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THE 8 COOLEST CAMPGROUNDS FOR FAMILIES
The 8 Coolest Campgrounds for Families
August 1, 2016
Thinking about taking your family camping for the first time? Make the trip a success by booking a stay at a campground that will make your kids' eyes pop when you pull up to check in. Science-loving kids will flip over a stay in Sky Catcher, an astronomy-themed cabin at Herkimer Diamond KOA Resort in Herkimer, New York. Or, for more hands-on activity, stay on a working farm at Gettysburg Farm RV Campground in Dover, Pennsylvania. Whether you plan to pitch a tent or stay in a deluxe cabin, there are campgrounds across the country that are perfect for all types of families. Take a look at eight of the coolest campgrounds to take your clan for wagon rides, s'mores, magic shows and more.
Lake-in-Wood Camping Resort
Located in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Lake-in-Wood Camping Resort offers a wealth of activities. Kids will love mini golf, shuffleboard, basketball and playing horseshoes, and that's in addition to scheduled movie nights, wagon rides and arts and crafts programs. During the summer, look for a "Gnome Quest" scavenger hunt around the campground. Book a stay in a train caboose, a covered wagon, a treehouse, a double decker bus, a yurt or even a gnome home.
A stone's throw from Ocean City, Maryland, at Frontier Town, you may forget that you're so close to the beach. Look for daily Wild West-themed shows, like a "Gunfight at OK Corral" and a "Bank Holdup." There's even a cowboy-themed mini golf course and a water park. There are new events every weekend too, including karaoke nights, family Olympics and dress-up contests. Book a cabin or bring your own RV or tent for a stay in cowboy country.
Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA
Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA is in the middle of everything that you'd want to explore in Colorado and is less than an hour's drive southwest of Rocky Mountain National Park. But, given all you can do at the campground, including archery, disc golf, horseback riding, summer tubing and mini golf, you may not want to leave. You'll also want to check the weekly activity schedule for loads of free family programs, such as magic shows and science programs. Look for cabins, tent sites and a dozen on-site yurts.
Herkimer Diamond KOA
Herkimer, New York
You'll find family-friendly cabins and tent sites at Herkimer Diamond KOA, but budding scientists will go crazy for the Sky Catcher, an astronomy-inspired cabin with its own observatory and high-powered telescope. Meanwhile, in the Professor Gadget's Robotics Lodge, a deluxe cabin outfitted with motion-sensing lights, you'll find a vacuuming robot and loads of robotic toys. There's even a brand new Tree House Lodge for families looking to go out on a limb. During the day, check out the National Baseball Hall of Fame in nearby Cooperstown, New York.
Ventura Ranch KOA
Santa Paula, California
Just under 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles, the Ventura Ranch KOA sits at the foot of Ventura County's tallest mountain, Topa Topa Mountain. The kids will love splashing in the pool, taking nature walks, flying down the zip line, racing up the rock climbing tower and watching movies under the stars. On Saturday nights, go on a Bigfoot Adventure Walk in search of signs of the elusive Bigfoot. Here, you can stay in one of several Sioux Indian-style teepees or reserve an upscale tent that includes a microwave and a minifridge.
Bend-Sunriver RV Campground
At Bend-Sunriver RV Campground, an activities coordinator ensures that every family member is entertained all day long. Look for pickleball tournaments, candy bar bingo and even trail walks and scavenger hunts. Kids can also earn badges as part of the Thousand Trails Club Blazer program for young campers. What's more, the campground offers close proximity to central Oregon's Mount Bachelor, where there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, biking, canoeing and fishing. In the evening, relax in your tent, RV or one of the on-site cabins or yurts.
Jellystone Mammoth Cave
Cave City, Kentucky
Explore the caverns of nearby Mammoth Cave National Park before bouncing on the Jumping Pillow, sliding down the 300-foot water slide and having a water balloon fight with other campers at Jellystone Mammoth Cave. The kiddos will love the theme weekends, which can involve competing in Olympic-style events and turning campground staff into a human sundae. From time to time, there's even chocolate pudding wrestling for younger visitors. There are a variety of cabins and cottages to choose from, as well as tent and hook-up sites for RVs.
Gettysburg Farm RV Campground
Situated on a working farm, kids will love interacting with animals and learning first-hand about the crops at Gettysburg Farm RV Campground. Families will also love all the outdoor activities available, such as shuffleboard, basketball, fishing and horseshoes, among other pastimes. As a bonus, the campground sits just minutes away from the battlefields at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, enabling kids to brush up on Civil War history through ranger and living history programs. Don't forget to earn a Junior Ranger patch and certificate when you visit Gettysburg.
HERKIMER DIAMOND KOA BECOMING KOA RESORT
KOA NEWS SERVICE
Daytona Beach, FL
November 19, 2015
With the stroke of a pen Thursday, Dr. Renee Scialdo-Shevat agreed to make the Herkimer Diamond KOA the sixth KOA Resort in the Kampgrounds of America system.
The Scialdo and Shevat families have owned the Herkimer Diamond KOA in Upstate New York since Renee’s father and mother, Rudy and Rena Scialdo, purchased the park nearly 25 years ago. Father Rudy is still an active partner in the facility.
KOA Resort is one of three new brands introduced to Kampgrounds of America. The others include KOA Journey and KOA Holiday. Other KOA Resorts in the KOA system include the Shelby/Mansfield, OH KOA Resort; the Waterloo/Lost Island Waterpark, Iowa KOA Resort; the Port Huron KOA Resort; the Cape Hatteras KOA Resort; and the Mt. Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch, SD KOA Resort.
The Herkimer Diamond KOA is a unique “jewel” in the KOA system, with an adjacent mine that produces one-of-a-kind quartz Herkimer diamonds that the public can mine themselves.
Dr. Renee Scialdo-Shevat also prides herself on the educational offerings at the campground. There’s even off-the-power-grid Solar Lodges, a Robotics Lodge and an Astronomy Lodge.
“We lead, we manage, we educate,” said Dr. Renee. “No matter where we are, we are utilizing our distinctions, our diamond mines, the West Canada Creek, the Erie Canal and our KOA family.”
GOING PLACES, NEAR & FAR: CRUISES, GEMS AT HERKIMER DIAMOND MINES KOA
by Karen Rubin
September 3, 2015
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. (See " Diamond Mining, Robotics, Erie Canal Cruises at Herkimer KOA Camping Resort," 8/28/15)
But there is so much 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 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 ($2.5-$3 billion in today’s dollars), but it could not be built today because of environmental restrictions.
“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 – one key breakthrough was the invention of a 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).
($19/adults, $12/3-10; reservations recommended, departs 1 & 3 pm daily, mid-May through mid-October, rain or shine. Erie Canal Cruises, 315-717-0077, www.eriecanalcruises.com.)
Gems Along the Mohawk
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; my ride will also take me up close to Fort Herkimer Church and the Herkimer estate which I can appreciate more fully because of this prior experience.)
Gems Along the Mohawk (800 Mohawk Street, Herkimer NY 11350, 315-717-0077, 866-716-GEMS, firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
Herkimer Diamond KOA, 4626 State Route 28, Herkimer, NY 13350, 315-891-7355, E-mail: email@example.com, www.herkimerdiamond.com; mining info at 315-717-0175, firstname.lastname@example.org. Erie Canal Cruises, 315-717-0077, www.eriecanalcruises.com; Gems Along the Mohawk, 315-717-0077, www.gemsalongthemohawk.com; Waterfront Grille, 315-717-0700, www.waterfrontgrille.net
GOING PLACES, FAR & NEAR: DIAMOND MINING, ROBOTICS, ERIE CANAL CRUISES AT HERKIMER KOA CAMPING RESORT
by Karen Rubin
August 27, 2015
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 the dolomite bedrock of Herkimer County and the Mohawk Valley of New York, that dates back 500 million years.
“Most limestone doesn’t throw quartz crystal like here,” Jordan tells me.
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.
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 as I soon learn), was said to want to use the diamonds to help finance the war, but that an assay showed the minerals were not 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 and a gigantic morale boost.)
“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.”
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.
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).
The Herkimer Diamond KOA is open April through October (peak season rates apply July and August.) Weekends have special themes.
TEN BEST FAMILY CAMPGROUNDS
by Lysa Allman-Badwin, Amsterdam News
August 20, 2015
Herkimer Diamond KOA (Herkimer, N.Y.)
Located in upstate New York approximately 15 miles from Utica, Herkimer Diamond KOA is great for those who enjoy watersports, including canoeing, tubing and kayaking. Campers here are also close to the Herkimer Marina, which offers a canal boat ride that goes through a lock along the Erie Canal and is within 30 miles of the famous Cooperstown's Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Science-loving kids will go mad for the Sky Catcher, an astronomy-themed cabin with its own observatory and high-powered telescope. Or book Professor Gadget’s Robotics Lodge, a deluxe cabin outfitted with a vacuuming robot, motion-sensing lights and plenty of robotic toys.”
MV103: HERKIMER DIAMOND MINES A REAL GEM
By Barbara Laible, Observer-Dispatch
June 15, 2015
MV103 is an ongoing series of 103 sights, sounds and experiences that help define the Mohawk Valley. View the entire series at uticaod.com/MV103.
The reverberating clanking of steel against rocks greets visitors to the Herkimer Diamond Mines, a family friendly destination just outside of Herkimer on state Route 28.
The resort has three mines, a museum and gift shop, a pavilion area for picnics, a restaurant and a campground across the road.
I have been to the Herkimer Diamond Mines only twice — the first time, 20 years ago when our son Mark was 2 years old.
It was amazing to watch him, so tiny, gather his little pail and hammer and climb around one of the mines making his away through the dirt and stone like an old prospector, his blonde hair shiny in the sun. I really thought he would have tired out quickly and prefer the ice cream stand down the road, but he was determined to find a diamond (actually double-terminated quartz crystals) and with beginner’s luck, he did.
He was so proud to find this rather large diamond, chipped free from a pile of rocks – and excited to show his father when we got home. He still has that diamond somewhere in his bedroom.
The second time was the summer of 2014, when I took our then 14-year-old daughter Katie to meet with some friends for a day of prospecting.
At first it was fun to hunker down with our group and start hammering at the rocks, looking for something sparkly to take home. But it was much more difficult for us this time. Defeated, sweating profusely and with the sun beating down on our heads, we decided to peruse the air-conditioned gift shop.
What struck Katie’s eye was a bag of Herkimer Diamond dirt “guaranteed to have at least three diamonds” for sluice mining outdoors in the front of the gift shop. So, I purchased a bag for Katie and she joined the others shaking the now opened bag of dirt into a sluice channel filled with water to sift for diamonds. She was thrilled with her discovery of Herkimer diamonds and other stones she mined.
With her newly found diamonds in hand, her morale now boosted and her appetite ready, we ended our mining journey, climbed back into our car for a trip to the ice cream stand before heading home.
HERKIMER DIAMONDS BECOMING AN INTERNATIONAL SENSATION
By Philip A. Vanno, Observer-Dispatch
June 1, 2015
It appears that Herkimer diamonds no longer are being relegated to just gems along the Mohawk.
Over the last five years, the Herkimer Diamond Mines has seen a steady increase in global tourism, with international visitors accounting for 10 percent of its more than 150,000 total visits in 2014.
President and Owner Dr. Renee Scialdo Shevat said the bulk of that growth has come from Asian countries such as China and Japan, and expects the number of international visitors to double this year.
She attributes the jump to a growing appreciation for travel to New York because of the changing economy, and to the expanded circulation of the Herkimer Diamond in the international community.
“Two trade shows per year in Hong Kong and in Tokyo have heightened the awareness of not only the Herkimer diamond but also what the Mohawk Valley has to offer,” Shevat said. “We are doing our part in placing the Mohawk Valley on a much larger tourism stage.”
Jennifer Wang, media coordinator for L&L Travel Enterprises, said the New York City-based group began busing groups of Chinese tourists to the Herkimer Diamond Mines this year as part of the state's I Love New York tourism initiative.
Wang said the travel group has made about six trips upstate this year with buses containing 30 Chinese tourists, about 80 percent of whom fly in directly from China.
“It started out as tours of places like Niagara Falls and historic monuments and parks … but now they are coming specifically to see the mines,” Wang said. “They are very excited to see it for themselves and the word is spreading back in China … so I expect to see more and more visitors.”
GOING PLACES, NEAR & FAR: CAMPING COMES INTO THE 21st CENTURY
by Karen Rubin
May 27, 2015
One of the more unusual KOA Campgrounds is Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, in upstate New York, on the Erie Canal, where you not only can prospect for diamonds (actually quartz crystals), but stay in luxurious themed solar-powered cabins, an Astronomy Lodge that even has an elevated observatory and telescope and, the newest, Professor Gadget's Robotics Lodge that features working robotic components to educate and entertain. Here, experience Upstate New York's largest jewelry store, museum, a fossil-and-gemstone sluicing area, "Randy" the authentic dinosaur skull and a new activity center. Enjoy a canal boat ride with Lil' Diamond III at the Herkimer Marina. Go through a lock that lifts you up and down 20 feet on the Erie Canal. Visit nearby Cooperstown's Baseball Hall of Fame. Alongside KOA's campsites, West Canada Creek offers trout and fun for canoeists, tubers and kayakers. Dine at KOA's on-site cafe, pavilion or Crystal Chandelier Restaurant. Join in the many activities during Herkimer Diamond Mines' 60th anniversary. Herkimer Diamond KOA also offers group programs, such as a Rock & Gem Camp.
TAKING THE KIDS -- CAMPING
by Eileen Ogintz, Chicago Tribune
March 26, 2015
Toilet paper or cellphone?.
Younger campers say having a smartphone on a camping trip is nearly as important as toilet paper, according to the 2015 North American Camping Report. I'm guessing your kids would agree and, depending on their age, might even say their smartphone is more important. What about you?
If you thought camping meant getting away from technology, think again. According to this new report, citing research conducted by the Cairn Consulting Group and sponsored by Kampgrounds of America (KOA), access to free Wi-Fi ranks among the top three most important camping amenities, right behind clean bathrooms and kid-friendly campgrounds. Nearly all campers bring their cellphones and half of all campers report going online at least once a day.
The report also suggests that campers are using social media to share their experiences in real time rather than waiting until they get home. That's especially true for teens, said Dr. Robyn Silverman, a child and teen development specialist, who spoke on a Camping in the City panel in New York recently about this new research and how camping has changed.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, said Jim Rogers, chairman and CEO of KOA, the world's largest public family campgrounds. "We need to get kids outdoors," he added, "and it's precious for them to communicate that they are having fun."
Certainly we know why we should get kids outdoors more -- for their health, for them to appreciate the importance of conserving the environment, for the learning opportunities in the natural world and perhaps most important, to get them away from their overscheduled lives. Let's not forget the opportunity to create some stellar family memories.
To that end, President Obama has just announced the new Every Kid in a Park initiative designed to get more families outdoors by providing every fourth-grader in the country a free pass to explore national parks, national forests and wildlife refuges throughout the 2015-16 season.
National Park Week, (April 18 to 26), celebrates national parks across the U.S., which offer a number of planned activities for all ages, including free admission to all national parks, National Junior Ranger Day (children can participate in hosted activities and get sworn in as junior rangers) and Earth Day celebrations and community "clean-ups". It's also encouraging that more families from many walks of life are finding their way to campgrounds. For example, nearly one in four campers today are African-American, Asian or Hispanic -- the number nearly doubling in the last two years -- demographic groups that have not traditionally camped out in large numbers.
For those new to camping, "We're making it easier to go from the backyard to the back country," said Jim Rogers. A growing number of campgrounds offer cabins that can sleep as many as eight, swimming pools, organized activities and, of course, Wi-Fi. Families are also forsaking tents for RVs and campers -- a lot easier with young kids, families in campgrounds have told me again and again.
It's also a lot easier -- and more appealing -- to leave work for the weekend and head to a fully-equipped cabin than it is to pitch a tent after dark, suggested Sam Shevat, whose wife's family has long run the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA in New York State on West Canada Creek.
That's one reason the new study suggests people plan to camp more. Lower gas prices are also playing a role. The majority of campers plan to spend more nights camping this year and almost half plan to take more than one trip.
No wonder, since many believe the experience will not only enable them to reconnect with nature, but also with each other. Campers believe camping improves family relationships and perhaps most important, kids are enthusiastic about going. We all know nothing will derail a family trip faster than grumpy kids!
But we need to accept that in 2015, kids won't be willing to part from their devices, even on a camping trip.
"For teens, their life and their cyber-life are one," Dr. Silverman explained. If they aren't able to share their experience with their friends, "it is as if it's not happening."
When they do share the experience, Silverman said, and their friends respond, it's validation for them that what they are doing is fun!
So if you thought taking the kids camping was a way to get everyone unplugged 24/7, think again. The key, Dr. Silverman said, "is that you are in control of the device. Your devices aren't controlling the family!"
That means before going to that national park or campground you need to have the how-much-time conversation with the kids, as well as the talk on how-much-we-can-spend-on-souvenirs. And you need to stick to the program! Maybe it's an hour at breakfast or an hour when you get back from your hike. Maybe it's longer, especially if it rains. (Devices can save the day when it rains.)
Consider also that technology can help you on the trail, suggested Sascha Segan, the lead mobile analyst for PCMAG.com, who also spoke on the panel. I used to tell my kids to "hug a tree," if we got separated on the trail and wait for us to return. Now, Segan said, apps like WAVE and LIFE360 can help parents keep tabs on the kids. Let's not forget the importance of a compass app -- or a flashlight on your phone.
"Take a picture of a bird or bug and use technology like Google Image search or Google Translate to identify the species. Look up the words to a campfire song on YouTube, Segan suggested. There are National Geographic apps that serve as guides to the national parks and Audubon Guides apps that can help you identify birds, wildflowers and animal sounds. Let the kids be in charge of telling you the name of the pink flower or yellow bird you saw on the trail. Who can identify the most leaves? Flowers? Animal tracks?
"Think of your devices as a way to enhance your knowledge of nature," Segan said.
Just put them down long enough to talk to each other. And have a s 'more for me.
10 CAMPGROUNDS FOR AN UNFORGETTABLE SUMMER VACATION
by Jamie Moore
May 16, 2014
Camping at a Mine, Herkimer, New York
A four-hour drive north of New York City, the Herkimer Diamond KOA campground is part of the Herkimer Diamond Mines site, where visitors mine for quartz-crystal "diamonds" and usually don't leave empty-handed. After a day at the mines, bring your gems to the activity center and turn them into jewelry. Curious nature and science lovers rave about KOA's astronomy lodge, with its own elevated observatory and high-powered telescope that provides great views of summer meteor showers. Stay in a Solar Kolony cabin with solar panels and monitor how much energy is generated and consumed each day during your stay.
Great in Summer: You can register the kids for a weeklong educational camp, take in a movie at the outdoor cinema, or come for the free ice cream socials and DJs on Saturdays. Most campsites are along West Canada Creek, a peaceful place for canoeing or kayaking.
FINDERS KEEPERS: 6 PLACES TO HUNT FOR BLING
August 22, 2013
Herkimer Diamond Mines
Though technically not diamonds, the double-terminated quartz crystals in Middleville, New York--about 85 miles northwest of Albany--have a diamond-like shape. Your admission gives you use of a rock hammer, zip-lock bags, and entrance to the on-site museum. There are daily educational programs and an activity center with stone-cutting, t-shirt-making, jewelry classes and geode-cracking. There's also a KOA campground with tent sites and cabins. Admission: $11 for ages 13 and up, $9 for ages 5 to 12; free for kids 4 and under. Open Apr. 15-Oct. 31.
CAMPGROUND CATERS TO STARGAZERS
by Ben Abramson, USA TODAY
May 24, 2013
One of the greatest joys of camping is emerging from your tent to find the night skies ablaze with stars and planets. But some travelers have a thing about sleeping on the cold, hard ground encased in nylon. This summer, would-be stargazers who don't want to rough it will find an intriguing new option.
Unleash your inner Galileo at Kampgrounds of America's (KOA) "Astronomy Deluxe Cabin." This new model, which opened this week at KOA's location in Herkimer, N.Y., is equipped with a tabletop telescope, high-power binoculars and a viewing platform for guests' use. But if that's not enough optical power, the campground has also added a powerful commercial telescope, which sits atop a special swiveling observation deck. During the week, guests renting the astronomy cabin have exclusive use of the deck and telescope, with the campground hosting special viewing programs and lectures each Friday.
The cabin, which sleeps 6 and features a full-size kitchen and queen bed, is part of an upscaling trend as campgrounds evolve from safe places to pitch a tent to mini-resorts with cabins and cottages (often prefab units called park models). In a fun astronomical twist, the Herkimer location also features solar-powered cabins for rent. You'll also find retro-cool Airstream trailers at some KOA campgrounds and other lodging sites across the country. Prices can run as high as hotels, $150 a night or more in prime locations, but you can fit a whole family in one and save a bundle by not being hostage to restaurants for every meal. The astronomy cabin starts at $170/night, find more info here.
KOA says business is booming this year, with a 3.8% increase in visitors expected for Memorial Day weekend, and a 14% boost in advance reservations around the Independence Day holiday. For the year, it says reservations at its almost 500 campgrounds nationwide are up 4.2%.
GORVing.com calls out more resorts catering to astronomy enthusiasts, including The Springs at Borrego in Borrego Springs, Calif., an International Dark Sky Community renowned for dazzling stars, and Lazy River in Granville, Ohio, where NASA and a local university assisted in developing a stargazing program.
CRYSTAL VISIONS: JUST DIG 'EM UP
by Michael Pollak, NY Times
July 28, 2011
It was a hot June day in Central New York, hardly a time to think of swinging a pick and sledge for recreation. But there they were: dozens of children, parents and retirees at the Herkimer Diamond Mines’ three sites, hammering through dolomite limestone like prisoners happy at hard labor, scrutinizing each cobble and crevice for a glistening treasure.
“That’s my very first one,” said Tim Hines-McLeod, 62, from Seattle, pointing to a water-clear quartz crystal he had found a year ago at the mine that now hung from a pendant around his neck. “I was hooked,” he said.
Julie Johnson, a 45-year-old therapist from Catskill, N.Y., said she visited the mines just about every weekend. She and her boyfriend were working a rock ledge under a blue tarpaulin. “I get into great condition, and I get crystals,” she said.
Roy Breitenbach, 47, from Rochester, was there with his 9-year-old son, Sam, who allowed that his normal interests were reptiles and amphibians.
What drew these people to this town, 80 miles northwest of Albany, were “Herkimer diamonds” — doubly terminated, 18-sided quartz crystals that come out of pockets in the dolomite as perfectly formed and polished as if they had been to a jeweler. Often flawless, they are found in a number of places here in the central Mohawk Valley and — for quantity, quality and accessibility — in few other places, unless one considers Tibet and Afghanistan accessible.
They sell from a few dollars each to a few thousand for an assembly of giant crystals. New Agers believe in the healing properties of the crystals’ purity; the crystals are also used in some Wiccan ceremonies. Collectors just like to admire them. And jewelers wire-wrap them as pendants.
After the dolomite limestone — calcium magnesium carbonate — was laid down beneath a shallow sea about 500 million years ago and then compressed, it was infiltrated by water at least twice, geologists theorize: once by salt water, which ate cavities into the limestone, and later by silica-rich liquid, possibly from the erosion of the rising Adirondacks to the north and Appalachians to the south. The silica accreted into quartz crystals.
What makes them so special is that quartz doesn’t readily adhere to limestone. Instead of growing out of other quartz, Herkimer diamonds are completely formed at both ends, lying loose in their pockets, waiting to be found.
Four independent digging sites in the region are open to the public for a fee, and each has its own personality. Just to the north of Herkimer Diamond Mines in neighboring Middleville is the smaller Ace of Diamonds Mine. While it welcomes families, serious diggers often go there, camping out for months and hammering their way through as much as eight feet of dolomite to reach the “mud line,” where the big pockets lie, sometimes containing hundreds of crystals.
Both sites sell and rent digging tools. At all the fee digging sites guests may not use electric- or gas-powered machinery, only fairly light hand tools. To give an idea of how much work this is, Ace of Diamonds has a special service: It will use heavy equipment to remove almost all the gravel, clay and overlying rock and will then help you open your own crystal pocket, for $1,500. By mid-June Ace of Diamonds had more than 10 of these “guided mineral hunts” scheduled, said Ted Smith, a co-owner. The company has another rule, intended to spread the wealth and ensure its longevity: Hit a big pocket and, you can keep the crystals; but you are barred from the mine for two weeks.
In St. Johnsville the Crystal Grove Diamond Mine and Campground has digging pits both out in the open and in the woods. The site is known less for big crystal pockets than for its specimens still enclosed by their rock matrix, which is often full of “drusy”: cavities lined with tiny quartz crystals, blackened by a carbon material called anthraxolite. The anthraxolite is believed to be the remains of ancient plants, a kind of sea cabbage that lived when the limestone was forming and that may have played a role in creating the diamond pockets.
The least publicized and most bare-bones site — it installed its first outhouse this year — is Diamond Acres, also known as the Margaret Hastings Farm, in Fonda. Mineral clubs often pay annual leases for squarish digging plots there, giving the place the look of an abandoned village in the woods, with just the foundations left.
Linda Iley, a daughter of Margaret Hastings, said her father, Loren, bought the land for her mother almost 50 years ago. “It built up to what it is mainly by word of mouth,” she said. There is no overnight camping on the site, but traveling to and from the Hastings land is a treat: miles of beautiful Amish farmland, on roads shared with horses and wagons.
Herkimer Diamond Mines is by far the vastest of the operations, not just because of its three quarries but also because of the numerous attractions it has added since Rena and Rudy Scialdo bought the complex in 1981. “Dad said this thing is going global,” recalled their daughter, Renée Scialdo Shevat, 55, who has a doctorate in strategic planning and organizational development from the University of Rochester. She took over as president 15 years ago and set about turning Herkimer diamonds from a hobby business into a big business. She was expecting 500 to 800 mine visitors a day from July 4 to Labor Day.
Did she say global? There is Dr. Scialdo Shevat in Japan in 2010 promoting Herkimers with Miyuki Hatoyama, then the first lady of Japan (“the Japanese market is very special to us,” Dr. Scialdo Shevat said) and at Chinese trade shows. There are her online and wholesale Herkimer businesses. There is her rock shop, perhaps the largest in the East; her museum; her jewelry shop. You can learn how to wire-wrap a discovered crystal or leave it at the store to have the finished jewelry mailed home.
There are her weeklong summer camps and scouting merit-badge programs. The family’s Kampground of America site across Route 28 from the mines won K.O.A.’s Kampground of the Year award in 2010. It has a pool, a movie theater, regular and solar-powered cabins as well as fly fishing and crayfishing in West Canada Creek. There are cottages and a snack bar next to the mines and, a few hundred yards away, the family’s Crystal Chandelier Restaurant, run by her brother, Rudy.
In 2002 Dr. Scialdo Shevat thought Central New York needed a visitor’s center; why not give it a diamond theme? She leased land from the New York State Thruway Authority and the state Canal Corporation six miles from the mines, bordering the Mohawk River at Exit 30 of the Thruway. She recruited an Erie Canal boat tour, rented the main building to 80 regional companies to display their wares, put in another restaurant and gave the whole center a name: Gems Along the Mohawk.
Back at the Herkimer site 11 daughters and granddaughters of Myrtle Dickinson, of Rochester, were in the store celebrating her 90th birthday with a jewelry-making class. She was digging in the quarry into her 80s; a few years ago, she cut the ribbon to open the third mine. “Every year it seems to be bigger,” she said of the mine.
While Dr. Scialdo Shevat was busy with 50 or so children and their parents, Tom Copeland, 64, a retired wire-factory worker from Oswego, N.Y., who helps mine diamonds for her wholesale market, gave some pointers. The tools: a plain chisel, leaf wedges made from truck springs, a sawed-off 12-pound sledgehammer, a pry bar, a crack hammer, lots of patience. Always look under whatever you pick up; a diamond may have just fallen out. Pace yourself; rarely do you find a pocket in one day. When Mr. Copeland reaches a pocket level, his wife, Pat, drives the 107 miles to help clear it out.
The Copelands are regulars, Crystal Tom and Diamond Pat. There are others: Diamond Jim. Hugh the Farmer, a k a Hugh the Hammer. Virginia John.
“I’m taking these walls down and opening these pockets, and nobody’s seen these crystals for 500 million years,” Mr. Copeland said. “I can’t explain why I like it so much.”
“Good crystals, rare crystals, money-makers — that’s all a bonus,” he continued. “It’s the thrill of the hunt.”
CAMPING IS NO LONGER ABOUT JUST PITCHING A TENT
June 24, 2011
Crider said accommodations are also changing. Campgrounds are investing in everything from yurts and furnished teepees to cottages and cabins. A KOA in Herkimer, N.Y., just opened three furnished cabins for rent that are powered by solar panels, with a backup propane generator. “If they can provide rental accommodations, then they can make camping accessible to everyone. It isn’t just people who like to rough it in a tent or who have an RV,” Crider said.
Dawn Tosner, of Valley Stream, N.Y., has been going to the KOA in Herkimer, N.Y., for 15 years. “When we first started, we went tent camping,” she said. “We gradually started using the cabins.” Last year, joined by friends, she tried an upgraded cabin with all the comforts of home, including a bathtub, stove and TV.
“It’s a little bit of luxury while still enjoying the outdoors,” she said. “When you go tent camping, you have to bring everything with you – sleeping bags, all the utensils, supplies. You pack up the whole car. With the cabins, you don’t need to bring as much stuff. You have more time to spend enjoying the trip.”
Even those who go the traditional route of sleeping on the ground may be spending time in a tent that has multiple rooms, with separate quarters that can be used for the kids or as a screened-in porch for chairs.