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Lost at Panama Rocks? You’ve found a good time

"You’re the most adventurous Dad I know.” My 5-year-old son, Nolan, said this as we struggled through snow and ice to explore a creek in January on a day that was absolutely not creek weather.

I’m not a daring person. No jumping out of planes. Taxes always filed well in advance. And yet in a virtual world far from the fight-or-flight realities of early humans, there’s a part of me that craves adventure.

I enjoy exploring the outdoors with the triplets (Elliott and Bridget are the others), our 10-year-old daughter, Izzy, and my wife, Jenn. I love venturing into creeks and wetlands. It helps me feel connected with the natural world, echoes back to my youth and hopefully fires the imagination of our kids. One of our favorite places is Panama Rocks, a cool cave and rock formation less than two hours from Buffalo.

Panama Rocks dates back to 1885, the same year that Niagara Falls became the country’s first state park. The quartz-conglomerate sedimentary formations developed 1.2 billion years ago. It’s said that 19th century bank robbers stashed their loot in one of the 16 caves—a treasure that’s still out there for the finding.

On our first family visit in summer 2017, I was unprepared for what we were up against. We got a little mixed up driving down because we kept losing our Wi-Fi connection. It was classic foreshadowing: This would be no leisurely walk in the park.

I’d been to Panama Rocks once years prior. I remembered it was cool but forgot how intense it was. So like a complete goofball, I went hiking in flip-flops. Don’t do this! (You probably weren’t going to anyway). Put on sneakers or hiking boots and you’re good.

The other mistake I made was not carefully reading the park map. Some of the caves are easy to navigate and others, such as The Gap, are quite difficult. If you get nervous in enclosed spaces, that one isn’t for you.

Unfortunately, I had us start in the dark, narrow caves. There aren’t helpful railings or footholds. You’re on your own. I thought, “Wow, this is harder than I remembered.”

While working our way through one of the toughest formations, we came to a crevice that only three of us would be gutsy enough to pass through.

Like something out of Indiana Jones, we had to climb up a log to proceed.

Nolan, Bridget and I gave up and retreated to what turned out to be the easier caves. Jenn, Izzy and Elliott squeezed through. We were separated for at least 20 minutes.

When we reconnected, we learned they’d had a great time. They even found a frog. I felt irresponsible for starting my family off on the trickiest caves. Fortunately, they were more up to the challenge than I was. Next time, I’d follow the map’s suggested route—and wear sneakers.

In 2018, we journeyed back on a sunny fall day. Regardless of what Frost said, the road less traveled is not the way to go here. Following the correct trail made all the difference.

We worked together to get through the challenging caves. That meant boosting people up to higher ground and gripping hands so no one fell. Nobody got hurt or lost. We didn’t find the treasure, though we did find a salamander.

I marveled at how well our kids had learned to navigate these caves. This is difficult terrain, but they handled it with ease. It was time that couldn’t have been better spent.

Panama Rocks is an immersive and inexpensive experience, especially for what you get out of it. Bring your family and friends down and maybe we’ll see you there. We’ll be the ones following the map to a T, as even the most adventurous Dads learn from their mistakes.

Plan your exploration

Located in Chautauqua County, Panama Rocks is about a 1.5-hour drive from Buffalo. July and August are their busiest months, though visitation is steady from spring through fall.

Give yourself at least a few hours to explore. The hiking trail is only one mile long—but feels more like five. Maybe because the caves are so interesting. They demand exploration. You’ll want to find out if Devil’s Den lives up to its name. (Hint: it does.)

If you’re hungry after a day of amateur spelunking, stop by Pizza, Wings & Things in Fredonia for the Buffalo region’s best chicken finger sub—off-the-charts good.

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