A train of circus elephants dance trunk-to-tail to form an awe-inspiring sight to the young and to the young at heart. This is the appeal of Elephant Rocks State Park, named for a train of gigantic pink granite boulders perched atop a hill, just like circus elephants! This curious geologic formation at the heart of the park is called a tor, or a high, isolated rocky peak which is usually formed of disjointed and weathered granite. This tor was created nearly 1.5 billion years ago by molten magma being pushed to the surface. For millions of years, the magma slowly cooled, forming coarse, crystalline reddish-pink granite.

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Activities: hiking, picnicking, bird-watching

When the Ozark plateau was formed during a great uplifting of the entire area about 250 million years ago, the vertical cracks (or joints) between the rocks became more pronounced. Time and weather took its toll, clearing the weakest pieces out of the joints and laying the immense, oblong blocks of granite bare to the elements. Slowly, the corners were worn away to give the boulders their smooth rounded shape, and trees and shrubs grew in the cracks to help enlarge the joints and wear away the surface of the rock. Physical and chemical weathering has also created circular depressions called tinajitas which hold temporary pools of water and often house tadpoles.

There is no record of the actual number of “elephants” inhabiting the park. Old ones erode away and new elephants wait beneath the cracks and joints of the granite hillside. The park’s pink patriarch, Dumbo, is 27 feet tall, 35 feet long and 17 feet wide, weighing in at a colossal 680 tons!

The park’s one mile circular interpretive trail was the first state park trail in Missouri designed for visitors with physical and visual handicaps. Known as the Braille Trail, signs written in Braille and regular text, guide visitors along a paved, handicap-accessible trail which allows visitors to see the huge rocks and seven acres of the park’s over 131 acres. This acreage has been designated as a Missouri Natural Area and will be protected from further development.

Throughout the park, there are several alternate paths available. Some are handicap-accessible, and others are only for those not using wheelchairs (or strollers). The first of these spurs is a granite gravel road that leads to the ruins of the engine house which repaired the trains that ran to and from the quarries in the area. The oldest of these (it opened in 1869) is Missouri’s first recorded commercial granite quarry. Known as the Graniteville Quarry, it is just outside the park. These quarries provided architectural granite for buildings in states from California to Massachusetts. Most notably, granite from these quarries can be seen in St. Louis. Facing stone for many of the piers on the Eads Bridge, as well as millions of paving stones for the levee and downtown streets came from these red granite quarries. Additionally, many St. Louis buildings are constructed using Graniteville granite. Even the turned columns on the Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City contain this granite. Now known commercially as “Missouri Red”, it is used primarily as building veneer or for monument stones.

The next spur is also handicap-accessible and leads to a gorgeous overview of the St. Francois Mountains. Visitors can then follow the trail to a walking-only path that allows for access to the top of a granite outcropping where they can explore the giant stone pachyderms for which the park is named. Returning to the path, visitors arrive at a fork in the trail. To the right is the wheelchair path, to the left is the “Fat Man’s Squeeze,” a narrow gap between two huge granite boulders. Visitors can “squeeze” through this gap to arrive at the old, abandoned quarry on the other side, or, of course, they can remain on the Braille Trail to reach the same destination. The last deviation from the wheelchair path is the branch that leads to “The Maze” where visitors have the opportunity to wander among the 100-foot section of scattered boulders.

Camping is not allowed in the park, but thirty picnic sites and a playground area provide families with the opportunity to explore the park. Why not relax and have a picnic lunch among the herd?

by Mary Eakins Bullis

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