Our surprise getaway focused on one hard fact—rocks. In various hideaways, our girls hoard granites from Montana, petrified wood from South Dakota, galena from, well, Galena, and even sand from the United Arab Emirates. If your family, too, can boast a dozen plastic shoeboxes full of sandstones, quartzes and coral fossils, your young rock sleuths may find a weekend tracking trilobites better than Disney. Well, maybe not, but you can’t do Disney in a weekend. Western Ontario, you can.
Day one: Rock Glen
Rock Glen Conservation Area offers a museum, waterfall and a picnic/play area. But the best part lies in the Ausable Gorge, down a network of stairs to the base of the 30-foot waterfall. Here kids (and adults) can wade under the spray of the falls if they wish (we wished) seeking the remnants of extinct marine life with extra-terrestrial names like gastropod, crinoid and brachiopod.
Park rules allow the keeping of only one fossil; all others are strictly catch and release. So the fun lies in seeing how many rocks you have to pick up and how wet you can get before you find "the one." After much splashing, our middle child, Emily, shot a dripping hand in the air and gave a shriek of triumph. She held a fully formed trilobite. Obviously, this would be our take home treasure.
A visit to the museum whetted the girls’ appetites for the hunt with its display of Devonian fossils and Native American artifacts. Though a trip to the gorge requires traversing steep stairs, the museum, falls overlook and most other areas remain handicap accessible. At $3 per person, it beats the price of a water park.
After a picnic lunch, head left out of the park and look for the sign for Hungry Hollow. Cross the Ausable River bridge and go left on the gravel road. At the bottom of the hill, you can walk the short trail into an old riverside quarry. Along with numerous fossils, the girls discovered deposits of clay. Some of this, too, had to be hauled home for art projects.
With time left before nightfall, we chose to enjoy the beach. Driving north you can reach Ippewash Beach at Kettle Point. Play in the sand, swim and photograph a Lake Huron sunset at this shallow, uncrowded point of Ontario.
Getting There: From Chicago, travel Interstate 94 until Highway 69 in Michigan. Continue on 69 around Lansing to Port Huron. Pass into Sarnia, Ontario, on the Blue Water Bridge (I-94). It’s best to carry passports or birth certificates for every member of the family. From Sarnia, proceed on Highway 402 to exit 44 on County Road 79. Travel north to Arkona. Rock Glen Road runs outside of Arkona to the north.
After driving from home Friday night, try the Holiday Inn in Sarnia, Best Western Hospitality Inn or Thomas Edison Inn, both in Port Huron, as your central accommodation for the weekend.
Sunday, spend a morning at Point Pelee National Park. This slip of Ontario, aligned in latitude with California, has been named a top 15 birding spot in North America and a Wetland of International Significance. Spring brings the returning songbirds. Fall brings the Monarch butterflies. Call (519) 322-2371 for migration information.
To explore the marsh, rent a canoe at the Cattail Cafe. Visitors can take the free shuttle to Tip Trail, the southernmost point of Canada. Beaches let you get up close and personal with Lake Erie.
To get to Pelee, cruise Interstate 94 to Detroit. Cross the Ambassador Bridge (Interstate 75 south; $3.75 toll) into Ontario. Follow Highway 3 toward Leamington. Take the second Leamington exit (Erie Street); turn right. Go left at the Seacliff Drive stoplight. Take the park road about 10 minutes to the gates.
When all your clothes are wet, your trunk is full of rocks or your memory card is full of shots, ride home after a restful weekend with nature, both prehistoric and present.
Jill Richardson is a mom and freelance writer living in Warrenville.