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Nature’s Playground in Missouri, Elephant Rocks State Park 7/6/2013

July 9, 2013

DSCF1931If there is one place in Missouri that you need to see at least once, it is Elephant Rocks State Park. Located off of highway 21, just down the road from Graniteville, MO, it is home to some of the coolest geological formations in the state. Sitting atop an exposed red granite hill, are giant weather-rounded boulders that look somewhat like huge stone elephants standing in a line. However, at 162 pounds per cubic foot, they are much heavier and dense, and they don’t seem to mind when little kids and adults are climbing all over them.

The process that caused these formations (and all the other spots in the surrounding area) started over a billion years ago! Erosion, water, wind, the sun and the seasons have all contributed to the exposure of these rocks, along with a bit of human influence. Back in the late 1800s, this area was quarried to pull the rich Missouri Red Granite from the ground and send it off to be used in buildings and roadways. Many of the streets in downtown St. Louis are filled with paving blocks from this very area. Some of the red granite still exists today as part of the Eads bridge that spans the Mississippi, built back in the 1870s. Established as a state park in 1967, this is one of the coolest places to spend the day, exploring all the crevices and rock piles in this awesome, natural playground.

DSCF1943How to get there:

From the 270/55 interchange in South St. Louis County, it is about an hour and a half. Take 55 south to US-67 at exit 174b. Stay on 67 for just around 35 miles, until you get into Farmington. In Farmington you want to take MO-221 southwest (right) toward Doe Run (also, be aware that some road atlases refer to 221 as W. This is a recent change). After about 7 miles, 221 merges with NN. Turn left onto NN and stay headed in the same direction for about another 9 miles, until you hit highway 21. Make a right on 21, and after about a mile and a half Elephant Rocks State Park will be on your right.

DSCF1979From the St. Louis area you can also take highway 21 (Tesson Ferry) all the way down there. This is the more scenic route that is a bit more curvy, with a bit more in the way of Missouri charm in the small towns you pass through, especially Caledonia. It also takes slightly longer due to the more restricted speed limits, but it is worth taking this route at least once if you get the chance. I usually return this way because I enjoy the drive and the scenery.

DSCF1996What I like about this park:

It is a giant playground. When you first walk up the short trail from the parking lot to the interpretive loop, you haven’t even begun to see the majestic unearthliness of this amazingly beautiful place. At the junction in front of you, you need to just keep going forward up the rocks to emerge through the trees to see the striking and unfamiliar landscape in all its glory. No matter how much older I get, I am always instantly filled with the energy and desire to scramble, jump, climb and crawl, every time I come to this park. It is so fun, especially now that the kids are at a good age for it. We just pick a leader, and get to exploring!

DSCF1982The history of the area. If it is your first time here, make sure to walk the 1 mile Interpretive Trail around the park. This trail has signs along the length of it that are all about the granite, how the rocks formed, and how humans influenced the place. Who put all these rubble piles here?!?

There are also the ruins of an old engine house that you need to go check out. The beautiful Missouri Red Granite walls are a great example of the striking and sturdy character of this area’s biggest star, the rocks themselves. The engine house was built as a service garage for the trains that would carry the granite out from the quarry to larger depots, and then eventually all across the country. Take the short spur trail to it, or hike along the slightly longer Engine House Ruins Trail that takes you back around one of the quarries which is now a deep pond.

DSCF1970There are a good amount of picnic areas out near the parking lot, so pack a lunch and something to drink, and make a day out of it.

The top of the hill. There are great views from here, and great opportunities for pictures. The landscape seems like a place from another planet, and it is filled with all sorts scenery that you have to see. Don’t forget your camera!

DSCF2006What you need to know:

As wonderful as this place is, it can also be a dangerous place. Some of the slopes on the rocks can be unexpectedly smooth and slippery. Be prepared for a couple bruises and scrapes. If you don’t come out with at least one mild injury, you probably weren’t playing and exploring to your full potential.

DSCF1994Come to terms with the fact that you are probably going to get a little sweaty and a little dirty, especially on a warmer day. I have often thought, after crawling through some opening between the bottom of two giant boulders, that knee pads and gloves would be a good idea. Prepare to spend some time feeling like you’re an eight year old again, and remember that everything is washable. If you can have that as your mindset, you will have a lot more fun.

DSCF2012Sometimes, especially in the summer, the place can fill up quick. There is a lot of parking available, but you might have to wait a couple of minutes to sit at that picnic table you’ve got your eye on. Plus you will also probably have to wait in line for the bathroom. Pay attention and head over to use the facilities when no one is waiting.

Have patience. Sometimes the route you want to take is being traversed by a toddler and his wide eyed Dad. Be a good park patron and accommodate the ability level of everyone around you. And hey, maybe this is the part where you take a chance to explore new routes!

Don’t forget to bring some water. There is a drinking fountain on the western curve of the Interpretive Trail, but staying hydrated is important while you’re active and you might not be on that side of the hill. Plus a lot of the activity here is in direct sunlight, so on THAT note, bring sunblock too.

DSCF1934I cannot emphasize how much you need to check out this incredible place. It is so much fun, and we make it a point to head there at least once a summer. I am also going to try to visit in the winter to see how it looks with no leaves on the trees. I would imagine too, that it looks incredible in the rain. I think watching the water fill up the eroded pools and cascade down the rocks, sharing the ancient secret to how this place was formed, would be a pretty beautiful experience. Elephant Rocks State Park is one of my favorite places, and pictures on the internet will never convey how amazing it really is. I loved it back when I had more spring in my step, and you can bet that I will still be climbing and jumping and scrambling around it long past the point where my body says it’s okay.


  1. Awesome post! I want to go!!!!

  2. jlee1057 permalink

    Yes, this is a must-visit for any Missourian (or anybody from any state, actually)! My husband and I went here on our honeymoon a couple of decades ago (we got hitched on a backpacking trip) and revisited it on our 25th anniversary. I really appreciate all of the insider info you provide on hiking trails and other sites in outdoor Missouri. — Janice

    • Janice, I apologize for taking so long to reply. That is such a great story! It is really cool how these beautiful, natural places can become so special in our lives. Thank you for sharing!


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