Two State Parks in Southeast Missouri Are Natural Attractions Off the Beaten Path | Southeast Missouri
WWithin a 15-mile stretch of highway in the southeastern region of the state are two Missouri state parks that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Elephant Rocks State Park offers hiking opportunities on large monolithic boulders, while Johnson’s Shut Ins is home to a natural waterfall and a pool where visitors can swim.
Elephant Rocks State Park
Elephant Rocks became a state park in 1967 when it was donated to the state by its former owner, a geologist named John Stafford Brown. Its name is derived from the natural formation of the large rocks found there.
“Elephant Rocks got its name from a park feature of huge granite boulders lined up in a row,” said Brian Bethel, director of Elephant Rocks National Park. “They reminded people that circus elephants walk from trunk to tail.”
In fact, the name of the rocks is modest compared to their actual size.
“They’re huge,” Bethel said. “They are bigger than elephants. They are bigger than houses in fact.
Visitors from all over the country come to view and browse these 1.5 billion year old monoliths. The parks have ADA accessible trails, with Braille features for visually impaired visitors.
However, the park has more than just rocks and hiking. The only occurrence of a particular type of red granite can be found there. During the 1800s, quarries near the park collected this granite from the region.
The workers in these operations left a lasting mark on the region – their names carved in granite.
“It was kind of a tradition,” Bethel said. “When a person was working for the quarry and getting his apprenticeship, he would take his tools from the elephant rock and carve his name into the granite. So we have names that go back to the 1860s in the granite.
The granite and the park itself were formed after an ancient super caldera volcano collapsed below the park, similar to the one below Yellowstone National Park. The magma chamber of this volcano was responsible for the red granite.
“If the lava comes out of the volcano and is exposed to oxygen, it expands very quickly and becomes pumice.” Bethel said. “If it stays in the ground and cools, it turns to granite.”
If you dig deep enough, this type of granite can be unearthed in most areas of Southeast Missouri, but it is not found anywhere else in the world.
A few miles down the road is Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, which offers swimming, camping, and 60 miles of hiking trails. Founded in 1955, the enclosures remain the main attraction of the park.
“It’s basically another name for a gorge,” said Tyler Keims, deputy superintendent of Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park. “This is basically where the geological formations have locked themselves in this section of the river. Over time, the water has eroded through the rocks to create shoots and pools in which people swim and play.
This erosion of the rock created a kind of natural waterfall, the water finding its way through the grooves. This creates large pools where visitors often swim.
These two state parks have received an exceptional number of visitors over the past year. The pandemic prompted tourists to seek out natural outdoor destinations, as many indoor activities were considered dangerous.
“Last year we estimated 244,150 visitors,” Keim said.
“Until COVID, we averaged between 150,000 and 175,000 per year,” Bethel said. “Since COVID, we will probably be closer to 200,000 per year.”
For those looking for fewer crowds, the staff recommended planning a weekday visit.