by Chris Clemens
I don’t know where obsessions arise from, but as a kid I was really in to rocks. My parents even bought a rock tumbler one year so I could polish my own! To further support my habit, they made sure we visited Rock City Park in Olean, New York, in the southeastern corner of Cattaraugus County. The trail at Rock City Park zigzags around 23 acres of the largest collection of exposed quartz conglomerate on the planet.
You might be thinking, “Cool. But, I’m not really into rocks, man.” Let me stop you right there. Rock City Park is a pretty unique and majestic place to explore. It’s so much more than a spot for serious geologists to… get their rocks off.
I remember day trips there when I was a young kid. Walking through a forest of towering rock formations and feeling as though we were in another world is a great memory for me. Since it had been decades, it was time to revisit as an adult!
The Olean Conglomerate that you’ll see in Rock City Park can be found in parts of the Southern Tier, but also in Pennyslvania, and Ohio. Like much of our geological history, it formed about 320-315 million years ago. As glaciers from the north slowly melted and crept south, they brought all kinds of rocks and sediment. Those glaciers actually stopped just short of Olean, but as they melted, the running water began to flow south.
Remember the tumbler I mentioned earlier? They’re devices that replicate the thousands and thousands of years that stones kick around in water to eventually become smooth and rounded. A similar phenomenon happens with sea glass. The Olean Conglomerate was made while running water deposited the quartz in to the sandy soil that used to be the bed of a sea that covered this region.
Now, jumping ahead a few millennia…
In 1890, five local entrepreneurs responsible for the Western NY and PA Traction Company bought up the land. They turned their new property into a rock-laden amusement park. Within just a few years, there were thousands of people rolling in every day to visit!
After a few decades, Americans became increasingly interested in things like movies and airplane trips to far away lands. Interest in local places like Rock City Park waned a bit. Since then, the park has changed ownership and small changes have come and gone. Though the foot traffic isn’t as high as it was in 1900, Rock City Park remains one of the coolest attractions in the region.
In 2001, Cindy and Dale Smith purchased the park and they’ve been working hard to make it a destination for all ever since.
On The Path
Behind the visitor center, you’ll walk out on top of a large expansive collection of the exposed quartz. While the entire park is pretty unique, this view is really noteworthy. The rolling appearance of the stone is interrupted by cracks and crevices giving it almost a desert appearance. That grey, hardened look is countered by the view of green tree tops extending for miles.
A map available from the visitor center will guide you down a steel stairway that descends among the gargantuan outcroppings to a path below. From here, you’ll find that most of the rock formations have special names based on how they appeared to the discoverer. There’s “Sentinel” which isn’t as visually obvious as the “Old Man” seen below.
(See the face??)
It’s been said that the path can be done in 45 minutes, but we took about an hour and a half. Without stopping and really taking time to discover each of the formations, it could definitely be finished faster. Each turn of the path had so much to see, it was tough to try and move on without really taking it all in.
Visiting Rock City Park
Rock City Park is located just a few miles north of the Pennyslvania state border on NY-16. A long driveway leads back to a small parking lot in the woods, and a visitor center/gift shop greets guests. Hours are seasonal, so be sure to visit their rates and hours webpage before you go.
And, be sure to tell Dale and Cindy that I say hello!
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens