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The Story Behind Elephant Rocks State Park

I’ve been intrigued by Missouri’s Elephant Rocks State Park for years (seriously, it’s been on my Missouri Bucket List since 2019). All it took was a single photo of a hiker standing next to the behemoth boulder, Dumbo. I didn’t understand the significance of the rocks, nor of the history of the area, but I knew I wanted to explore that other-worldly terrain.

Where is Elephant Rocks State Park?

Elephant Rocks State Park is in southeast Missouri in Iron County near Pilot Knob. 

The park is near Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park in Middle Brook (natural waterslides); Battle of Pilot Knob State Historic Site (a Civil War battle took place there in 1864); and Taum Sauk Mountain State Park (home to a wet-season waterfall and the state’s highest point).

Like all Missouri State Parks, it’s free to visit.

When is the best time to visit Elephant Rocks State Park?

A tree grows in a crack of the granite rocks in Missouri

Missouri State Parks recently issued an alert about unprecedented attendance, especially on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The parking lot is not very big so that causes a lot of trouble.

It’s recommended to visit the park on weekdays, Monday through Thursday. For up-to-date information on the best time to visit the park, call 573-546-3454 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week.

There are two special events held at the park each year: Haunted Hike and the Geminids Meteor Shower Event.

In 2022, there will also be the Blood Moon Total Eclipse Viewing Event on May 15.

How’d Elephant Rocks get their name?

Elephant Rocks are some of the oldest rocks in south-central and eastern United States. Where you touch one of the boulders, you’re touch something that began forming about 1.5 billion years ago!

The curious red granite boulders were formed from cooling magma. Through erosion, the granite cracked into huge blocks, and the angles were rounded over time by water. The huge blocks were still underground when the rounded masses, called core stones, were formed.

Water pools on the rocks at Elephant Rocks State Park

Eventually, the boulders were exposed at the earth’s surface. And what they looked like was a train of circus elephants, standing end-to-end. The rocks lie within a 7-acre space called Elephant Rocks Natural Area.

The stack of spheroidally weathered residual granite rock boulder is called “tor.” 

No one knows how many boulders are in the park. The largest elephant boulder, though, is aptly named Dumbo. The 680-ton rock is 27 feet tall, 24 feet long and 17 feet wide.

To this day, their shapes change. There is lichens growing on the rocks’ surfaces that dissolve the rocks with their weak organic acid.

Another interesting feature on the rocks are the bird baths, or the solution pans, that formed on the surface. The circular depressions were formed by physical and chemical weathering. 

Things to know about hiking at Elephant Rocks

The great thing about this park is that you don’t have to hike far to see these natural wonders. The Braille Trail is .9 miles long loop. It leads to the op of the granite outcrop, so you can wander among the giant boulders. 

Braille Trail at Elephant Rocks State Park

I’ve never seen a trail like it. Green turf squares marked the spots on the trail with braille signage.

The Braille Trail is the first of its kind in Missouri state parks. It’s designed for people with visual or physical disabilities and is now a National Recreation Trail.

There are a few short trails branching off from the main Braille Trail. The Engine House Ruins Trail is an out-and-back .4-mile trail (you can continue on the trail, if you want – it leads to the backside of the quarry).

My kids and dad were already tired by the time we reached that trail, so they didn’t join me to check it out. The trail name sounded interesting enough.

However, they didn’t miss much. 

A window of the Engine House ruins

The engine house once repaired the train engines and cars from the Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad. Red granite from the Sheehan Quarry, located inside the park, was transported by rail around the country.

The remaining ruins have that pretty red granite to admire, but other than that, there’s isn’t much else to see.

Bouldering at Elephant Rocks

Bouldering is a type of rock climbing without ropes and harnesses. Usually, it’s done at heights of no more than 16 feet.

Girl climbs the rocks at Elephant Rocks State Park in Missouri

Essentially, it’s playing on rocks, right? My kids were bouldering without me even realizing it. 

You do not need a rock climbing permit to practice bouldering at Elephant Rocks State Park.

Missouri history at the Elephant Rocks State Park

The Braille Trail passes near a quarry pond, where red granite was once quarried from the 1860s to the early 1900s. As you walk along the Braille Trail, you’ll encounter some remains.

The area is significant in that the state’s oldest recorded commercial granite quarry is just outside the park. Millions of granite blocks from the quarry were used to pave downtown St. Louis streets. 

Quarry at Elephant Rocks State Park

Fun fact: Red granite blocks the size of a shoebox sold for 8 cents back in the height the area’s quarrying days. A good block maker could produce about 50 blocks a day, earning a pretty good wage of $4 a day.

You can see a fine example of the red granite today in the columns in front of the Governor’s mansion in Jefferson City.

Can you camp at Elephant Rocks?

No. You cannot camp at Elephant Rocks State Park. The park closes pretty early, especially in the off-season. In the summer, the park closes at 8 p.m.

Where’s a good place to stay near Elephant Rocks?

I highly recommend staying at the (relatively) nearby state park, Echo Bluffs State Park. There are cabins available, camping spots, as well as a large lodge. We booked a two-room suite that provided plenty of space for our family of four (not to mention two balconies).

Large cabins at Echo Bluffs State Park

Echo Bluffs is pretty on its own, but what makes it an ideal home base for exploring is its proximity to not only Elephant Rocks, but Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park and launching points for the Current River.

If camping is more of your style, here are a few options:

  • Black River Wine House & RV Retreat (about 25 miles from Elephant Rocks) – Located in Annapolis, Black River often has live music, alcohol available, and access to kayaking. Tent and full hookup.
  • Four Creeks Ranch Campground (about 43 miles from Elephant Rocks) – Located in Ellington, Four Creeks offers fishing and a beach. Tent and water RV hookup.
  • Otahki Lake Cabins & Campground (about 46 miles from Elephant Rocks) – Located in Patterson, amenities include a beach, boat launch and dog park. Mostly cabins, pull-through sites, and back-in sites.

If hotels or vacation rentals are more along your accommodations preference, here are a few nearby options:

  • Fort Davidson Hotel – This is one of the higher-rated hotels in the area (8.9 stars on TripAdvisor), and it has an outdoor pool and a restaurant on-site.
  • Home On The Mountain – This cute home is near Ironton, and has a surprising 10-star average on TripAdvisor, so I think it deserves a little attention! There are two bedrooms and two bathrooms, plus a terrace.
  • Plain & Fancy B&B – The rural, charming B&B has a seasonal outdoor pool, rooms with a hot tub, and, yes, breakfast is included.
Hiking, history and bouldering at Elephant Rocks State Park in Southern Missouri

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Jonnie Horton

Tuesday 7th of June 2022

Elephant Rocks isn't fun or pretty. Seriously if you enjoy this ,then there really must not be, any fun things to do elsewhere .. JS

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