A visit to Devils Tower National Monument gives one a sense of mysterious contentment; a degree of spiritual calm instilled by few of North America’s natural wonders. The tower is located in the Black Hills of northeast Wyoming, not far from Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore in neighboring South Dakota, and just down the road from another place we visited — Aladdin, Wyoming. It is a rare honor to visit a place like this and bask in the grandeur of the creator’s work.
Native American tribes have considered the tower a place of spiritual importance for thousands of years. Different tribes each had their own name for the tower — Aloft on a Rock, Bear’s Lodge, and Bear’s Lodge Butte, for example. They were derived from similar legends about the origin of the mountain. One such legend, from Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday:
“Eight children were there at play, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur. Directly there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified; they ran, and the bear after them. They came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them. It bade them to climb upon it, and as they did so it began to rise into the air. The bear came to kill them, but they were just beyond its reach. It reared against the tree and scored the bark all around with its claws. The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the seven stars of the Pleiades.“
It was not until the 1859 expedition to Yellowstone by Captain William F. Raynolds that a European documented a visit to the tower. It was in 1875 that an interpreter in Colonel Richard Dodge‘s expedition mistranslated the Native American name as “Bad God’s Tower,” which eventually became Devils Tower. Christians and Native Americans have each advocated over the years to have the name changed, unsuccessfully.
President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Devils Tower a national monument on September 24th, 1906, making it the United States’ first national monument.
The release of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster motion picture “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1977 resulted in a big increase in tourist traffic to Devils Tower. The movie, which was one of the highest grossing movies of all-time for a number of years, takes liberal artistic license in depicting its characters simply hiking to the top of the tower (not possible) and a secret government base at the summit. Nevertheless, Close Encounters has become an inextricable part of the mystique of Devils Tower. They show the movie every night at sunset at the KOA campground just outside the park, and alien head souvenirs are everywhere.
It is hard to get a sense of scale from Devils Tower when you see it in pictures, so to give you an idea how big Devils Tower is, we’ve used two yellow arrows in the above photo to point out climbers who were descending on the day we visited. Inset of the same two climbers below.
Park rangers patrol along the visitor path with handheld radio units to communicate with climbers when necessary. Climbers intending to go beyond the boulder field at the base must register at the ranger station before leaving, and upon return.
Exactly how Devils Tower formed is a disputed topic. The rock is a magma intrusion, but geologists do not necessarily agree on whether the magma reached the surface, or whether it remained underground, to be exposed later by erosion. Some have speculated it is a laccolith, while others have said it is the core of an extinct volcano. As the boulder field at the base demonstrates, the tower continues to erode and crumble at a geologic pace, and one day, many millennia from now, the tower will be gone.
Hulett, Wyoming is the closest town to the monument, a tiny little tourist stop about 8 miles away. Terry and I like to try out the cheeseburgers at little roadside cafes when we’re on trips like this, and we both agreed that the burgers we got at the tiny diner in the Hulett Motel were some of the biggest and most delicious we’ve ever tasted. No exaggeration, they were really good.
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Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright Sonic Tremor Media