Rockin’ with the elephants
By DOUG DAVISON
During the many hours of online research about southern Missouri that I did a few years back, I stopped for quite a while on the Missouri State Parks web site.
I couldn’t help but be intrigued by Elephant Rocks State Park (in Iron County), and the unusual natural granite formations that were apparently there for all to see. Ever since, I’ve wanted to see the place for myself and I knew that going there would be more than just worthwhile.
During June, my wife Wendy’s 15-year-old nephew Alex spent the better part of a week hanging out at our remote Texas County outpost. I figured this was the perfect time for a trip to a world where elephants and rocks collide.
So after the Big Lug ate a couple of pecans for a morning snack and helped make sure the gate to the chicken family’s fenced area was open so they could come and go throughout the day, he and I set out for an adventure in the southeast Missouri hill country along with Wendy, Alex and our little perma-pup Gertie (she’s a year-and-a-half-old, spends almost every waking moment in hyper-energetic puppy mode, and likely always will).
None of us will ever forget it.
Elephant Rocks State Park preserves an ancient, isolated outcropping of 1.5 billion year old granite (known as a tor) in the Saint Francois Mountains. It apparently gets its name from a string of large boulders that resemble a train of pink circus elephants.
But names notwithstanding, it’s arguably one of the most amazing landscapes in America. I’ve been in all corners of the Lower 48 and in Hawaii, and this is one of the most fascinating sights I’ve seen.
You don’t think of Missouri as a place where you’d see a gigantic chunk of exposed granite with huge boulders sitting all over it, but that’s what the park is all about. The patriarch of the Elephant Rocks – aptly named Dumbo – checks in at 27 feet tall, 35 feet long and 17 feet wide, and weighs a hefty 680 tons (a mere 162 pounds per cubic foot).
While the park isn’t all that big (there’s no campground), the state has done an exemplary job of preparing it for human enjoyment, and there is a well-shaded picnic area with lots of tables just below some awesome granite formations adjacent to the parking lot. But without a doubt, the highlight is a one-mile paved trail that loops all the way around the mammoth granite dome that is basically the entire region’s primary feature. Called the Braille Trail (because of its design that supports both visually and physically handicapped visitors), the path is equipped with many signs that offer information about the history of the area and sites along the way. It also includes lots of benches and strategically positioned rocks where weary feet can get some rest.
While walking the trail, as it zig-zags through some of the oddest real estate on either side of the Mississippi, visitors quickly notice that the place is quite literally littered with boulders, some of which resemble massive “dinosaur eggs.” There’s a unique atmosphere to the deal; you might say you can “feel” the rocks as well as see them.
Excited to be in another new environment, Jamie got into his “Corgi-on-the-move” rhythm as soon as he set foot on the trail, claws clicking on the well-traveled asphalt and baloney tongue flapping in the hot, early summer breeze. But at first, there was one thing he didn’t seem to understand.
“I don’t see any elephants,” he said. “Where’s the dang pachyderms?”
“I’m not sure you’ll be seeing any stampedes today big man,” I said. “I think the name comes from the immense size of the rocks – like elephants.”
“Yeah – or me,” Jamie said. “Corgi Rocks – that has a nice ring to it.”
About a third of the way around the loop, a trail spur leads to the ruins of a building where trains were serviced back in the late 1800s and early 1900s when a large quarry operation cut granite from the dome. Not surprisingly, the structure is made of rock, but amazingly, the mortar holding the rocks together shows virtually no sign of wear or aging.
When observing the overgrown train tracks whose story now disappears into the adjacent deep woods, one can’t help but imagine what it was like during the quarry’s heyday when iron horses came and went and dozens of men toiled for dollars.
“Smells like a bunch of dogs were here a long time ago,” Jamie said.
“I’m sure the workers had dogs,” I said. “Maybe even Corgis.”
“Yeah, if they were smart,” Jamie said.
About half way along the loop, hikers encounter the choice of negotiating a narrow opening called “Fat Man’s Squeeze” that splits two granite formations with walls about 15-20 feet tall on either side, or taking the bypass route around the sliver-like passage.
Leading the way at the end of his blue leash, Jamie took the squeeze.
“No problem,” he said. “Thirty-five pounds of canine muscle, comin’ through.”
“Don’t get cocky, Slim,” I said.
About three-quarters of a mile from the beginning, the trail passes the location of the quarry, a large hole carved into the side of the dome that is now filled by a 40-foot deep lake.
Near the end of the loop, another spur twists through a 100-foot section of scattered boulders called “The Maze.”
“This way,” Jamie said. “No this way – wait, this way.”
“You’re 18-inch height puts you at a disadvantage here, buddy,” I said. “Let me direct you so we can get out of here today.”
“Fine,” Jamie mumbled. “But I could have done it.”
The Big Lug always tries to get the most out any day trip, and he worked hard in that respect from beginning to end at Elephant Rocks. He sniffed about a million spots near the paved path and left his mark at the base of about a hundred trees.
“J-a-m-i-e was here,” he said. “Yeah, that’s the ticket.”
Not far down the highway from Elephant Rocks are two more Missouri state parks: Taum Sauk Mountain and Johnson’s Shut-Ins. We’ll be back to check out Taum Sauk (and the nearby Fort Davidson State Historic Site, near where the Battle of Pilot Knob occurred during the Civil War in September of 1864), but we took a shot at Johnson’s, a place featuring its own wild-looking granite formation through which the Black River flows.
Shut-ins was a name used by early settlers to describe a gorge, and this one is surreal, with numerous pools and channels of water intertwined amongst granite walls and bulges. But unfortunately, Jamie was shut out at the Shut-Ins, as park rules prohibited dogs from going past the parking area below the access trail that led to where literally hundreds of people were swimming in the unusual series of aquatic openings.
The good news was that there was a dog-friendly access to the river a short way upstream, and we all took a dip in the clear, chest-deep water.
As we did, the Perma-pup reiterated her status as a true water dog, coming and going time and again from the shore to the middle. Meanwhile, Jamie got wet for a while and then hung out in the shade of a solitary bush a few feet from the river’s edge where we had placed our belongings.
“I’ll be over here if you need me,” he said. “I’ll guard our stuff.”
As we headed back home, construction or some other factor detoured us from the regular route onto a remote highway that allowed us to see some forest and hills of Reynolds and Dent Counties that we might otherwise have never laid eyes on. As he lay sprawled out in the far back of the Honda SUV, it was obvious Jamie had thoroughly enjoyed the outing. But he had one regret.
“I never did see any elephants,” he said.
“Maybe next time, big man,” I said. “Maybe next time.”
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Jamie is a big ol’ Welsh Corgi. Email: email@example.com.