At Bayfront Park in Petoskey, we rested our bikes against a fence as we watched a young couple and their son on the rocky shore of Lake Michigan. They’d scrambled down a wooden staircase near the Lime Kiln Ponds, poring over the stones along the waterfront. Perhaps they’d find a Petoskey stone?
We’d tried the day before. We stopped along US 31 at an MDOT wayside park. It looked promising, with two gravel spits creating a cove where a swan tucked in to get out of the wind. I searched the shoreline for a good 20 minutes but saw nothing I thought might be a Petoskey stone.
Petoskey stones are unique. The fossilized remnants of a coral reef formed in Devonian period seas, they have a pattern made up of distinct cellular structures that each surround what was a “mouth” for the coral to ingest its food. But as we discovered while looking for them, they can come in many forms.
As fossils surrounded by limestone, they erode. And so at a restored spring-fed water fountain on the shoreline of the Bay View Association, established in 1876 as a summer retreat center for the Methodist Church, pieces of Petoskey stone are a part of the decorative stonework. They’ve faded and eroded so that the cellular structure is quite obvious.
At the visitors center in Petoskey, they have a handful of specimens on display. John asked about the largest Petoskey stone ever found. It was over 300 pounds, and now rests at City Hall. Michigan DNR restricts your collecting of these hefty fossils to 12 pounds per person, so a more recent find of a 93 pound stone didn’t go unnoticed by the state. They reclaimed it from the fellow who’d discovered it and posted photos on social media.
Nikki showed us both unpolished and polished specimens. I’d figured we’d need a rock tumbler to polish our finds, but she strongly recommended against it. “They’ll turn to dust.”
Instead, it takes perseverance and multiple grades of sandpaper. Start with a coarse grit and work to a finer grit while polishing them in water. A finishing grit of 800 is best, followed by either use of a natural oil – coconut and avocado work well, Nikki said – or, optionally, sealing with an acrylic finish.
It’s that multi-step process that creates the wet look that you’ll see on Petoskey stones in gift shops and mineral collections. And that’s why, when you’re looking for them, you’ll find them most easily where the waves strum the shore.
When we checked in at the Bay Inn, which offers a sweeping view of Little Traverse Bay, we asked innkeeper Vern Osterlund for pointers on the best places to find Petoskey stones. He recommended West Park, right along US 31. Unlike the MDOT wayside we tried, not a lot of people walk the shoreline here: it’s a 3/4 mile loop hike through the woods out to the shoreline, meaning a less picked-over beach with better finds.
As we discovered while cycling the Little Traverse Wheelway north and south of Petoskey, people will search the beaches for Petoskey stones wherever it is easy to reach the shoreline. We’d suddenly see people’s heads pop up from the shoreline, which was quite funny, especially over along the edge of Bayfront Park West in front of the St. Francis Solanus Mission, the oldest structure in the region, opened in 1860 by Bishop Frederic Baraga to minister to the Native Americans.
At Twisted Crystal in downtown Mackinaw City, the proprietor showed us a variety of carefully crafted pendants and earrings made from slices of Petoskey stones. As he mentioned their origins – Marquette and the Straits of Mackinac among them – I was surprised. So Petoskey stones are not just from Petoskey, but it remains the most common place to find them.
Tucked away in a scrapbook in the Drummond Island Historical Museum, an article older than I am lent a clue. The glaciers that covered Michigan eons after these Devonian formations fossilized plucked them out of bedrock and spread them across the state, which is why the Petoskey stone is Michigan’s state stone.
According to the article, “Petoskey stones may be found on beaches and in road cuts, ditches, gravel pits, gullies, and sand blows all over the state, particularly in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula.”
We searched many spots this week for Petoskey stones, including the shoreline of Lake Huron at De Tour, the Mackinac Straits, the rocky headlands of Wilderness State Park, and the water’s edge near Charlevoix. No luck.
Where did we consistently find Petoskey stones? Along the lesser-visited beaches of Petoskey, right off the Little Traverse Wheelway.
Don’t expect many at established parks or busy areas. Instead, you need to bike or hike to the quieter spots where footpaths or stairs lead down to the shores of Lake Michigan.
Avoid steep bluffs and private property, and mind the poison ivy along narrow trails. Make sure you have a sturdy basket or a pack to carry them out – we put ours in John’s bike bag. With a little exploration in places where access isn’t easy for people in cars, you will find Petoskey stones.