dam Overlook. The treat here comes at the end, at the Mt. Morris Dam Overlook Area, where there is a delightful snack bar serving excellent ice cream.
Two of the trails that I believe was closed during our visit, but definitely recommended is the Footbridge Trail that brings you down to the Lower Falls (#6A), just a half-mile long but rated “moderate” and the Portage Trail (#6).
Altogether, the park offers 66 miles of trails (almost all rated easy or moderate, and most on the west side of the park). But for hard-core hikers, there is a 22-mile Finger Lakes Trail that runs along the entire eastern section of the park
I tried to research in advance to find the best places for sunrise and sunset photos, which of course depends on season and weather. I wasn’t able to get any sunrise or sunset photos, but the late afternoon light proved best at the Upper Falls and Middle Falls (where rainbows seem not uncommon as the sun lowers and sends its rays through the mist).
Instead of eating at the campsite (not that scenic, but very pleasant for sleeping and breakfast), we kept our food in the cooler and equipment in the car and each evening would pick out a different setting – dining on tables with slate tabletops apparently taken from these very cliffs. David would haul out his Coleman stove and tiny propane tank, his culinary tools, cutting board, and perform his culinary magic. We dined at the appropriately named Tea Table the first evening, Wolf Creek the second evening, which proved our favorite, with a virtually private view of a sweet waterfall, that we discovered on our hike. We were going to have our third night’s dinner overlooking the Upper Falls, but realized this is the most popular part of the park, and since a priority was to avoid possible exposure to lingering COVID germs, we decided to return to Wolf Creek which we again had all to ourselves.
Each evening we returned to the campsite and David and Laini made a fire (s’mores for dessert!). The peace of this place, with tall trees opening to a blanket of stars, and fireflies darting about as if they were Superflies! or shooting stars, was perfect and priceless.
Letchworth, which was voted USA Today’s Reader Choice for Best State Park in the nation in 2015, is well maintained, especially during this heightened COVID-19 health emergency. The campground restroom facility was very clean, and all the restrooms (they indicate which are open), require masks and social distancing.
Our plan for this trip was to be completely self-sufficient so we wouldn’t have to worry about getting water or food, not knowing if places would be open to buy supplies and wanting to cut down our interactions as much as possible. We took enough supplies for our three days, though we did discover that by the time of our trip, this region of New York had achieved Phase 4 reopening, so places were open though with significant limitations, including the Highbanks Camp Stores. (Concessions also were at the Dam Overlook Cafe and Highbanks Pool Snack Bar on the North end; Letchworth Gift shop, Lower Falls, upper Falls Snack Bar.)
(Indeed, for the foreseeable future, travel will involve more planning and forethought, checking ahead what will be open and under what conditions; as a general rule, some places are requiring advance reservations or timed-ticketing.)
The Highbanks campground is wonderful – six miles from the entrance, and several more miles to get to the actual camping loops for tents and RVs. There are also cabins. Several areas accommodate pets.
There are also a few cottages and lodges available within the park. For a family vacation rental experience, the Maplewood Lodge, located at the entrance to the Highbanks Camping Area, sleeps up to eight and has a furnished kitchen, living room with working fireplace, TV and DVD/BluRay player and formal dining room.
Camping was one of the attractions for us to come to Letchworth at this time (so many are choosing camping and RVing and even AirBnBs over commercial hotels), but the park also offers the charming Glen Iris Inn, scenically set right above the Middle Falls.
An inn since 1914, the historic Glen Iris Inn was formerly the country estate of William Pryor Letchworth. Completely restored, the inn offers accommodations and is open to the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner (banquet and catering services are available for special events). We see people dining on the lovely veranda, as well as in an enormous tent set up on the lawn to further accommodate those preferring to dine al fresco.
Addressing this historic moment, rooms are sanitized with an electrostatic cleaning machine and sealed for the guest’s arrival; capacity in Caroline’s Dining Room is limited to 50%. In addition to rooms in the Inn, the Glen Iris also offers some cottages (585-493-2622, glenirisinn.com).
Just across from the inn is the small stone William Pryor Letchworth Museum which tells the fascinating story of Letchworth Park, paying tribute to William P. Letchworth who preserved the land and its heritage by donating it to the state. The museum tells the history of the Genesee Valley, the canal, and of the Seneca who lived on these lands. Letchworth’s personal collection of artifacts from local Native American tribes is on view.
The museum also relates the compelling story of Mary Jemison, “The White Woman of the Genesee,” born on a ship from Europe in 1743 and kidnapped from her home in Pennsylvania in 1758 by Shawnee, then sold to the Seneca who adopted her into the tribe, becoming Dehgewanus. (Trail #2 is named the Mary Jemison Trail, the creek is named De-ge-wa-nus Creek and there is a statue of her, erected by Letchworth not long after her remains were brought back from a reservation and reburied on his estate, that Letchworth dedicated to her memory in 1910; read her remarkable story: http://www.letchworthparkhistory.com/jem.html)
We didn’t have the opportunity to visit the museum during our visit, but is one of the top items on our list for our return.
We also did not get a chance to explore the Humphrey Nature Center which in normal times, offers year-round environmental education programming and interactive exhibits highlighting the geology, wildlife, and ecology of the park.
Letchworth State Park offers many recreational facilities and activities that were just beginning to reopen at the time of our visit – including nature, history and performing arts programs, guided walks, tours, a summer lecture series. The enormous Highbanks Recreation area has a pool. And since our visit, the park opened a new $2 million outdoor Lower Falls Recreation Center offering table games, badminton and pickle ball courts, bocce and shuffleboard, as well as a fitness loop.
A half-dozen trails allow biking (I wouldn’t recommend biking on the main Park Road), and there is horseback riding as well.
Letchworth State Park is open year-round – the fall colors look spectacular, as do the winter scenes when there is cross-country skiing on most of the trails, snowmobiling on four trails, and snow tubing. Winterized cabins are available.
Letchworth State Park, Castile, NY 14427 (there are several entrances, but Mt. Morris Entrance is closest to the highway; check out the wonderful antique shops in Mount Morris); 585-493-3600, letchworthpark.com.
New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation oversees more than 250 parks, historic sites, recreational trails and boat launches, which were visited by a record 77 million people in 2019. A recent university study found that spending by State Parks and its visitors supports $5 billion in output and sales, 54,000 private-sector jobs and more than $2.8 billion in additional state GDP. For more information on these sites, call 518-474-0456 or visit parks.ny.gov.
by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
This time last year I was getting set for an around-the-world Global Scavenger Hunt which took me to places that I had always hoped to see – Petra, Jordan; Myanmar; Vietnam; Morocco, just to list a few. The coronavirus pandemic has made that experience impossible this year. But it just goes to show: Don’t put off experiences, especially not a trip of a lifetime.
These are uncharted waters for the travel industry, and for travelers.
With the worst of the crisis appearing to be coming under control, state governments are looking to gradually reopen and lift their lockdowns. The same is true for people venturing out of doors. People are burning with cabin fever but may be cautious.
Here is the antidote to cabin fever: I’m thinking outdoors, great open vistas, clean air. This is a great time for a throwback to the 1950s family road trip to enjoy the Great Outdoors. Instead of a station wagon, pack up the SUV and set an itinerary that revolves around national and state parks, wildlife areas, nature preserves. I’m thinking camping (koa.com) or glamping (glampinghub.com). I’m thinking hiking, biking, rafting, kayaking.
“It’s vital that people find ways to engage in physical activity during this time; the benefits to our immune systems and our mental health are significant. But it is critical that we do so in ways that will keep us safe and minimize the spread of the pandemic,” writes Ryan Chao, President, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
Rails-to-Trails’ Conservancy has compiled resources, provides information on the latest on trails, walking and biking and the COVID-19 pandemic (Visit railstotrails.org/COVID19), and provides a trail-finder website and app, TrailLink.com, which is free for anyone to use to find particulars on more than 37,000 miles of multi-use trails nationwide, including trail maps, walking and biking directions to get to the trail, and contact information for local trail management organizations (visit railstotrails.org).
Here are more ambitious ideas:
An ideal trip (and also one of my favorite bike tours ever) which hits all of these criteria (driving distance, biking, camping) is the Cycle the Erie, an eight-day 400-mile, fully supported biking/camping trip, from Buffalo to Albany, operated by Parks & Trails NY. At this writing, the 22nd Annual Cycle the Erie was still taking place July 12-19, 2020. (they expect to make a decision on May 12; they have eased the cancellation policy and would transfer the registration at this year’s fee next year if they have to cancel.) For information on Cycle the Erie Canal, call Parks & Trails New York, 518-434-1583, email email@example.com or visit www.ptny.org/cycle-the-erie-canal.
Hopefully, other supported biking/camping rides that also support nonprofit organizations will also run, such as the BikeMaine 2020: Katahdin Frontier – a seven-night ride 340 mile-loop (17,455 feet of climbing), from Old Town, September 12-19, 2020 (www.bikemaine.org)
The next best thing is an organized bike tour – self-guided trips obviously have the fewest people to interact with, and guided – that utilize inn-style accommodations are our favorites. We have enjoyed trips around the world – the Danube Bike Trail, Greek islands bike/boat trip, Venice-Croatia, Slovenia, and Albania (Biketours.com is a great source), and I’m still hoping to take my family on a self-guided bike trip of northern Portugal in late summer – but there are fabulous trips within driving distance that can be done on rail-trails with camping, inns and airbnb.com, such as the Delaware-Lehigh trail in Pennsylvania and the Great Allegheny Passage which can be linked with the C&O trail that can take you from Washington DC all the way to Pittsburgh, PA, and the Erie Canalway.
Wilderness Voyageurs, a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, offers many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania and Katy Trail in Missouri. Last year we thoroughly enjoyed the six-day “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour of South Dakota. Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com.
Bicycle Adventures is offering 6-day bike tours of Oregon Columbia (riding and hiking); South Dakota’s Mickelson Trail; and Washington San Juan Islands. Bicycle Adventures, 18047 NE 68th St, Ste B140, Redmond, WA 9805 (425-250-5540, bicycleadventures.com).
Tour Operators to the Great Outdoors
Tour operators are in a position not only to have access to permits and accommodations in places that are likely to be overrun this year, but are better plugged in to what is happening on the ground, can move passengers around, adapt itineraries. Wilderness adventure travel companies so far are still offering trips this summer.
Based in Billings, Montana, Austin Adventures has spent over 35 years building an international reputation as a top provider of luxury, small group, multisport tours for adults and families to the world’s most captivating destinations. Austin Adventures has perfected the art of creating itineraries featuring exceptional regional dining, distinctive accommodations, incredible guides and exhilarating activities, all while keeping all-inclusive rates and services the norm. In addition to scheduled group departures on all seven continents, Austin Adventures has developed a reputation as the leader in customized trip planning and execution, all backed by the industry’s best money-back satisfaction guarantee. For information on Austin Adventures’ trips, cruises and distinctive accommodations on seven continents:800-575-1540, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.austinadventures.com.
Western River Expeditions escorts more people down rivers on professionally guided rafting trips in Utah, Idaho and Arizona than any other company and is the largest licensed outfitter in the Grand Canyon. (866-904-1160, 801-942-6669, www.westernriver.com).
Moab Adventure Center, a division of Western River Expeditions and the largest single tour provider in Moab, UT, is a one-stop resource for a myriad of outdoor adventures that take you to Arches National Park and Canyonlands and river rafting. (435-259-7019 or 866-904-1163, www.moabadventurecenter.com)
Holiday River Expeditions hopes to be offering its river rafting trips from the end of June through the end of the season in October. The company, operating out of Green River Utah, offers trips on the Colorado, Green River, San Juan and out of Vernal, on the Yampa, in heart of Dinosaur National monument.
Holiday River has just put out The Complete Guide to Whitewater Rafting Trips in Utah, for do-it-yourselfers as well as people who are more than happy to use a commercial outfitter. This new resource for every kind of adventurer is offered free and online.
Here are the seven river trips chosen for inclusion in this new resource:
“Oar power is the most natural way to experience the river and the absence of motors makes high water trips as exciting as it gets. Rafters experience the rush of wind, a chatty raven or a churning rapid absent the drone and smell of a motorized raft,” said Tim Gaylord, Director of Operations and Holiday employee since 1978. (For information, availability, reservations or the catalog, 800-624-6323, Holiday@BikeRaft.com, www.bikeraft.com)
A perfect corollary for any sojourn into the wilderness, instead of staying in a hotel, consider glamping – basically luxury camping that brings you into the most gorgeous and distinctive places, close to nature, in comfort but affording very distinctive experiences.
With the popularity of glamping surging, an array of glamping destinations have popped up around the world in recent years, offering everything from geodesic domes to Airstream RVs to tiny homes. For example:
Fireside Resort: By combining the amenities of a luxury boutique hotel with the atmosphere of a wooded campground, Fireside Resort offers Wyoming’s best glamping experience. The lodging options reflect the heritage of the valley’s original homesteader cabins, with cozy fireplaces, full kitchens, private furnished decks, and outdoor fire pits. Situated on wildlife-filled acres where moose, elk, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles and deer roam, Fireside Resort is just seven miles from Jackson’s bustling town square.
Kestrel Camp: The American Prairie Reserve in Montana is piecing together what will be the largest nature reserve in the lower 48 states, totaling 3.5 million acres, and restoring habitat and species in the process. APR’s Kestrel Camp offers five yurt-style luxury suites set around a central lounge and dining room serving chef-prepared meals, as well as a safari-style experience with special access to tour the reserve’s ecosystem with personal naturalists.
A great source to finding glamping accommodations is GlampingHub.com, an online booking platform for unique outdoor accommodations across the globe. With over 35,000 accommodations in over 120 countries, Glamping Hub’s mission is to connect travelers with nature in order to create authentic experiences in which travelers can stay in the great outdoors without having to sacrifice creature comforts—camping with added luxuries and five-star amenities. Guests can find over 27 different types of glamping accommodations to choose from on Glamping Hub from safari tents, tree houses, and cabins to tipis, villas, and domes. (glampinghub.com)
Or, think cottage on a beach (Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard are my favorites).
I’m thinking dude ranch: Duderanch.orglists 100 in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and such, but there are also dude ranches as close as the Catskills and Adirondacks in the wilds of New York State, like the Pine Ridge Dude Ranch (30 Cherrytown Road, Kerhonkson, NY 12446, pineridgeranch.com), Ridin’ Hy, year-round inclusive ranch resort in the Adirondacks Preserve near Lake George, Warrensburg, NY 12885, 518-494-2742, www.ridinhy.com); and the ever-popular Rocking Horse Ranch (reopening June 12, 600 State Route 44/55, Highland, NY 12528, 877-605-6062, 845-691-2927, www.rockinghorseranch.com).
And while many will choose to venture within driving distance – biking, hiking (check out the Hudson River School Art Trail in the Catskills and camping at the North-South Campground, for example) – I will pretty much bet that traveling by air will be absolutely safe because of the regimen that every airline has imposed (going as far as to leave middle seats empty; sanitizing surfaces and utilizing hospital-grade ventilation/air purification systems). I would bet that the most dicey part of an airline trip will be getting through airport security.
Airlines are doing their best to allay passengers’ concerns – both from the point of view of health as well as easing up cancellation, change and refund policies. This from Delta is fairly typical of the major carriers:
“In the current environment, it’s important for all of us to travel smarter and more consciously. That’s why I want to personally update you on the situation with COVID-19 (the coronavirus) and the steps we are taking to ensure your health and safety in your travels,” writes Delta CEO Ed Bastian.
“For more than a decade, Delta has been preparing for such a scenario. As a global airline, we have strong relationships in place with health experts including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and local health authorities worldwide. We are in constant contact with them to make sure our policies and procedures meet or exceed their guidelines.
“Operations are our lifeblood. We’ve learned from past experience with outbreaks like H1N1 and Ebola, and have continually refined and improved our ability to protect our customers. That includes the way we circulate clean and fresh air in our aircraft with highly advanced HEPA filters, the new fogging procedures in our cleaning process, how we sanitize aircraft between flights and how we respond if a customer is displaying symptoms.
“A full report on the measures Delta is taking to help you have a healthy flying experience..outlines our expanded cleaning and disinfecting at our airports and on board our aircraft; distribution of hand sanitizer and amenity kits to help customers stay clean; and the technology on our aircraft to filter and replace cabin air.
“A command center in Atlanta has been stood up to guide our response, leading our global team of thousands of Delta professionals dedicated to this effort. That includes our reservations specialists handling thousands of incoming calls, our flight crews and Airport Customer Service (ACS) agents taking extra care of our customers, and our TechOps and operations coordination teams keeping the airline moving. This world-class group of airline employees has your back, and I have never been prouder of the women and men of Delta.
“To ensure you always have access to the latest information and guidance, we have a website on the COVID-19 situation that is continually being updated with cleaning policies and actions we’re implementing to keep you safe, ways you can stay healthy while flying, and changes to our flight schedules and waiver information. Transparency is one of our core values, and we are committed to keeping you fully informed as the situation evolves.
“While we’re committed to providing you with information you need to make informed decisions around your travel, we also understand the need for flexibility based on your individual circumstances. To make sure you can travel with confidence, we’re offering flexible waivers, and we’ve also adjusted our network in response to guidance from the State Department.
“We understand that in today’s world, travel is fundamental to our business and our lives, which is why it can’t – and shouldn’t – simply stop. I believe Delta’s mission of connecting the world and creating opportunities is never more important than at times like this.”
I’ve already had some extraordinary experiences during my all-too-brief stay at the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, a camping resort that prides itself on “edutainment”. I’ve tried my hand at mining for Herkimer Diamonds in the quarry – these magnificent quartz crystals that almost pop out of their rocky prison as if cut and polished by Mother Nature. I’ve done sluicing and had the delight in finding gemstones, diamonds and fossils, and explored the massive retail store and museum with its fine display of rocks, gemstones and fossils – including the large Herkimer diamond cluster in the shape of a cross that was discovered the morning of September 11, 2001, and the skull of a triceratops. And I’ve enjoyed the special atmosphere of a campground – or rather, a camping resort – the peaceful sounds of the flowing West Canada Creek, the smells of campfires, and the giggles of kids riding bikes passed my creekside cabin, themed for dinosaurs.
But there is more to do: the Herkimer KOA is but seven miles away from the Erie Canal, that marvel of human ingenuity and engineering which helped unify the fledgling nation and propel it into the Industrial Revolution. There, Dr. Renee Shevat, who owns the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, has turned a building that used to warehouse buoys into a gigantic indoor “mall” showcasing artists, artisans, writers, and companies, in a most pleasant environment (come on Saturdays, when there are free tastings), a marina where you can take a delightful 90-minute narrated cruise on the Erie Canal, climaxed with going through a lock that lifts (or drops) the boat 20 feet, and an excellent restaurant, the Waterfront Grille, with a lovely setting on the canal.
Cruising the Erie Canal
Captain Jerry Gertz delivers a delightful narration (part on tape, but he interjects and takes questions) which is interesting, engaging, and very entertaining, delivered with wonderful humor. The climax of the 90-minute cruise comes when you go through Lock 18.
Along the way, he points out interesting sights and fascinating (and I mean fascinating) details about the history and the remarkable engineering of the Erie Canal, and why the Erie Canal was so crucial to opening the West, unifying the fledgling nation, making New York the Empire State and New York City the financial capital of the world. Captain Jerry came to the Erie Canal in his “retirement” – after operating one of the largest tour boat companies in Florida.
I am surprised to learn that the peak use of the Erie Canal (this is actually the third “incarnation” of the canal – the first was Governor DeWitt Clinton’s Ditch, built 1817-1825 despite enormous skepticism and opposition and was so successful, it had to be enlarged just 10 years later and this, the third, is the Barge Canal) was not in the 1920s but in the 1950s, when over 5 million tons of cargo came through. And the canal’s undoing wasn’t even the Transcontinental Railroad (though that helped), but Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway (and volume on the canal tracks with fuel prices), which did not close down, as the Erie Canal did, from November to April, and even more devastating, the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which could carry much larger ships.
Since the 1980s, the Erie Canal has been “re-purposed” from commercial use to almost entirely recreational. And while people like Dr. Shevat and her husband who grew up in the 1950s near the canal would have never thought to boat on it – it was regarded as little better than a sewer with the pollution and smell – now it is this bucolic place, with the canal towns finding new life and new quaint housing cropping up along the canal, and the original towpath used by boys leading mules to pull the boats, is now a multi-use path extending almost the entire 363-mile length, from Buffalo to Albany (30% of the trail still needs to be completed; when it is completed, it will be longest multi-use trailway in US, and then can be combined with the Hudson Greenway down to New York City.).
Today’s Barge Canal extends 524 miles with 57 locks, each lock chamber made 328 feet long, 45 ft wide (and using the same century-old motors, manufactured by General Electric). This canal was completed in 1918 at a cost of $151 million (would cost $2.5-$3 billion in today’s dollars), but it could not be built today because of environmental restrictions (while the earlier canals probably could not be built either because of environmental and labor protections).
“The Erie Canal was the most important economic, transportation structure; only the Intercontinental railway had the same impact,” he tells us. “It was more than trade – it was about religion (7th Day Adventist), women’s suffrage, abolition. The underground railroad used the canal.
“It was the Internet of its day – the first attempt at networking and globalization,” he declares.
For the original 13 states to prosper, he tells us, they needed to open the West in order to tap those natural resources, such as lumber, as well as access to the inland waterways like the Mississippi River. “But the Appalachians were hard to get over. The route was impossible to cross –they couldn’t blast mountains then – they only had black powder.”
President Madison, a Jeffersonian, didn’t see the benefit to the nation of such a canal, so it was left o New York State to finance the project on its own.
“DeWitt Clinton worked tirelessly.” There was tremendous skepticism – no one actually had the technical expertise to build such a canal. But a “New York Memorial” speech Clinton delivered as a State Senator ignited the Legislature which authorized $7 million in bonding.
Of the three men overseeing construction, only one had any engineering background. They had to invent new methods and tools – the breakthrough was inventing hydraulic cement that hardens under water.
Now where to build? DeWitt Clinton realizes that $7 million may not be enough money to finish the project, so he has the construction start where it is easiest – in soft, flat farmland – and in the middle of the state, in Rome, and tells them to dig east and west from there. “It starts in the middle of nowhere, goes nowhere, so the state would have to give them more money.” Captain Jerry relates.
The original canal was built by 350 workers who were being paid 80c/day – they carved the ditch 40 feet wide and just four feet deep, 363 miles, from Albany-Buffalo, 83 locks, which take a boat the 565 feet difference in elevation. In the first year, was a huge success, as the cost of commerce dropped from $125/ton; one year after canal opened, to $5/ton to transport.
By now, we have cruised to Lock 18, which Captain Jerry says is still powered by the original GE motors from 1912 (the earlier canals were not motorized, but were opened and closed manually). The lock will lower us 20 feet, emptying 2.5 million gallons of water in just 7 1/2 minutes (and reversing the process when we return).
As we pass Fort Herkimer Church, which he says is the second oldest surviving church, dating from 1767, Captain Jerry also tells the story of General Herkimer – probably the most important Revolutionary War hero few have heard of:
General George Washington commissioned Herkimer as a general but he had no army. But when Herkimer learned that the British had taken Fort Stanwix in July 1777, he gathered up a militia formed mainly of German immigrants to gather at Fort Dayton (now Herkimer, New York), to begin the 40-mile westward march to the besieged Stanwix.
Herkimer was betrayed by Molly Brant, who sent word of their march to her brother, Joseph Brant, the Mohawk leader.
On August 6, Herkimer and his men were ambushed by a group of Loyalists and Mohawk Indians at a bloody battle that came to be known as the Battle of Oriskany, during which Herkimer was mortally wounded – he died 10 days later.
it is one of bloodiest encounters of War – 400 were killed in just 6 hours.
But the British blockading Fort Stanwix believed reinforcements were on their way and retreat – giving the Patriots their first victory of sorts. And the British General John Burgoyne went on to a major defeat at Saratoga (at the hands of General Benedict Arnold), turning the tide of the war for the Patriots.
“Herkimer was one of saviors of American Revolution,” Captain Jerry says, no doubt introducing most of us to a historic figure we had never heard of before.
Near here, is the Herkimer Homestead, which during the Revolutionary War consisted of 7 building on 3000 acres. The Historic Herkimer House, a 1762 mansion, can be visited in Little Falls. And you can easily reach the Fort Herkimer Church, on Rte. 5S.
This day we are on a small, 36-passenger boat, the Lil Diamond II (he even lets a couple of the kids drive it for awhile), but he also has a large boat, the Lil Diamond III, that is utilized by groups (including weddings).
Gems Along the Mohawk is one of the most interesting shops you will ever encounter.
It serves as a Visitor Center for travelers coming off of I-90 (it is directly across from the ramp at Exit 30), and staff cheerfully greet guests and provide travel information (and rest rooms) for weary travelers. It offers a wonderful restaurant with stunning views of the canal, and a marina from which you can take the 90-minute Erie Canal Cruise.
But it is so much more. The shop is a showcase for New York and the Mohawk Valley producers – actually 70 different merchants whose items are displayed, like Mele jewelry boxes (based in Utica since 1912, which you have probably seen in major department stores), and Salida Tea (check out the collection of Red Rose figurines and the giant porcelain tea set); Also, Jim Parker Folk Art. And it also heralds the region’s legacy companies, like Revere Copper Products, started by Paul Revere, 1801), and Remington Arms (200 years old, the same company as produced the iconic typewriter and other items like sewing machines and even a bridge – you can even visit the Remington Museum nearby); HM Quakenbush, founded in 1871 in Ilion, which is America’s largest and oldest manufacturer of nutcrackers; Beech Nut, founded in 1931 in Amsterdam, the baby-food company
“This is what created Mohawk Valley,” Melody Milewski, General Manager, tells me as she gives me a tour.
“We don’t just take anybody,” she says. “All the associates want to show their story, their connection to the Mohawk Valley.”
Come on Saturdays and Sundays, and you can enjoy tastings (and free coffee and tea) at about 17 of the 70 shops.
But when you peruse the shop, it is astonishing how much you learn.
The kids can play in an area devoted to the Wizard of Oz. Why the Wizard of Oz, I ask? The famous author, L. Frank Baum, lived not far from here (you can visit the All Things Oz Museum, in Chittenango), but his mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, had an even greater connection and for the first time, I learn that she was instrumental in the Women’s Rights movement. She had connections to the Oneida women and incorporated their ideas of a woman’s right to property and child custody and selecting the chief at a time when women had rights to none of these. (I take this basic knowledge with me to Seneca Falls, to the Women’s Rights National Park, and to Fort Stanwix which picks up on the themes of the “clash of cultures” between Europeans and Indians).
Indeed, the Mohawk Valley was The West, a vast wilderness. James Fennimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans: was set in part in Glens Falls). This was the land of the Mohawk, the Oneida and the 6 Nations.
The shop features a bookstore stocked by Ganesvoort House Books (who also operates a bed-and-breakfast in Little Falls), which offers books about Gage, and the native American influence on Women’s Rights movement, “Sisters in Spirit,” by Sally Roesch Wagner as well as scores of other local writers.
This is all news to me. Just walking around introduces me to people and places I had never heard of before – like Fort Stanwix which I will later visit in Rome, when I take the 400-mile Cycle the Erie Canal tour (I will get to camp out at the Fort, where Melody says she participated in excavations before the National Park Service rebuilt it.)
Gems Along the Mohawk (800 Mohawk Street, Herkimer NY 11350, 315-717-0077, 866-716-GEMS, email@example.com, www.gemsalongthemohawk.com).
Today, cruising the Erie Canal and dining at the Waterfront Grille, we see a bucolic scene, but when Dr. Renee Shevat and her husband, Sam, were growing up, during the peak of commercial traffic on the Erie Canal, it was a noxious sewer.
The canal has gone through a major re-purposing – it carries very little commercial traffic but is almost exclusively used for recreation – and so have the canal towns the grew up because of the canal, then went into a tailspin with its decline.
The complex that is now a retail store, visitors center, restaurant and marina was originally a terminal building for tending buoys for the Barge Canal, before Dr. Shevat convinced the state to let her build a private enterprise on the canal, which is part of the Heritage Corridor.
Dr. Shevat, who has her PhD in finance and strategic planning, and was the vice president of a college (with ambition of becoming a president someday) utilized all of her skills and experience when she took over running the campground and mining attraction from her father – developing four distinct business units.
She also clearly has not left her academic credentials behind, but manages to incorporate “edutainment” into every aspect of the experience – and not just for the young campers, but for the adult campers and the young people who work as counselors, as well.
“I like making science fun,” she says. The activities that are offered daily incorporate gemology, paleontology, robotics, geology. Many of the lodges are themed around science – solar powered lodges, dinosaurs, a fossil pit, an astronomy lodge (with a real computer-operated telescope for the exclusive use of that cabin), and a robotics lodge.
“I don’t want them just to have a summer job but a resume,” she says of her counselors. “I encourage them to do projects.” So Blair and Josh, both student teachers, created the catalog of gems and fossils and a curriculum to teach their colleagues, and counselors will be helping campers build a robot and a crystal radio.
That philosophy was genesis of Professor Gadget’s Lodge.
The Robotics Lodge was designed by the 2013-2014 graduating senior class of engineers from Binghamton University’s Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science. At the Herkimer Diamond Mines, there are K-12 projects and programs offered throughout the year, but this was the first project at the collegiate level, giving students a the opportunity to design a commercial project from the ground up.
This process involved five interdisciplinary projects which were completed by two teams of 12 students. Each project allowed not only for the education of the students who created it, but also for the continued education of KOA guests. Campers of all ages learn about motors, motion sensors, battery power, chain machines, vectors and inertia.
When you walk by the lodge, the first thing you notice is the 6’ tall weatherproof case engineered by Danielle Brogna, which contains a prototype of a Rube Goldberg rolling ball sculpture. Inside, the lodge utilizes an innovative and interactive lighting system designed and programmed by computer engineering major Elan Ashendorf; a mechanical lift system and hammock which lets guests practice their own engineering skills, and has robotic display boxes lining the wall.
“What is special about this project,” says Shevat, “is that each student was allowed the freedom to design to their strengths, which they believed would be enjoyed by many campers.
“The partnership with Binghamton University and campers, as consumer consultants, was very rewarding. And, yes, we would do it again with another scientific theme!.”
Also, during the season, the KOA offers a Rock and Gem Camp for about 100 kids (26 had to be turned away for the first camp) as well as Geology weekends for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts (conferring a Geology badge).
“Diamonds and the Erie Canal – two unique attractions – I want to be the centerpiece for dinner conversation: ‘Do you remember when we….?’” Dr. Shevat says.
The Herkimer Diamond KOA is open April through October (peak season rates apply July and August.) Weekends have special themes.
Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA was recognized as KOA’s “Kampground of the Year” on the North American continent in 2010. I would rate the Herkimer Diamond KOA 5 diamonds – and then some.
Remington Gun Museum (on Catherine Street off Route 5S, Ilion, NY 13357, 315-895-3200, 800-243-9700, www.remington.com).
Fort Herkimer Church, on 5S
Historic Herkimer Mansion
Fort Stanwix, Rome
Erie Canal Museum (318 Erie Boulevard East Syracuse, NY 13202, eriecanalmuseum.org
All Things Oz Museum, which opened in 2011 and is run by volunteers, is the house where L. Frank Baum, who wrote “The Wizard of Oz,” was born in 1856. The museum claims to have over 1000 Baum- and Oz-related items in its collection (219 Genesee St., Chittenango, NY, Wed-Sun., 315-333-2286, $5.)
I get to experience many of these sites when I continue my travels, biking 400-miles on the Erie Canal Trail, along with 600 others in the 17th annual Cycle the Erie Buffalo-Albany bike tour (ptny.org).
There I am, swinging a small sledgehammer, quarrying for diamonds – Herkimer Diamonds, that is, extraordinary quartz crystal nuggets that emerge (even pop right out) of their rocky prison with 18 facets, as if they had been cut by a jeweler.
You never know what you will find, what the next smashing, crushing blow will reveal and it is thrilling when you crack the rock to expose the diamond. A treasure hunt, to be sure. But it is also remarkably satisfying to be smashing rock.
This is just one of the – dare I say – unique attractions when you come to Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, a true camping resort, in upstate New York. An altogether different experience – certainly, not your father’s camping experience.
To begin with, I am in one of the Herkimer Diamond KOA’s new themed cabins, set right on a rushing creek, which campers use for tubing (a whole mile from beginning to end, for a 20-minute ride!), and others use for some of the best trout and bass fishing in New York.
Mine is called Randy’s, named for the triceratops skull that is on view in Herkimer Diamond Mines’ gems and fossil museum (yes, it has its own museum), and is themed for dinosaurs.
The first emotion I feel when I enter is sheer delight that manifests as an ear-to-ear smile when I see all the dinosaur accoutrements – including a two-foot high (plastic) raptor that whenever I see it in the corner of my eye, makes me jump. The bedding, shower curtain, wall hangings are all themed for dinosaurs, and it is complete fun (informative, also).
The cabin is outfitted with every creature comfort you could possibly want – a well equipped kitchenette, bath items, flat-screen TV, sofa in the living room, table with four chairs, air conditioning and heater, linens and towels – all cleverly laid out to maximize space. The porch has a rocking chair and there is even a patio, right beside the creek, with patio furniture, BBQ and firepit. And WiFi, which has become such an essential feature.
Other cabins and lodges are also themed: there is Caesar’s Place (Woof), which has its very own doggie-park; Another is themed for fossils and even has its own pit where you can dig to find your own fossils.
There are even more elaborate lodges (I really would have trouble choosing): one is themed for astronomy and actually has its own “planetarium” with a sophisticated, computer-operated telescope as well as photos taken from the Hubble telescope; another is Professor Gadget’s Robotics Lodge that features working robotic components (“to educate and entertain”) devised by Binghamton University grad students.
Then there are three lodges that operate on solar energy – just part of the initiative to demonstrate renewable energy and model eco-friendly living.
In another delightful socially-conscious and community-building initiative, there are 40 bins where they grow fresh vegetables, and campers are welcome to help themselves. There is also a Japanese garden which is a tribute to the victims of Japan’s tsunami.
There is so much about the Herkimer Diamond KOA that is special – and I haven’t even begun to describe the diamond mining, jewelry making. and Erie Canal cruising.
There is an atmosphere here – it’s true of camping in general, but there is something very special about this place.
To begin with, its Edutainment – that is, a healthy mixture of education (or actually, enrichment) with entertainment, that is woven into the architecture, the landscape and programming.
There are daily activities – jewelry making, science experiment (static electricity, make a volcano, make a balloon rocket), badminton, flag football, cray fishing, basketball, chess and checkers tournament, volleyball, dodgeball, water balloon toss, table tennis, scavenger hunt, relay races, hula hoop contest – as well as nightly movies (outside on nice evenings, under the pavilion when it rains), and gatherings around the firepit (S’mores on Saturday nights).
There is a huge playground area – separate playground equipment for youngest kids and older kids, and basketball court.
A volleyball court which is next to a gigantic firepit which is a gathering area (s’mores on Saturday nights); and a pavilion where there are games, a snack bar (ever try a breakfast pizza? It’s made with bacon and egg; and a Herkimer Diamond pizza for evening).
There is a gorgeous swimming pool (next year, the plan is to have it solar heated).
If you forgot your tube or fishing rod, you can buy these in the Herkimer Diamond KOA general store; in fact, probably everything you need, forgot, wish you brought, can be had there, so if you wanted to travel light, no problem.
And if you don’t feel like cooking, there is the Rock n’ Roll Cafe, as well as Crystal Chandelier Restaurant, a very pleasant pub-style restaurant located a short walk across the road from the campground (KOA guests get a discount and $9.95 nightly specials, 4579 State Rt. 28N,, 315-891-3366, crystalchandelier.net).
You can easily fill out a two or three-day getaway with just the activities right at the resort: directly across the tiny road (Rte 28), from the camping resort is the Herkimer Diamond Mine – an attraction that brings people from far and wide, including many who come back time and again (more on that to come). There is mile-long tubing along the West Canada Creek, which also affords some of the best trout and bass fishing in New York State.
Just about five miles away – bikeable on the bike lane on Rte 28 – is the uniquely appealing Erie Canal, where you can enjoy Gems Along the Mohawk (owned by the Herkimer Diamond KOA people) a combination visitor center, specialty shops showcasing regional artisans and artists, Waterfront Grille for dining, and a marvelous 90-minute narrated Erie Canal Cruise which climaxes with the experience of going through Lock 18, as well as biking along the Erie Canal. Not to mention that Cooperstown is about 30-minutes drive away.
Mining for Diamonds!
Mining for the Herkimer diamonds isn’t a fantastical thing – it is more unlikely that you will leave without finding one than it is to find one. And there are many people who come and merely gather diamonds from the ground, without even swinging a hammer.
The kind of mining we get to do is “quarry” mining, rather than going into a cave. An outcrop of rock of this giant crystal-laden mountain has been exposed, and the idea is to basically look for rocks with black holes or a black vein – sometimes pulling down rock using crowbars and chisels, and 6 to 20 lb. sledge hammers. Then whacking at the pieces of rock with a 2 or 3 lb. crack hammer.
Jordan, Herkimer’s resident miner (your image would be of a grizzled, fossilized old man, but Jordan is a young strapping fellow who grew up nearby but learned his mining skills on the job), guides me in what to look for: a dark pocked hole in a rock that makes it a good candidate for housing a diamond. Then he shows me how to set it down on flat ground and whack across a line (being careful not to smash your hand, finger or foot). Sometimes, you don’t want to release the diamond, but let it show itself off in the rock.
Most Herkimer Diamonds, no matter how small, have 18 facets – all you do is wash off the mud and there you have it: a jewel.
Jordan tells me that each Herkimer diamond stone is unique. “To a collector, a certain stone ‘speaks to him’ because of its shape, inclusion, anthraxolite (ancient carbon) inside, presence of a water bubble, or another distinctive feature like a negative crystal (another stone) inside.”
Often you see the rock not with a single stone, but with “druzy” – thousands, even millions of sparkling Herkimers, that form a vein or fill one of those black holes. “We don’t know why – perhaps it is a phase of growth,” Jordan tells me. Rocks with druzy can be even more valuable because of how beautiful and unusual they are.
He says that often, the stone is even more valuable when it is kept in the rock, where the black-hole background enhances the visual display – makes it “pop” (you have to put felt on the bottom or the rock will ruin wood or glass).
I find a fairly large Herkimer diamond, which Jordan estimates to be valued at $25.
The most perfect crystals are usually less than half-inch long, but occasionally much larger crystals are found. Crystals are also common that are intertwined or clustered, with perfect crystals attached to the backs of larger ones. And you can bring your day’s find into the shop for an appraisal. (The most valuable stone a tourist found was valued at $2000).
You can watch a video in the museum which explains the process.
(The admission pass, $11/adult, $1 less for KOA campers and veterans, $9/ages 5-12 – includes all day prospecting, use of rock hammer, all day museum entrance, zip lock bags, mining information. You should bring protective eye wear and closed-toed shoes, though they sell goggles. Some people bring their own chairs, umbrellas, chisels, screens. and when you get hungry, you can visit the Rocks n’ Roll Cafe, right by the quarry.)
Polished by Mother Nature
It doesn’t matter to me that the Herkimer diamonds are not actually diamonds – they are marvels in their own right in that they literally pop out of the dolomite rock that holds them, coming out polished and faceted by Mother Nature. (And many attach healing powers to them.)
They look like actual diamonds, but in actuality, they are “doubly terminated” quartz crystals. They have a hardness of 7.5, comparable to emeralds and aquamarines, whereas diamonds, which are formed from carbon, have a hardness of 10 (one of the hardest substance known to man). Most interestingly, by quirk of how the earth formed, they are found mainly in Herkimer County and the Mohawk Valley of New York.
The dolomite bedrock in which the crystals are found – a sedimentary carbonate rock, closely related to limestone – began forming 500 million years ago in a shallow Cambrian sea on the southern shores of what became the Adirondack Mountains. The limy sediments (calcium magnesium carbonate) which had slowly accumulated beneath the sea’s saltwater were gradually compacted under the weight of thousands of feet of sediment, forming the rock strata Dolostones (interestingly, it is also in this layer of Early Ordivician rock that the first evidence of marine life can be found).
It is believed that while still beneath the sea, water seeped through the pores of the rock, often creating “vugs” by dissolving part of the rock. Millions of years later, water rich with silica filled these vugs and eventually evaporated or drained away, leaving the silica which had grown by precipitation to form the quartz crystals.
One theory that explains the source of the silica material is that hundreds of millions of years ago, there were micro-sized simple-cell sea organisms that lived in colonies and secreted silica in glass-like geometrical shapes, and that they were trapped under the sediments.
A series of evolutionary geographical events continued through the Ice Age – the Pleistocene Epoch. A giant continental ice sheet covered the region. Rushing waters caused by the melting glacier eroded away thousands of feet of sedimentary rock, eventually uncovering the dolomite rock layer.
What is remarkable about the Herkimer diamonds is that most have 18 facets – six triangular faces form the termination points on each end of the crystal – regardless of how small they are. These are separated by a group of six square or rectangular faces that form a diamond shape, with such precision that it would be hard to reproduce by hand.
“Most limestone doesn’t throw quartz crystal like here,” Jordan tells me.
A “curiosity” of some Herkimer Diamonds is that many of the crystals have liquid trapped inside, which can be seen with the naked eye because of the clarity.
The liquid inside the inclusion is mostly saltwater, confirming that seawater was present when they were forming. Many of the liquid inclusions have bubbles which float about in the liquid – some are carbon dioxide gas, but most are water vapor.
Some Herkimer Diamonds have solid inclusions – most commonly a coal-like substance called “anthraxolite,” which give the pockets a solid black appearance. The anthraxolite could be the result of decomposition of plant life that inhabited the sediments.
Another theory is offered to explain the source of the silica material – that hundreds of millions of years ago, there were micro-sized simple-cell sea organisms that lived in colonies and secreted silica in glass-like geometrical shapes, and that they were trapped under the sediments.
As for the discovery of the Herkimer diamonds: Local lore has it that two Revolutionary War soldiers happened on the diamonds and believed they were real. Their commanding officer, General Herkimer (who went on to become a genuine hero of the Revolutionary War), was said to want to use the diamonds to help finance the war, but that when the minerals were assayed, they were found not to be actual diamonds.
“General Herkimer is legend in the valley,” Dr. Renee Scialdo Shevat, who owns the property, tells me later. “They named the county, the village for him. He led troops to Battle of Oriskany – a turning point for the Revolution.” (He mustered 800 locals for a militia to save Fort Stanwix which was being blockaded by British, and when the British retreated, that gave the patriots their first victory.)
“But it is a myth that Herkimer financed artillery with Herkimer diamonds. The Native Americans were first to find the diamonds. The Mohawk Valley was called the land of crystal. Iroquois arrowheads have been found that used Herkimer diamonds.”
Awareness of the Herkimer diamonds goes back to at least 1819 but James Hadley is credited with being the first to bring the diamonds to public attention, in 1823. Prospectors were blasting the hard dolomite rock earlier than 1879. But what really exposed the diamonds was cutting the road for Route 28 which passes directly in front of the Herkimer Diamond Mines.
The Herkimer Diamond Mines was first opened to the public in 1955 for prospecting by the farmer who owned the property. Eventually the property was sold to investors headed by Van Atty, who developed the mine, the rock shop and a public campground for the prospectors. In 1981, Rena and Rudy Scialdo purchased the property, today, it is owned and operated by their daughter, Dr. Renee Scialdo Shevat.
Dr. Shevat, who has a PhD in finance and strategic, took over the operation in 1997 and really boosted the Diamond Mines as an attraction and the Herkimer diamonds in jewelry, and has carefully guarded against over-saturating the market. The mountain that is rich in Herkimer diamonds spans 300 acres, but in all these years, they have only opened 6 acres for prospecting.
As many as 500 people a day from all around the world come here to prospect.
People who aren’t physically inclined to smash rocks with a hammer can do very well just hunting for the Herkimer diamonds on the ground – Dr. Shevat relates how a 98-year old woman found $400 worth of diamonds loose in the soil.
If quarrying isn’t your thing, you can do sluicing – you can purchase a bag and do like the California gold miners, and run water over a sieve to find your treasure – which has its own Zen quality to it. You can purchase a bag that has Herkimer diamonds, or a bag that has various gemstones, or a bag that contains fossils (these are $11), or a “megabag” (it is giant), that has all three ($29).
Ambitious interns Blair and Josh, who are student teachers have produced a guide to what you find and are on hang to help people not just identify their finds, but to learn about what they are.
I did the mixed bag – and yes indeed, there were the Herkimer diamonds, nice chunks of amethyst, gemstones and fossils galore which Josh and Blair helped me identify: a blue stone (sodalite), rose quartz, a fossil with the imprint of a sea clam; petrified wood; agate; ammonite; ammulite (which they tell me could grow up to 3 feet long, and like an octopus, pull water in the shell, and squirt it out to propel motion); sand shark teeth; a crinoid (which I am told, was a free-floating animal that went extinct 65 million years ago), and a piece of coral.
Yet another activity at the Herkimer Diamond Mine: you can even get your picture taken via drone.
And if you get hungry from all your mining, you can stop into the Rock & Rolls Cafe.
Jewelry Shop and Museum
The Herkimer Jewelry Shop is an attraction in itself – not just items made from the Herkimer diamonds (which are actually sold on the Home Shopping Network, and similar shopping networks around the world, including Germany and Japan) – but gems collected and turned into jewelry by designers from around the world – Istanbul, Bali, Egypt, Rio, Hong Kong. It boasts being the largest jewelry, rock and gem store in the Northeast.
The second floor of the shop offers an extensive, really well-done museum with gemstones, rocks and minerals, as well as fossils, a Herkimer Diamond Hall of Fame, a Children’s reaching room, and an exhibit of the largest and finest cut Herkimer Diamonds.
One of the most remarkable exhibits is a massive cluster of Herkimer Diamonds, 17 x 12 inches (one of the largest ever found) in the shape of a cross, which Dr. Shevat tells me, was unearthed on September 11, 2001 at almost the exact time as the terror planes hit the Twin Towers in New York City. It seems to bolster the belief in such quartz crystals for their mystical properties.
Another key attraction is Randy, a dinosaur skull from Madagascar (most likely a triceratops), found two years ago. Jordan points out that inside his mouth is another dinosaur bone, suggesting that the dinosaur died choking on its meal.
The building was originally an 1880 barn, and upstairs, you can see the original wood floor; and sit in chairs from the oldest movie theater in town to watch a video about prospecting the Herkimer Diamonds.
Herkimer Diamond KOA: An Edutaining Experience
In the morning, I wander around as this camping community comes to life – kids on bikes, parents walking dogs or pulling their kids , kids on the basketball court, people sitting by the creek with a cup of coffee, others sitting around a fire. A neighborhood that ebbs and flows daily, but a neighborhood, nonetheless.
There are all manner of RVs – some bigger than a bus – and I am always amazed at how people outfit them (one has its own bike rack, plastic bins all neatly organized, another has a TV and its own homecoming sign, “The Dennies”).
There are also many sites for tents.
“When I was 18, I might have tented, but not so much now,” Dr. Shevat tells me later when we go about the campground. “And people of all ages want to be able to charge their mobiles and computers and access WiFi. Kids like to tent but they want to charge cell phone,” so now they provide 30 amp connections at the tent sites.
There may be all these comforts added to the “camping” experience, but what is still true, is being outdoors. And together.
We see a steady stream of people returning from the creek with their tubes – you can float a mile, about 20 minutes worth, from one end of the resort to the other.
We meet people from all over the country – a family from West Texas, sitting around their campfire – and many who have been coming back year after year; the fellow who has rented the Astronomy Cabin (who turns out to be an astronomy hobbyist), who delightedly shows me the telescope, is part of a big group that comes to the campground every year for the Boilermaker Race that takes place in Utica.
Shevat, who earned a PhD in finance and strategic planning, was a vice president of a college with hopes of eventually becoming a college president, when, in 1997, she took over running the Herkimer Diamond KOA for her father, expecting it to be a temporary arrangement.
She went on to develop the four major business units – the campground, turning it into a camping resort with themed lodges; the Herkimer Diamond mine attraction; the retail shop; and now the Gems on the Mohawk complex with the Erie Canal Cruise. Her retail jewelry operation is global – selling on Home Shopping Networks around the world – and the Herkimer Diamonds have some novel uses, including being used in the making of vodka (Crystal Skull Vodka, with a bottle in shape of crystal skull from Indiana Jones, and 46 Peaks in Adirondacks, are filtered through Herkimer diamonds), and the Dalai Lama, she tells me, is purchasing Herkimer diamonds to decorate Buddhas.)
In the days of quartz watches, these diamonds were used for their precision with which they would release their pulse, and there is some research being done to see if there are new uses for the Herkimer crystals in telecommunications.
But she is an educator at heart, and interweaves “edutainment” in every aspect of the resort.
They offer two sessions of week-long science camps, accommodating 100 kids at a time (they had to turn away 26 for the first camp), where kids get to take part in activities like exploding volcano, dissecting a frog, building a robot, flying drones, and learning about geology, paleontology, gemology. (Activities for parents are organized, as well, such as trips to nearby Cooperstown.)
And there are weekend sessions for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to earn a Gemology badge.
About inviting Binghamton University graduate students to help design the Robotics Lodge, she says, “What is unique about this project is that each student was allowed the freedom to design to their strengths, which they believed would be enjoyed by many campers. What better sense of accomplishment can one have when you build something unusual with high energy collegiate talent for campers to experience an all-inclusive scientific theme…The partnership with Binghamton University and campers, as consumer consultants, was very rewarding. And, yes, we would do it again with another scientific theme!”
Herkimer Diamond KOA was recognized in 2010 as KOA’s Kampground of the Year on the North American continent for its innovative lodgings and programming . Kampgrounds of America, with 485 locations in North America, is celebrating its 53rd Anniversary in 2015. (For more information and trip-planning tools, go to www.KOA.com.)
A stay at Herkimer Diamond KOA offers so much more to do, such as a canal boat ride with Lil’ Diamond III at the Herkimer Marina that takes you through a lock that lifts you up and down 20 feet on the Erie Canal (see next).
“Diamonds and the Erie Canal – two unique attractions,” Dr. Shevat tells me. “I want to be the centerpiece for dinner conversation: ‘Do you remember when we….?’”
The Herkimer Diamond KOA is open April through October (peak season rates apply July and August.) Weekends have special themes.