Seeing that famous tower shape jutting into the northeastern Wyoming sky, you can’t help but remember the 1977 sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But as soon as you start hiking the trails around Devils Tower National Monument, thoughts of alien spaceships are quickly forgotten. The distinctive 867-foot monolith and surrounding scenic countryside easily capture your attention without the help of Hollywood.
Located where the pine forests of the Black Hills meet the rolling prairie grasslands and meandering Belle Fourche River, the monument’s proper name is actually Devils Tower, not Devil’s Tower (a clerical error on early governmental paperwork mistakenly omitted the apostrophe). The name was derived from the Native Americans who referred to it as "the bad god's tower." Believing that "the devil’s tower" was a better English translation, US Army Colonel Richard Dodge recorded it as such in his journal and official documents while escorting a scientific team into the Black Hills region in 1875.
Long before then, however, Northern Plains Indian tribes called their sacred worship site Mateo Teepee (Bear Lodge). Some Indian tribes prefer that the tower and the region still be called Bear Lodge, which is consistent with the legend of its creation. According to one story, a giant bear tried to attack seven girls while they were playing in the area. The girls climbed onto a rock and begged the Great Spirit for rescue from the bear. The rock then rose upward, carrying the girls to safety while the bear clawed at the sides of the rock, leaving the hundreds of deep vertical furrows that you see today.
Hollywood might lead us to believe that Devils Tower was created as a landing platform for extraterrestrials, but geologists have more plausible theories. Some think it is an eroded remnant of a laccolith, a mass of igneous rock that pushed through sedimentary rock but did not actually reach the surface and instead produced a rounded bulge. Other scientists speculate it might be the neck of a small volcano. No one has a definite answer as to how Devils Tower was exactly formed, but perhaps it’s the mystery that makes the Monument even more interesting.
Several trails take hikers up close to the unique rock formation, but the 5,000 or so hard-core climbers who scale its challenging walls each summer achieve a much loftier perspective. Wondering what it’s like at the top? The peak is covered in sagebrush and grass and provides an all-encompassing view from 5,112 feet above sea level! If you’d rather not get roped into anything yourself, just take binoculars along on the paved 1.3-mile loop Tower Trail and live a little vicariously. The mostly shaded peaceful trail encircles the base of the tower and provides good views of climbers clinging precipitously to the rock face. Interpretive exhibits and benches along the way make this a most popular trail. For those seeking a more traditional hiking experience, strap on Razer Hiking Gaiters to protect your pants and legs, and hit the 2.8-mile loop Red Beds Trail that will offer great views of the Tower and surrounding Belle Fourche River valley. Along the north boundary of the park is a 1.5-mile loop trail that follows Joyner Ridge and dips down into the draw below the ridge. One of the more scenic but less utilized trails in the park, Joyner Ridge Trail provides beautiful views of the Tower, especially around sunset. A half-mile connector trail links Joyner Ridge with Red Beds. Maps and additional hiking trail information is available at the Visitor Center.
If you like wildlife on the small side, you won’t be disappointed. A colony of lively black-tailed prairie dogs can be seen right from the main road. Their burrows are elaborate underground networks of interconnecting tunnels with multiple entrance holes, so they literally pop up all over the place! Named for their bark-like calls that sound more like high-pitched squeaks, the entertaining little prairie dogs really aren’t dogs at all. They are rodents closely related to ground squirrels and chipmunks. Wild turkeys, deer, rabbits, many species of birds, and porcupines also inhabit Devils Tower National Monument. Sorry, no little green men have been spotted since Steven Spielberg and his film crew cleared out 40+ years ago!
Devils Tower has also made history outside of the movies. In September 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt established the rock formation and surrounding 1,347 acres as America’s very first national monument. The major difference between a national park and a national monument is that a national park encompasses a large land or water area that contains a variety of resources, whereas a national monument is smaller and usually preserves just one significant resource. Although it lacks national park status, Devils Tower National Monument is no less impressive and interesting, as any of its 400,000 annual visitors will tell you. But don’t take their word for it. Plan your own encounter with the remarkable topography, history, geology, and legends of northeastern Wyoming’s most conspicuous landmark.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Devils Tower National Monument