Elephant Rocks State Park

To take a giant leap or turn around and head back to the trail? That is a question that I found myself asking a lot when Griff and I visited Elephant Rocks State Park in Missouri.

Climbing on boulders can be great exercise and fun at Missouri State Parks.

Climbing on boulders in Missouri.

The park: gentle trails and giant boulders

The paved trails with easy inclines are nice for visitors out for a stroll, while giant granite boulders call to those looking for a more moderate hike. Along the paved path there is a braille trail with ropes leading to signs with short paragraphs that explain the history of the area and encourage visitors to enjoy the natural beauty in the park. Climbing on and around the boulders requires visitors to be more cognizant of their footing as slopes may be steep and it is important to watch for gaps as some are wide and/or deep.

 

One of the easy unpaved paths at Elephant Rocks State Park.

One of the easy unpaved paths at Elephant Rocks State Park.

 

There was a youth group visiting at the same time who jumped across the gaps of the boulders with ease and a carefree attitude. I, on the other hand, thought very seriously about the direction that I would take in order to make the smallest possible leap from one boulder to another. Although the choices that we made on the hike were less youthful, we couldn’t resist the urge to take silly photos with the rock formations. Griff also found ample opportunity to take other (more artistic) photos throughout the park. The maze created by these rocks provided a fun place to get light exercise and capture the fresh air before getting back into the car.

Watch your head! Fun photo opportunities at Elephant Rocks State Park.

Watch your head! Fun photo opportunities at Elephant Rocks State Park.

 

Elephant Rocks State Park offers opportunity to take silly photos with the giant boulders.

Elephant Rocks State Park offers opportunity to take silly photos with the giant boulders.

The history: volcano, granite and railroad

Granite built the area and is still a major resource for the community. For many years, the granite in Iron County, MO has been transported throughout Missouri to build some of the most admired buildings in the state. To transport the rock from the quarry to other areas, the railroad was once a major factor. A short detour trail in the park will lead to the old engine house. While the former engine house is in ruins, the granite walls are still a beautiful sight to see. It is easy to envision what this area must have looked like at the time with multiple former railroad tracks convening near the engine house. Griff and I definitely thought the sidetrack to the old engine house was worth the time.

The ruins of the Old Engine House demonstrates how beautiful the granite is from this area. This can be found on a detour from the main trail of Elephant Rocks State Park.

A slight detour at Elephant Rocks State Park leads to the ruins of the Old Engine House.

A wall at the Old Engine House in Elephant Rocks State Park. Trains carried granite out of Iron County to other areas of Missouri.

The Old Engine House wall along the former rail that carried granite out of Iron County to other areas of Missouri.

 

Visit Iron and Reynolds Counties

The granite and other large rocks formed by a volcano have left behind beautiful parks in the area including the nearby Johnson’s Shut-Ins. Visitors to Iron County (Elephant Rocks) should consider visiting Reynolds County (Johnson’s Shut-Ins) if time is available. We heard that there are other parks and natural sites in the area that we did not have time to visit in 2014 but hope to in 2015. Visitors to Elephant Rocks, and probably other area attractions, may find the Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park campground a convenient place to share stories around the campfire about their day at play in the great outdoors.

This boulder looks like a turtle that has come out of its shell.

Elephant Rocks State Park.

This boulder sits atop a hill of giant granite rocks at Elephant Rocks State Park in MO. It reminds me of when I was a kid and would try to crush people with my thumb and finger.

Ever try to crush someone at a distance with your thumb and finger? Unfortunately for these people, the camera angle and the giant boulder made it look like they were being crushed at Elephant Rocks State Park.

The Tallest Peak East of the Rockies

Looking up at Harney Peak from the trail

Looking up at Harney Peak from the trail

As we walked along, the gravel trail had changed over to dirt and narrowed substantially. We were now required to walk more or less single-file along the old, dusty pathway as the elevation once more started to increase. The late morning sun beat down from above, sapping my energy despite the day’s moderate temperature. Maybe the thinner atmosphere 6,000 feet up transmitted more of the rays to my skin or maybe being one mile closer to the big ball of flaming gas 93 million miles away made a difference. Probably not, but it sure felt like it.

Another hiker approached as he descended the trail. “You’re about halfway there,” he said, repeating what we had heard from several other hikers over the previous 30 minutes. The trail must abruptly teleport us from the halfway point to the top at some point.

Dead tree along trail up to Harney Peak

Dead tree along trail up to Harney Peak

Let’s rewind a bit back to the start of this adventure. Fox, her parents, and I were on vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We had seen buffalo, prarie dogs, and Mount Rushmore lit up the previous evening. We had seen advertisements for the highest point in the Black Hills, Harney Peak. I had listened to Fox reminisce about hiking Mount Christoffel during a previous trip with her family to Curacao before I had met her. I wanted to experience something similar with her and so I suggested we hike up to Harney Peak.

So there we were about an hour into the hike. We had walked up and down a wide gravel path which passed multiple overlooks from which we could see the inactive fire tower at the top of the peak far in the distance. Eventually the path descended to a small creek which seemed to be at a lower elevation than the 6,000+ feet at the trailhead.

Near beginning of Harney Peak trail

Near beginning of Harney Peak trail

From there, it was all uphill to the top. None of us was in great shape, but at least Fox and I had youth to combat the relatively thin atmosphere compared to our home in Saint Louis. Her parents had more difficulty, but we made steady progress through the numerous switchbacks.

Looking southeast from near Harney Peak summit

Looking southeast from near Harney Peak summit

Soon the tree cover cleared signficantly and we had a fantastic view of the Black Hills for many miles in some directions. It was inspiring me to reach the top. I periodically took a sip from my Camelbak filled with nearly a gallon of water as we climbed. Although the air felt about room temperature, I was sweating profusely along my back, under my arms, and under my hat. Perhaps the dry air and elevation had something to do with it.

Once it seemed that we had ascended above the competing peaks in the area, I knew we were closing in on the top. We came across an old hitching post for tying up pack animals and then the path changed from rocky dirt to man-made stairs. Fox and I pushed ahead, eager to get a view from the top.

Stairway to fire tower on Harney Peak

Stairway to fire tower on Harney Peak

The old fire tower appeared to be in good condition, but the strong winds unobstructed by the surrounding hills made our footing feel a little precarious. But it didn’t really matter as the thrill of being at the top of the Black Hills and all the land for hundreds of miles around forced my camera up to my eye. I got busy shooting off dozens of mediocre photos as I forgot about good composition and merely captured anything that caught my eye.

View from the Harney Peak fire tower

View from the Harney Peak fire tower

Climbing Harney Peak was a wonderful experience. It was my first hike up anything even resembling a mountain and it immediately made me want to do more. It may be a little while before we can do another high elevation hike, but hiking Harney Peak has me in the mood to do more hiking closer to home.

Another dead tree on Harney Peak trail

Another dead tree on Harney Peak trail

Outside at the Giant’s Causeway

It has been a year since we returned from our visit in the great emerald isle, but on this Monday I am dreaming about being back where many shades of green could be seen rolling along the countryside of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Although I loved the vibrant greens on our trip, there is one not-so-green natural area that is deserving of its own post. This area is the Giant’s Causeway.

Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway has this wall of natural columns formed from a volcanic eruption.

This wall of natural columns is the result of a volcanic eruption.

The tops of pillars at the Giant's Causeway formed from a volcanic eruption in Northern Ireland.

Exploring the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

One cannot understand how powerful and wonderful this bit of the outdoors will be until the trail is hiked and the causeway is in sight. Long before our time, a volcano erupted in Northern Ireland that left behind columns of varying heights perfect for climbing and exploring. Many of the pillars are clustered together to form something similar to natural stairs that are fun and easy to climb. Along the trail there are green pastures intermixed with many other interesting rock formations. These rocks are intriguing to view, sit on, stand on and photograph.

Interesting rock formation along the hike to the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland.

Taking a nap on the natural recliner after a hike to the Giant’s Causeway.

The day that we were there, it rained heavily most of the day and we were feeling disappointed that the rocks would be slippery and it may not be enjoyable to explore the area. We were on a tour and the bus driver said with a laugh “Don’t worry, Robbie (the tour guide) always has sunshine at the Giant’s Causeway.” Well, regardless if Robbie had anything to do with it or not, moments before we arrived, the sun and a rainbow appeared overhead. It was a beautiful afternoon to be along the water exploring this natural playground. A local band (I presume) must have had the same feeling because they were out taking photos on the rocks.

Band on top of pillars formed by a volcanic eruption in Northern Ireland.

Band on top of pillars formed by a volcanic eruption in Northern Ireland.

The volcanic eruption that left these columns must have been something spectacular, but the outcome is definitely something to be seen in person. The area stretches a few miles and has tens of thousands of the stone pillars. Unfortunately, it has been too long for me to remember all of the specifics, but it is a vision that I will keep with me for a very long time. If you are ever in Northern Ireland, get outside and explore the Giant’s Causeway.

The tops of the columns at the Giant's Causeway.

The tops of the columns at the Giant’s Causeway.

It’s Getting a Bit Chilly Out Here

The forecast for Saturday night at Indian Cave State Park was mostly clear skies and a low of around forty degrees. This would be the coldest night of camping Fox and I had experienced to date. We were already planning on bringing a comforter and two warm blankets, but forty degrees caused us to throw a fourth in the car.

A mild west wind blew through the campground until nightfall and made me think maybe a fifth blanket would have been a good idea. Fox’s brother, his wife, their dog, and the two of us huddled around the fire for warmth until we decided it was time to get some sleep.

When we finally got under our stack of blankets, I was immediately aware of the chilly surface of the air mattress through my clothes. I had not given any thought to the effect of slowly descending temperatures on the compressed gaseous filler in our bed. Rather than insulating us from the cold, the heat from our bodies seemed to be drawn away to warm all of that cool air.

I woke up well before dawn to find my face chilled by the low morning temperature as well as a bed even cooler than the night before. While the feeling wasn’t miserable, it wasn’t comfortable either. I moved closer to Fox and fell back asleep.

When we both woke up for good a little after dawn, neither of us wanted to get out from under the blankets, nor did we want to separate from one another. We just wanted to stay like we were until the weather warmed up again.

Eventually we felt compelled to get up, start a fire, and make breakfast. While we were eating, Fox’s brother seemed to really enjoy informing us how warm he was and how well he slept the night before. They didn’t need a pile of blankets. They had cold weather sleeping bags.

Yes, I’m a little jealous.

Afternoon at Johnson Shut-Ins

As we left our campsite, the grey clouds relentlessly showered the windshield with rain.  In the few minutes it took to drive to the Johnson Shut-Ins, the rain let up slightly, instilling in us a small hope that we might be able to play in the water.  We parked at a playground along the river.  Nearby was a covered shelter with information about the geologic history of the area.  We used our umbrella to cross the distance to the shelter and educated ourselves for several minutes until the rain was only a drizzle.

Geologic history lesson at Johnson Shut-Ins

Geologic history lesson at Johnson Shut-Ins

We decided to follow a gravel trail near the river and see if it would take us to the Shut-Ins.  I brought my camera with me, but the overcast weather made most photographs I took look rather dull due to poor lighting.  Luckily there were some nice flowers and wild plants along the path that made for interesting subjects.

Black-eyed Susans

Black-eyed Susans

Flowering plant

Flowering plant

After what seemed to be about a fifteen-minute walk, we arrived at a parking lot and a large wooden building.  From the tall radio antenna visible, I suspected it was a ranger station.  That turned out to be the case, but it also had a gift shop and changing rooms for people headed to swim in the river.

From the ranger station, we walked along a pathway until we discovered people playing in the water below.  They were wading in a shallow pool created by the river trying to squeeze through the rocks of the Shut-Ins.  The rocks near this pool were short and only just rose above the water, but as the water ran through the gaps and down into a large pool further down the river, the rocks became giant granite boulders as large as elephants.

Small rocks in upper pool at Johnson Shut-Ins

Small rocks in upper pool at Johnson Shut-Ins

Fox and I walked out on the rocks so we could check out the Shut-Ins from up close and I could take some photos.  As we were doing this, the sky continued to clear up.  We both wished we had brought our swimsuits as the water looked clear and was a good temperature.  After a while we left to return to our campground and eat lunch.

Examining the Johnson Shut-Ins State Park on a rainy day.

Examining the Johnson Shut-Ins State Park on a rainy day.

Later in the day the sun was shining brightly and the clouds had all but vanished from the sky.  We changed clothes in our tent, grabbed some towels, and drove back to the parking lot in front of the ranger station.

Due to the nicer weather, the Shut-Ins were bustling with activity.  Many families were scattered about with people looking on from the beach, playing in the upper and lower pools, and climbing all over the large boulders in the water.

We had received advice prior to our trip that it would be a good idea to bring water shoes.  As we started to make our way out into the river, we were glad we had listened.  The clarity of the water seemed to be due to the rocky bottom and the moist surfaces of the boulders could be very slippery.

Clear river water

Clear river water

To get accustomed to the water, we slowly submerged ourselves up to our heads in the upper pool where the shadows of a cliff above the river made the water temperature quite cool.  Fox was covered in goosebumps, so we decided to go explore the paths the river made between the boulders.

The river split into small streams as the water ran between rocks, creating small waterfalls with personal pools beneath them.  Where the streams could not reach there were some tidal pools with warm, stagnant water filled with algae which we generally tried to avoid.

Streams at Johnson Shut-Ins

Streams at Johnson Shut-Ins

Small pool in boulder at Johnson Shut-Ins

Small pool in boulder at Johnson Shut-Ins

We quickly found that traversing the streams between rocks was best done with both hands and feet in order to reduce the risk of slipping, falling, and hitting our heads on thousands of pounds of solid granite.  Also stepping along the bottoms of the streams gave good traction for our feet.

As we made our way to the larger boulders near the lower pool, we encountered some deeper pools where I could not touch the bottom as well as almost unsupervised kids jumping from a large boulder above into pools near us without warning.  As neither of us were interested in getting knocked out by sudden falling children, we turned around and headed back up to the upper pool where there weren’t as many people.

We found an underwater natural bench formed by flat rocks.  It was covered in some slimy moss but otherwise made a good place to sit and relax in the water.  Again I was struck by how cool the water was when I noticed the goosebumps on Fox’s arms, so we called it a day and waded to the beach to get our towels.

Johnson Shut-Ins turned out to be a great place to visit with clean water in which to swim and unique geologic features which were fun to explore.