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Rocks and Minerals Vacations for Kids

The best Mother's Day present I ever received (other than this year when the kids surprised me by re-organizing all my travel books and magazines) was a yogurt pot filled with "diamonds." My two sons had spent hours banging open rocks to get at the glittering specimens inside. I was as pleased as they were when I opened this most unusual gift.

Because my kids were such rockhounds, we've embarked on many rock-hunting expeditions during our travels. We've gone fossil-finding on the Lake Huron shore near Kincardine, climbed geologically rich terrain near Wilberforce, Ontario and visited the gem rooms of many museums. We've lugged home packsacks filled with stones. One of our best finds north of Haliburton, a sparkling black specimen, serves as a doorstop for our back door during the summer.

If your kids are serious about rocks and minerals, it's a good idea to invest in a pair of goggles, a small rock hammer and a magnifying eye glass (all available at rock shops or outdoor stores). Then you can head off to divulge in diamonds, excavate examples of mica or simply search, rescue and release. Here's where to take your junior rockhounds:
ONTARIO: Torontonians are lucky to live within driving distance of the "Mineral Capital of Canada"-Bancroft, Ontario. Here, the rock face of the Canadian Shield exposes over 300 different types of minerals. Kids will be impressed when you tell them that the rock beneath Bancroft is between 1.1 and 1.8 billion years old. Rock hounds from all over the world come to unearth the feldspar and graphite, marble and mica, and a particular passion of the Princess of Wales in 1905-the local blue sodalite. She was so impressed when she saw it at the 1901 World's Fair that she ordered 130 tons of it sent to England to embellish her residence. Our kids were certainly surprised to see some New York geologists with pick axes climbing the hills near Wilberforce.

Start your visit at the town's Mineral Museum where you can see huge crystals, a mining diorama and some 350 examples of local minerals. At the Mineral Capital Gift Shop, buy a rock hammer or identification guidebook (so that you can tell your igneous rocks from your minerals). More than 30 area collecting sites let you explore. At the Princess Sodalite Mine, kids can dig for minerals or purchase a sample of the 30,000 minerals and five tons of rock for sale, much of it from the former Dwyer Mine Rock Shop. We couldn't get our kids out of there while they debated whether or not to spend their pennies on quartz or nickel. Families can also join the geologist-led Mineral Collecting Field Trips on Tuesdays and Thursdays in July and August. At 10 a.m., participants follow the geologist in convoy fashion to the collecting sites. The trips usually visit two locations and last about four hours; staff can help identify your finds. The cost: $15 per family.

If you happen to be in the area near August 1 weekend (between July 30 and Aug. 2 this summer), don't miss the Rockhound Gemboree, a rock show with exhibitors from Canada, U.S., Europe and Africa. Hotels book up fast so reserve ahead. For Bancroft area information, call 613-332-1513.
WASHINGTON, D.C: The new Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History was two years in the making. Kids can step inside a crystal magnified more than a billion times or see moon rocks brought back by the Apollo astronauts. And be sure to locate the 45.5-carat Hope Diamond, the most visited object in the entire Smithsonian collection. Valued at $100 million, it's on display in a new revolving vault. Free admission. Call 202-357-2700.
CRATER OF DIAMONDS STATE PARK, ARKANSAS: Wait until my guys find out that there's a place near Murfreesboro, Arkansas, where you can hunt for real diamonds and keep them! We'll be heading off with yogurt pots. Since Crator became a park in 1972, over 3500 carats have been carried home by visitors (along with amethyst, garnet, opal and quartz). Last year, the soil sifters turned up 673 diamonds. Don't worry if you forgot your rock tools at home. The park wardens rent out shovels. Admission to the mine area is $4.50 U.S. for adults, $2 for kids under 12. Campsites available. Call (870) 285-3113.

In the meantime, while your kids are hunting out rocks shaped like boots or eggs, or washing their specimens to bring out the shine and colors, whip up their enthusiasm by reading The Magic School Bus Inside the Earth by Joanna Cole. The wonderfully wacky teacher leads her rockhound students on a field trip to the centre of the earth.





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