If Devils Tower National Monument looks familiar to you but you can’t quite place it, perhaps you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. It was used as a location for the movie. A massive tapered stone column towering over 1,000 feet above the surrounding countryside, Devils Tower can be seen for miles and would be a perfect beacon for alien spaceships. More likely, you’ve seen some of the beautiful scenic photographs taken over the years. Either way it is a sight you will not soon forget.
Classic view of Devils Tower taken from the parking lot in front of the visitors center. The actual formation of the tower is a source of mystery and argument among geologists. While it is clearly volcanic in nature, there is no evidence of any volcanic activity anywhere in the area. The best guess is that it is cooled lava that was a mile or more underground at one time. It all eroded away and left this. It will be gone in about a million years because the rock keeps eroding, sometimes sloughing off in big slabs, creating the grooves on the tower and the talus rock around the base.
President Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower as our first National Monument on September 24, 1906. It is located not far from Sundance, Wyoming in the northeast corner of Wyoming in the Black Hills overlooking the Belle Fourche River Valley. It stands 1267 feet tall with a diameter at the bottom of 1,000 feet and 275 feet at the top. The top is roughly the size and shape of a football field, covered with scrub grass and actually has small resident rodents that call it home. The elevation at the summit is 5,212 feet.
The first documented white visitors to the tower were members of Captain William Raynold’s 1859 Yellowstone Expedition, although it was probably explored years before by mountain men.
The first formal survey of Devils Tower was led by Lt. Col. Richard Irving Dodge in 1875 and it was this expedition that gave it its Anglo name. Dodge’s Indian interpreter translated the Native American name to Bad God’s Tower which led to Devils Tower. The name has a historical hiccup which exists to this day. The word Devils is the correct name as opposed to Devil’s, which is grammatically proper. According to the National Park Service, the proclamation signed by President Theodore Roosevelt inadvertently dropped the apostrophe in Devil’s. That made the official name Devils and it was never changed.
It has long been considered a sacred site by many of the northern plains Indian tribes. Some of those tribes referred to it as the Bear’s Lodge. One of the legends that surround Devils Tower is that the vertical grooves in the rock were placed there by a giant bear that was chasing some Indian maidens, who climbed the column to safety. There are six major tribes that have both cultural and geographic ties to the area: Arapaho, Crow, Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Shoshone. The National Park Service says that there are over 20 tribes that have treated Devils Tower as Holy Ground.
Distant view of Devils Tower from a roadside pullout about five miles south. The rolling hills of this 1,347 acre park are covered with pine forests, deciduous woodlands, and prairie grasslands. Deer, prairie dogs, and other wildlife are abundant. There is a huge prairie dog village along the road near the entrance which is a great source of amusement for visitors.
Today the monument attracts about 400,000 tourists each year. They peacefully co-exist with the Native American traditions and rites still observed at Devils Tower. Visitors will see various prayer objects hanging in trees or on the ground and are asked not to disturb them.
In addition to camping, hiking and sightseeing, a major recreational activity at Devils Tower is mountain climbing. Colonel Dodge’s survey report concluded that the summit was “inaccessible to anything without wings.” It was almost another 20 years before two local ranchers – William Rogers and Willard Ripley – became the first to climb it.
They spent weeks pounding wooden pegs into a continuous crack on the southeast face and attaching wooden steps to them. On July 4, 1893 in front of 1,000 spectators, they ascended their makeshift ladder to the top and ran an American flag up a flagpole they had pre-staged there. Mountain climbing at Devils Tower was born. Parts of the ladder used by Rogers and Ripley are still visible today.
The first technical ascent was on June 28, 1937 by Fritz Weissner and Lawrence Coveney. Roughly 5,000 people climb it each year with only five deaths reported since 1893.
In 1941, a man named George Hopkins parachuted on to the summit. He then had to wait six days to be rescued and was half-dead from exposure and dehydration when they got to him.
OK. I knew you wanted to see the top. This is the best I could do until I climb it. Climbing is big business with a number of climbing schools, clinics and guides available. There are many different routes to the top of varying difficulty. In keeping with the sanctity and solemness of the site, they have sacred names like Rock Suckers and Spank the Monkey.
For those who are less adventuresome, there are two trails around the base of the tower. The Red Beds Trail is a three mile hike and there is a shorter 1.25 mile Base Trail. These hikes are worth taking as they bring you close to the tower and give you a different perspective of its majesty. They can be a bit strenuous with altitude and some short but steep grades. Be sure to allow sufficient time and take water with you. There’s none on the trails.
There are camp sites available and a visitor’s center but other than that, accommodations and creature comforts are pretty sparse. Parking can be a challenge during the peak season. Be prepared to park along the road or down below and walk a ways.
As with most National Parks and Monuments there are no traditional container geocaches on monument grounds. There are numerous geocaches in the surrounding area and nearby Black Hills.
So if you are ever in the Wyoming Black Hills, turn north at Sundance and follow the signs to Devils Tower. You can’t miss it.
Cheers … Boris and Natasha