A few weeks ago, we went for a drive to explore the Mark Twain National Forest and ended up hiking through Elephant Rocks State Park. The park is located about 2 hours south of St. Louis, just outside the town of Belleview. We learned about the park after stopping by a ranger station in the national forest. While we were chatting with the park ranger, little Michael found some tree stumps to climb on.
He also made friends with not just one, but two Smokey the Bear signs.
When we arrived at Elephant Rocks State Park, we were happy to see a playground with swings, slides, and more climbing opportunities for Michael. It was a fun place for him to stretch his legs after the car ride and before getting buckled into the stroller for our hike.
Once little Michael was all tuckered out from the playground, we set out to see some elephants!
The park is described in the Missouri State Parks brochure as a “geologic circus parade.” It gets its name from a procession of massive granite boulders located at the top of a granite dome that bears a strong resemblance to a train of elephants in a circus. Michael and I were fascinated with the geology and history on display in this hidden gem of a park. I am a rockhound at heart. As a child (actually, probably a middle-schooler) on our summer vacation road trips, my entire family would have to pull over on the side of the road and get out of the car in the west Texas heat so that I could chisel away at the rocks at the base of the Davis Mountains, searching for fossils. Over 20 years later, I found myself equally excited and intrigued hiking among the granite boulders we found in Missouri. Elephant Rocks State Park was created as a reserve to protect layers of exposed, Precambrian granite at the surface of the ground in a part of the Ozarks known as the Saint Francois Mountains. The formation of the elephant rocks began over 1.5 billion years ago.
In addition to the playground at the entrance of the park, the entire trail was paved, making it very toddler and stroller-friendly! As we hiked along, we commented on what a perfect excursion it was turning out to be for our almost-two-year-old. The tree-lined trail makes a loop around the base of the solid bedrock granite dome. Along the way, we spotted lots of skinks slithering around in the leaves.
And some bright orange mushrooms!
Only a few places along the trail proved to be too much (or too little) for our stroller:
We also came across a large quarry.
The quarry dates back to the mid to late 1800’s, and provides some interesting cultural history to accompany the natural history inside the park. The land that Elephant Rocks State Park sits on used to house several quarries that produced red granite called “Missouri Red.” Much of the granite extracted by the quarrymen, stonecutters, and masons was transported to St. Louis, where it was used to pave the St. Louis levee, downtown streets, and many major buildings. It was exciting for us to stand at the site where, many years ago, workers were chipping away granite blocks to create infrastructure still used in St. Louis today!
The railroad was used to transport the “Missouri Red” to St. Louis. We even got to see an old engine house where they loaded the granite cars.
In the picture below, you can see remnants of the old railroad tracks.
The mining history inside Elephant Rocks State Park is apparent along the entire hiking trail. As we walked along, Michael pointed out numerous places on the granite rocks where you could see hammer, drill, and chisel marks.
Pardon the graffiti, or “etching,” but the sign above is referring to the rock Michael Jr. and Michael III are standing in front of:
The indentations on the rocks below show where they were cut apart from larger boulders.
We had fun looking for evidence of past mining activity as we wandered around the granite.
Although our little one was not as captivated by all of this natural and cultural history as we were, he was a trooper during our hike. He even waited patiently when we stopped to do some rock, or boulder-climbing.
After mom and dad completed their playtime on the smaller boulders, we hiked a bit further up to the granite dome to find the elephants. Little Michael was eager to get out of the stroller by this point.
We made it to the circus!
Michael enjoyed walking among the giants.
The park brochure explains that the geologic name for the landform created by the elephant rocks is a tor, “a stack or pile of weathered residual granite rock boulders sitting atop bedrock mass of the same rock.”
These pictures show just how big the elephants are:
Standing on top of the granite dome reminded me a lot of Enchanted Rock in Texas.
In the picture below, you can see etchings in the granite. We learned that the men working to extract the granite carved their names in the rock when they became master stonemasons. Pretty neat!
After spending some time exploring the elephants at the top of the dome, we made our way back around the loop to the park entrance. The food truck in the parking lot selling shaved ice provided the perfect way to wrap up our excursion.
Little Michael loves crushed ice, so we ordered him a plain snow cone and put the ice in his cup. It was a great way to cool off after meeting the elephants. Michael enjoyed some time on the swings before we headed back to St. Louis.
I’m so glad the park ranger suggested we visit the elephant rocks! The park was ideal for a toddler and provided the perfect setting for us to enjoy nature, geology, history, and, most importantly, given the heat, a tasty snow cone.