The Legends of Elephant Curve Under Yavapai Skies

Elephant Rock

While testing new photo equipment last weekend, I stopped at a spot on the road that I’ve meant to stop at since we moved to Congress over two years ago. Before this weekend, I was either in a hurry, or there was too much traffic, and there was no room to get off the road. This spot is part of the famous Yarnell grade, a stretch of Arizona State Route 89 that winds through the scenic landscape. The Yarnell grade is known for its steep descent and tight curves, making it a challenging drive for many motorists. However, it also has a unique and intriguing landmark—the legendary Elephant Curve.

Elephant Curve
Elephant Curve – As shown on the USGS Topo map, Elephant Curve has earned its spot on the map, but what happened there?

It’s a real place, and the USGS Topographic map shows its name, and at that curve, there is always an elephant painted on the rocks. Once or twice a year, the Arizona Department of Transportation, or a disgruntled Democrat, will cover over the pachyderm. Someone else takes it upon themselves to draw a new version within a week. This is the fourth iteration that I’ve witnessed since we moved here.

Elephant Rock – This is the latest version of our elephant-on-the-rock. The rock art gets painted over annually but quickly reappears within a week. The version before this was in pink paint and traces of the pink area on the pachyderm’s back.Why is this elephant so important? My favorite legend is about a circus caravan traveling to Phoenix in the late 1930s. As the group descended the newly paved but steep grade, one of the trucks lost its brakes and crashed into the rock, killing Scooby—their prized elephant—and as is the tradition in Arizona, the circus troop memorialized Scooby with a painting at the crash site.

Isn’t that sad? That would explain why the elephant painting should remain a lasting memorial marker. Unfortunately, when I researched the story online and visited the Congress Library, I discovered it’s all a myth. When I asked a long-time resident, she gave me a wry smile and muttered, “That’s just a made-up story. It never happened.”

A second local legend involves a miner returning home from a night on Prescott’s Whisky Row. Reportedly, he had to swerve at that spot to avoid a giant pink elephant in the road and crashed his car head-on into the boulder. This story explains why new versions are sometimes pink instead of white.

Elephant Curve
Elephant Curve – As you descend Yarnell Hill, Elephant Curve is the tightest and slowest you’ll meet. Five days after I took this shot, another accident ripped apart this section of the Armco barrier.

Neither story is true—so I’ve been told. The true story is that some unknown local with a strong sense of humor likes to perpetuate the elephant myths. I think there must be more than one artist because each version I’ve seen has distinctive brush strokes. Now that I’m in on the joke, I can picture myself out at night painting my take on Scooby.

Until next time — jw

2 thoughts on “The Legends of Elephant Curve Under Yavapai Skies

    1. For the past couple of years, I’ve drowned with unwanted pink objects, so my choice would be white.

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