Did you even go Up North if you didn’t come home with a Petoskey stone or two? My dad grew up in Charlevoix and he passed his tried and true, practically guaranteed methods for finding Petoskey stones down to me and my kids, and now we are sharing them with you.
Hunting for Petoskey stones is a fun way to spend an afternoon. What makes it better is that it’s an all-ages activity and no special skills or tools are needed. Even your littlest ones will have fun splashing by the shore’s edge, sifting through sand, and looking for the distinctively-patterned stones.
What to Look For
Every kid who went to school in Michigan knows what Petoskey stones look like when they are wet or polished. But when they are laying on the dry sand, they are nondescript and look like every other gray rock. Look for a faint pattern of the coral, which is sometimes evident even when the stone is dry, or pitting or spots on the surface. Not sure if it’s the real deal? Get it wet and check it. We used to lick them. Not recommended.
Here are a handful of stones. In the left photo they are wet; on the right, they are starting to dry. You can see how they lose their distinctive pattern as they dry.
Finding Lightweight Stones
Petoskey stones are actually fossilized coral pieces broken off from millions-of-years-old coral reefs. They are lighter than other stones, so they often work their way to the top of a pile of rocks. In our experience, they are usually grouped together so if you find one, there are probably others very close by, probably in the same cluster of rocks. Stand where you found the first one and check a two-foot diameter.
Tools of the Trade
One of the best parts of Petoskey stone hunting is that it’s free and you don’t need any special equipment. Having said that, there are some things that will make it a little easier and more enjoyable. Again, totally unnecessary, but nice to have!
- Bucket and sifter: a useful tool and fun for little ones. Scoop a big shovel full of rocks and dump them in the sifter, then rinse to see if you’ve got any treasures. (An old colander works great, too, so hit up the thrift store for an inexpensive one.)
- Long-handled scoop sifter: can really save your back!
- Old colander or slotted spoon: pick one up from the thrift store and fasten it to a hiking pole or stick if you want to extend the length.
- Water shoes or Crocs: looking for rocks is, well, rocky, and hard on bare feet. Consider wearing these to protect your toes.
The Best Time to Find Petoskey Stones
Anytime is a good time to find Petoskey stones, but expect to see a fresh crop after really windy days or big storms. The churning waters pull up more stones and the wind and waves will bring them up on the beach.
The Best Places to Find Petoskey Stones
You can find Petoskey stones anywhere along Michigan’s northwest coast between Traverse City to just north of Petoskey, on beaches, and in inland lakes and rivers. Here are some of our go-to spots:
*Requires State Recreation Passport for entry
What to Do With Your Treasures
Petoskey stone hunting can be addictive, and before you know it, you are lugging a beach bag full of rocks home. The Department of Natural Resources limits you to no more than 25 pounds, so keep that in mind!
Polishing Petoskey stones is a good rainy day activity or fun to do at night in the cottage. This video takes you through the whole process, step by step, but you don’t have to be this serious about it. A variety of grades of wet sandpaper and some persistence will do. My dad swore by Turtlewax car polish to make his stones shine! You can also use a rock tumbler, but we never had good outcomes with them. Petoskey stones are fragile and can break in a tumbler.
We have buckets of unpolished stones at my house. I have some in a mason jar as a reminder of the fun we had on vacation, and I keep a favorite in my purse. My dad had tons of them and would give them away to people he met.
Before You Go
The mama in me wants to make sure that everyone is safe while hunting for stones, so here are the requisite mom warnings, starting with wearing sun-protective fabric and sunblock and reapplying often. You should be aware that most beaches do not have lifeguards, so keep a close eye on little ones and anyone in the water and heed any beach warning flags. Consider brushing up on beach safety tips before you go.
And finally, what if you don’t find a Petoskey stone? Despite these tips, it’s possible that you will leave the beach without finding one. Don’t take it too hard; there’s a lot of luck involved. You can always buy a polished Petoskey stone at a tourist shop. Hanging out at one of Michigan’s beautiful sandy beaches is a great way to make memories with your family, and that’s the real thing you’ll take home with you.