It’s one thing to say that southern New Brunswick is a place where continents collided. It’s another thing altogether to strap yourself into harness and helmet and scale up the slate-gray face of a lava flow from a 542-million-year-old volcano that was once a part of the African continent. Of course, you can also push off from a beach and paddle out to see cliffside stramatolites or kayak past age-old fossils.

That’s the neat thing about the Stonehammer Geopark, a 2,500-squarekilometre swath around Saint John — it offers dozens of experiences that bring geology to life. The area has some of the most interesting geology in Canada, says Stonehammer’s executive director, Gail Bremner, and the better one understands this terrain, the better we can preserve and protect it. “It’s about connecting people to the Earth in a way that’s meaningful to them,” she says. “That could be kayaking. That could be a guided tour. We created these diversified experiences and these fun ways to get out and enjoy the Earth.”

Stonehammer became North America’s first geopark in 2010, as recognized by the UNESCO-supported Global Geoparks Network. There are 87 others in the world, most in Asia and Europe.

Stonehammer’s landscape was created by the collision of continents and the closing and opening of oceans, as well as volcanoes, earthquakes, ice ages and climate change. Within the footprint are 200 geological sites; 60 are relatively easy to open to the public and 15 are now accessible. Each offers its own geological experience, including kayaking, ziplining and harbour cruises.

Word about the park is already spreading. Stonehammer won the Tourism Industry Association of Canada’s Innovator of the Year Award last November.

“We have a billion years of Earth history, much of it within city limits,” says Randall Miller, research curator and head of geology and paleontology at the New Brunswick Museum, who spearheaded geopark designation efforts. “There have been almost 200 years of geological exploration here and discoveries of globally significant fossil sites. You want everyone to know how fantastic these stories are.” For more info, see stonehammer.nbm-mnb.ca/main.html.