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Petoskey Stones and Other Natural Treasures

Unique pitted stones on sandy ground.
Petoskey stones photo © Laura Martone.

While visiting Traverse City, Michigan, for last week’s Traverse City Film Festival, my husband, Dan, and I ventured farther west to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (9922 Front St., Empire, MI, 231/326-5134, visitor center 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, park 24 hours daily, $10 vehicles, $5 motorcycles, pedestrians, and bikers), which preserves a 35-mile stretch of Lake Michigan coastline, including the largest freshwater dunes in the world. Ostensibly, we went there to meet with some friends from downstate – an old high school pal of Dan’s, plus his wife, son, and daughter. Of course, while in the area, we also took time to enjoy the one-of-a-kind features of this lovely place.

Our first stop was the ever-popular Dune Climb, a strenuous, two-mile hike up and down steep, sandy dunes, toward the shores of Lake Michigan. While Dan took photographs elsewhere for the updated version of my current Moon Michigan guide, I tightened my shoelaces and ascended the dunes, where numerous climbers of all ages and conditions were already relishing the sunny day (and wishing they weren’t walking barefoot on the hot sand). Luckily, I didn’t have far to go. Roughly a half-mile from the base of the dune, I encountered Dan’s pal and his family heading back to the parking lot.

Before meeting them, though, I happened to overhear a woman say, “Petoskey stones. I look for ’em every single year, and never find one.” As I listened, I couldn’t help but smile. Searching for Petoskey stones is a favored pastime for residents and tourists alike. Essentially a chunk of fossilized coral that’s estimated to be more than 350 million years old, the Petoskey stone was named Michigan’s official state stone in 1965. At one time, coral reefs thrived in the warm waters that covered northern Michigan from Grand Traverse Bay to Lake Huron. Today, Petoskey stones, known for their distinctive honeycomb pattern, are all that’s left of these former coral reefs. Although polished Petoskey stones – as well as the pendants, earrings, and other jewelry crafted from them – are available in jewelry boutiques, gift shops, and arts-and-crafts fairs throughout northern Michigan, there’s nothing quite like finding one of your very own. While common enough to have little monetary value, they are nevertheless prized by rockhounds, children, and those hoping to take home a true local souvenir.

When dry, Petoskey stones look like ordinary, grayish-brown stones. Their unique pattern becomes more obvious when wet, and especially when polished. To polish these relatively soft stones, local experts suggest avoiding rock tumblers altogether and instead polishing them by hand with 220-grit wet sandpaper, then repeating the process with 400-grit and 600-grit sandpaper.

Admittedly, I’ve searched for Petoskey stones all along the public beaches of the Great Lakes State, from Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore alongside Lake Superior to the coastline near North Bar Lake in Sleeping Bear Dunes. The Traverse Bay region, which includes Grand Traverse Bay near Traverse City and Little Traverse Bay near Petoskey, is probably the easiest place to find them. Some of the more productive spots include Petoskey State Park (2475 M-119 Hwy., Petoskey, MI, 231/347-2311) on the northern end of Little Traverse Bay and Fisherman’s Island State Park (231/547-6641) south of Charlevoix. After all my years of searching, though, I’ve only found one Petoskey stone alongside Lake Michigan – at least I think I did, though it was awfully small for a typical Petoskey stone. Ironically, I’ve stumbled upon several in my in-laws’ driveway beside Big Bear Lake, and while finding a Petoskey stone doesn’t compare to what, for instance, Mel Fisher did when he discovered the treasure-laden Atocha shipwreck near Florida’s Dry Tortugas, it’s always rewarding to find something for which you’ve long been seeking.

Indeed, Dan and I are both treasure hunters at heart, as are many people in this country and around the world, and seeking out Petoskey stones is by no means our only treasure-hunting interest. As I mentioned last December, we’ve panned for gold in northern California, searched for shipwrecks on South Padre Island, and dug for diamonds in southwestern Arkansas. I was delighted, in fact, to learn that the Travel Channel has even designated Crater of Diamonds State Park (209 State Park Rd., Murfreesboro, AR, 870/285-3113, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily Jan.-May and mid-Aug.-Dec., 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily June-mid-Aug., $7 adults, $4 children 6-12, children under 6 free) as one of its “Top 10 Treasure-Hunting Hot Spots,” a list that features several curious selections, including Rockhound State Park (Rockhound Rd., Deming, NM, 575/546-6182, 7:30 a.m.-sunset daily, $5 vehicles, pedestrians and bikers free), where you can search for assorted geodes, otherwise known as thunder eggs. So, if you’re eager to embark on a treasure hunt, you’ll find plenty of options in the United States. Of course, no matter where you choose to go, I wish you happy hunting!

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