In prehistoric days, the landscape of western New York was far different than it appears today. Vast areas were covered by oceans; once these oceans receded, various rock formations were exposed.
There are eleven rock formations sites in our area, located within a 50 mile radius of each other. However, only three of these sites, which will be described in this article, are open to the public. Visiting one of these places is a great way to enjoy the outdoors and the wonders of nature, while learning about the history and geology of the area. Each is about a ninety minute drive from metro Buffalo.
Rock City Park
Some rocks were formed when quartz was carried from the mountains by rivers and streams and deposited in the sand and mud along the oceans. After millions of years, this sediment formed the quartz conglomerate, also known as “pudding stone”, which resembles concrete. This type of rock is of great interest to geologists, as it is ocean bottom rock, not glacial effect rock.
Rock City Park a 23-acre park located about 5 ½ miles south of Olean, is the largest formation of this type of rock in the world. I visited the park recently with my family and we were really amazed by the mammoth rock formations. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything like it in my travels.
Cindy and Dale Smith have owned the park for five seasons. Before that, the park was owned by the Booker family since 1890, when the park first opened. Thousands of visitors, from both Olean and nearby Bradford, PA, arrived at the park by trolley. Visitors stayed in the elegant Bon Air hotel and enjoyed dancing in the pavilion, which hosted famous bands of the day, including John Phillip Sousa. An amusement park was also located here.
“I love rocks,’ said Cindy Smith. “I have collected rocks my whole life.” The Smiths had owned and operated a hardware business in Olean for a number of years; the business is still run by their sons. The Bookers were customers who knew of Cindy’s love for rocks. “One day they approached me, said they wanted to retire and asked me if we would like to buy the park.”
She described the park, “It’s nature at it’s best. In spring you have the Mountain Laurel bushes blooming; in summer there are lots of wildflowers, along with salamanders, and the fall foliage is absolutely spectacular.” The park is closed in the winter months.
Enter the park through the newly expanded gift shop and museum, which has pictures of the park in its early days. Due to the nature of the park, it is not handicap or stroller accessible. You should wear casual clothing and comfortable shoes and be in fairly good shape if you plan on hiking the park. There is a video of the park shown in the museum for those unable to hike the trail. Our youngest, who was three at the time, enjoyed the park; however you do have to be especially vigilant if you bring little ones, as there are crevices, drop-offs and other area where small children could get into trouble.
From the “vista view” at the beginning of the trail, you can see 35 miles on a clear day. The vista view is a popular spot for weddings; about a ½ dozen weddings are held at the park each year. The park’s picnic pavilion is also available to rent for reunions, picnics and other functions.
Head down the iron staircase and squeeze through the crevice known as “fat man’s squeeze,” then walk through the immense “dining hall pass.” The next few formations, “Indian camp” and “tee pee rock,” reflect the time when the park was used by the Seneca Indians as a fortress.
Several of the formations look like faces in the rocks, especially “three sisters,” and “old man of the rocks.” I got a bit nervous walking past “balancing rock,” which features a huge 1,000 ton boulder balancing precariously on another rock.
Come back up to the top via the Indian stairs, a steep stone stairway that is believed to have been built by the Senecas. At the top, stop by the overlook “signal rock,” used by Senecas to send smoke signals, and take a look at the view.
Be sure to peruse the gift shop, which has a large selection of rocks. You can also find more traditional souvenir items, like spoons, thimbles and shot glasses.
Panama Rocks is located in Chautauqua County, about seven miles south of Chautauqua Lake. This privately owned park is the largest outcropping of glacier-sculpted quartz conglomerate rock in the world.
About 300 million years ago, these rocks were sea islands, part of an ancient river delta. Eventually, thousands of feet of sediment built up over the sea islands and the rock was compressed, forming quartz conglomerate. During the last Ice Age, about 10,000 million years ago, a glacier covered this area; after it melted, thousands of crevices and passageways were left.
Stone age people probably used the formations for shelter. During the 1600’s the area was inhabited by a tribe known as the Eriez. European settlers began arriving in the region in the early 1800’s.
Panama Rocks got its name from a gentleman who had been across the Isthmus of Panama, who said that these rocks reminded him of rocks in the Central American country. Later, the nearby village was named Panama, after the rocks, since the rocks were here long before the village.
Panama Rocks was first opened as a public park in 1885 by George Hubbard. It was later purchased by D.L. Davis in 1910, who added stairways down into some of the dens and crevices, and a dining hall, where chicken dinners were served on Sunday. During the 20th century, there were multiple owners who operated the park. Current owners, Craig and Sandra Weston have been operating the park since April of 1979.
“We were living in the city and were looking to move away from city life,’ said Craig Weston. “ We just happened to be taking a drive, when we saw a ‘for sale’ sign in front of the park. We decided to inquire about it. One thing led to another and we bought the park.”
Panama Rocks is made up of a ½ mile ridge of rocks that is about 50 yards wide. A one mile long trail circles the ridge. Craig mentioned that the lower portion of the trail has more dramatic scenery. It’s also where all the crevices and dens, which are fun to explore, are located. He added that it’s a bit more dangerous to walk on the upper portion, especially if you have young children in tow. As with any rock park, Panama Rocks is not stroller or handicap accessible.
While you could walk the trail in 20 minutes, most people take at least 1 ½ hours or more to explore the park. Visitors are encouraged to venture off the trail to explore and climb the formations.
Craig compared the park to a giant playground, in addition to being a scenic wonder. He recalled a customer who came with his kids a few months ago who wasn’t too sure the park was going to be worth the $6 admission fee. Upon exiting the park that same customer told Craig, “It’s the most fun I’ve had in 30 years!”
“October is a popular time to visit,’ said Craig. “There are so many different trees, with a lot of different shades of fall foliage.” Some of the Hemlock trees in the park are 200-250 years old; however they grow slowly because of the poor soil.
Panama Rocks is one of the 134 sites mentioned in the Sierra Club Guide to the Ancient Forests of the Northeast by Bruce Kershner and Robert Leverett. ( Kershner, who also authored Secret Places, Scenic Treasures of Western New York and Southern Ontario, lives in the Buffalo area)
Rock City State Forest
This 6,000 acre state owned forest, not to be confused with Rock City Park, is located near Little Valley in Cattaraugus County. There are numerous hiking and mountain bike trails located throughout the forest and as well as several areas of rock formations. One of the more scenic areas is referred to as “Little Rock City,” an area of conglomerate rock that has many giant size boulders, passageways and caves. The forest is open dusk to dawn, with free admission.
If you go
Rock City Park (716-372-7790 or 1-800-404-ROCK) 505 Rt. 16 South, Olean, NY. Follow Rt. 16 south from Olean for about 5 ½ miles and watch for the driveway on your right. Open 9-6 daily, May-October. Admission is $4.50 adults, $3.75 over age 62, $2.50 age 6-12, children under 5 are free. A season pass, which you can share with others, is $8.95.
Panama Rocks (716-782-2845) 11 Rock Hill Rd. (CR 10), PO Box 176, Panama, NY. Open daily 10-5, mid-May to late October; they are open until October 22nd this year. Admission is $6 ages 18-24, $4 ages 55+ and 13-17, $3 ages 6-12 and under five are free. Take the I-90 to Westfield (EXIT 60). Turn left on NY 394. About 2-3 miles south of Mayville, turn right on County Route 33. Go south to Panama on County Route 33 (10 miles). In Panama you will come to a flashing light. Turn right at the light, onto NY 474 West. Go less than 1/4 mile. Turn left onto Rt. 10 West. Drive up the hill, and turn left at the park entrance.
Rock City State Forest (for information, contact DEC Allegany sub office 716-372-0645) Entrance located off Rock City Rd., Little Valley. To reach the trailhead, take NY 353 south from Little Valley to Whig St. to Hungry Rd. to Rock City Rd.