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
Last year, more than 318 million people visited national parks across the U.S.A. Although that’s a huge number, it’s pretty typical as far as annual visitations go. Those massive crowds keep coming each year because of the parks’ enduring power. Parks, a.k.a. “America’s best idea,” preserve wildlife, provide vital recreation, and protect priceless scenery. The National Park System includes more than 85 million acres and includes national parks, national historical parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national seashores. There is at least one national park site in every U.S. state. And while it’s well worth a trip to each of the country’s 418 parks (60 of which are “national”), some are more popular than others. The top 10 most visited national parks in 2018 were:
As you might expect, the summer months are the busiest time of year, so if you want to avoid crowds, plan your visit for another season. And if you also want to save some money when you go, take advantage of the National Park Service’s fee-free days. Although 303 of the 418 parks don’t charge entrance fees, the other 115 charge between $5 and $35. Luckily, there are at least five opportunities to enjoy free entrance each year (reservations, camping, concessions, and other fees collected by third parties are not waived). The exact dates of the fee-free days vary, but generally they are: Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, National Park Week in April, anniversary of the National Park Service in August, Public Lands Day in September, and Veterans Day in November. Check http://www.nps.gov for specifics.
If you’re looking for a family road trip destination, seeking solace on back-country trails (don’t forget your hiking gaiters!), want to watch wildlife, or sleep under the stars, consider visiting America’s national parks. And if you visit in the off-season, be sure to call ahead to be certain of driving conditions. Wind, rain and even snow can affect park roads and campgrounds any time of year.
Thinking of escaping to Las Vegas any time soon? While it’s fun to take in a glamorous show or two and try your luck with the one-armed bandits, after a while you’ll want an activity that won’t blow your budget. Fortunately, you’ll find it not far from Sin City—at Valley of Fire State Park. When you’re ready to strap on some light-weight hiking gaiters and get some exercise, be sure to tank up, slather on sunscreen, and head into the Mojave Desert. It’s not too far to drive, and just right for a day trip.
Once voted “Best Scenic Drive in Southern Nevada” by readers of Nevada Magazine, Interstate 15 (Valley of Fire State Park Scenic Byway) takes you 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas to Nevada’s oldest state park. Although the Strip’s neon tubes are missing here, brilliant colors are not. Shades of deep red, brown, and orange seem to glow even more vividly at sunrise and sunset, thus the name Valley of Fire. The park was dedicated in 1935, but its sandstone formations were formed some 150 million years ago from vast shifting sand dunes. The modest Visitor Center is the best place to learn more about the geology, ecology, and history of the park and the nearby region, so stop in for a brochure.
Several scenic roads wind throughout the park, each one leading to yet another unique feature— petrified logs, dramatic rock outcroppings, and ancient petroglyphs. Eroded by wind, water, and time, the Beehives and Rainbow Vista are especially impressive. The White Domes Road ends at a stately formation of sparkling white rock. Be sure to stop at Atlatl Rock to see 3,000 year-old Indian rock art up close. An atlatl, the predecessor to the modern bow and arrow, was a notched stick used to throw primitive spears. You’ll see this tool clearly depicted among the well-preserved petroglyphs. Atlatl Rock is also a nice shaded spot for a picnic.
To stretch your legs, take one of the many hiking trails that lead to even more amazing sandstone formations. Don’t miss Mouse’s Tank. Named for a renegade murder suspect who hid out here in the 1890s, Mouse’s Tank is a natural basin where rainwater collects. A scramble up the rocks provides a nice bird’s eye view, but the best part for history buffs is the numerous petroglyphs etched into the boulders that flank this half-mile sandy trail— evidence that the area has been visited for thousands of years. Keep your eyes open because chuckwallas and collared lizards often scamper out of the shady rock crevices. Snake gaiters are a good idea, too.
Getting bored with flat pavement? If so, now’s the time to change up your running routine by finding trails near your home and on your travels. Even if it’s just once a week, running off-road can stave off boredom and help you get stronger. Uneven surfaces make you engage your core and lateral stabilizing muscles. Groomed trails that are wide and mostly level make for a great introduction to running off the road. The opposite of that are narrow dirt trails with a variety of obstacles such as tree roots, rocks, sand, hills, and more. When you first start out, it’s important to avoid comparing your trail pace to your normal road-running pace. Naturally it will be slower on tougher terrain, and that’s OK. Purposely slow your pace and develop a trail tempo. Staying sprain-free is key if you want to make trail running your hobby, regular conditioning, or weekly off-day. When you’re ready to pound some terra firma instead of pavement, these helpful tips from Runner’s World and REI can help reduce the risk of injury:
Adopt good posture. Shortening your stride can make you more agile and able to react quickly to obstacles. You’ll also be able to lengthen a single stride when needed—to avoid landing on a rock or muddy patch, for example. Keep your gaze 10-15 feet ahead and scan the terrain for obstacles. Hunched shoulders put stress on your back and rob your lungs of inflation space. They are also a sign you’re too tense, so take a moment to relax them. Then hold your shoulders straight, align them with your back and lean your whole body slightly forward as you run. Keep your hands in relaxed fists. Orient your arms so they are perpendicular to your torso, rather than pumping diagonally across it. Your fist should lightly graze the side of your running shorts on each swing. Having an efficient swing motion helps you build forward and upward momentum through your entire torso, rather than relying solely on your legs. When running uphill, maintain a proud posture and pump your elbows back to propel your body forward and upward. The main thing to focus on is to lean into the ground and use your forward momentum.
Wear the right shoes. If you’re going to weave trail running into your life, it’s wise to invest in a pair of trail running shoes. They differ from road-running shoes in that they’re often beefier to handle rugged terrain but also lower profile (lower to the ground), which reduces the chance of ankle rolls with a high heel. The proper tread offers better traction on muddy, wet trails. It can also help you brake when needed on steep descents. Trail running shoes should fit snug in the heel but have room in the toe box. Once laced/tightened you should not be able to slide your foot out of the shoe.You don’t need a new pair of shoes your first time out, but eventually you will want something more substantial if you find you like trail running and plan to continue. Once you buy a pair, take care of them. After a wet or muddy run, remove the insoles, wash off the mud, and stuff with newspaper or paper towels to dry. You’ll be so glad you did this at the end of a run instead of throwing crusty, muddy shoes in the back of the closet and having to deal with them several days later.
Know the rules of the trail. Yield to other trail users (equestrian, hikers, mountain bikers). Generally, downhill runners should yield to uphill runners because the effort to stop and restart on the uphill is greater, and downhill runners often have a better angle of vision. But when in doubt, just be kind and courteous regardless of whether you’re headed up or down. Stay on marked trails and run through puddles, not around them (making the trail wider). Leave no trace, and don’t litter. Runners should yield to bikes, it's so much easier to stop and start on foot than it is on a bike.
Add appropriate accessories. Although many trails provide shaded routes, it’s still wise to wear sunscreen. Sunglasses not only block harmful rays and glare, they also protect your eyes from tree branches and bushes. Wearing a hat and bug spray will help prevent insect bites and ticks. Grabbing some trail running gaiters will keep the dirt, gravel, and briars out of your shoes that can cause hot spots and abrasions. A neck gaiter gives you a little style on the trail, and is handy for keeping the sweat out of your eyes. Bringing hydration with you on a trail run is a must! And so is food. Calories count!
Running over downed trees or through mud and sand takes some time getting used to, so it’s best to progress slowly. Tackling obstacles will get easier as your body gets stronger and more seasoned on trails. When in doubt, walk. Extend the amount of time you currently stretch, and add some additional stretches to your routine. It's important to stretch after your body is already warmed up; stretching while your muscles are cold can lead to injury. Trail running can be zen running. Give it a try and see if you don’t feel more peaceful having left behind car exhaust, noise, and other people!
Each year as the weather warms, local fire departments receive hundreds of calls for snake removals. Rattlesnakes emerge from their dens in search of the warm rays of the sun, and they can be grumpy. They seek out warm areas like driveways, pool decks and sidewalks when they are cold, and cool places like garages and wood piles when they are hot. Snakes are not bad. In fact, snakes have an important role in the ecosystem (for one, they help keep the rodent population down). However, you should call the Fire Department immediately if a rattlesnake is inside your home or in your yard. If you or your family members or pets are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.
It is important to remember that a rattlesnake or other pit viper that is seen in the desert or other natural habitat away from urban areas does not warrant a call for removal. The number one recommendation if you see a snake while out hiking is to simply leave it alone. Snake bites can result in serious injury, or death. Hikers should never be out alone, wear sturdy boots, and stay on well-used trails as much as possible. Avoid tall grass and heavy underbrush where snakes may hide during the day. Keep your hands and feet out of areas you cannot see. Rattlesnakes can be several feet long and can strike about half their body length. Even baby rattlesnakes can possess dangerous venom as soon as they hatch.
Most snakes are not outwardly aggressive for no reason; they usually strike if they are startled. If you accidentally step too close or move a log or rock they call home and are struck, do not attempt to cut out the venom with a knife and do not try to suck out the venom either. This does not work, and can increase anxiety and create additional problems. Do not apply a tourniquet or use ice packs or heat packs. In other words, do not do what they do in the movies!
Instead, stay calm and call 9-1-1 immediately. It's the first and most crucial step to take. While you wait for emergency assistance to arrive, remove any watches, rings, or other articles of clothing or accessories that could constrict swelling. Immobilize the area of the bite and keep it lower than heart level. If possible, clean the bite area with soap and water and cover it with a clean compress or moist dressing. If you’re in a remote area without phone service, get yourself to the nearest medical facility as quickly as possible.
Of course, the easiest way to treat a snake bite is not to be bitten to begin with. Be alert of your surroundings and wear snake gaiters. When enjoying the great outdoors with your dog, never let him off the leash in areas with snake activity. Dogs are at increased risk of being bitten due to holding their nose to the ground while investigating the outdoors. Speak to your veterinarian about canine rattlesnake vaccines and what to do if your pet is bitten.
Hiking Mt. Rainier National Park
Encased in over 35 square miles of snow and ice and originally known as “Tahoma” to the Klickitat Indians, Mount Rainier is the most beautiful backdrop any national park could hope for. “The mountain is out” takes on special meaning with your very first glimpse of the 14,410-foot volcanic peak— the highest in the Cascade Mountain Range. Although Mt. Rainier National Park is a mecca for hikers, windshield tourists enjoy the views just as much from the pavement.
More than 140 miles of road loop through the park, so there’s always a waterfall, lake, or mountain vista ahead. Even if you stay at one of the park's campgrounds (reservations strongly suggested) and won't need a hotel room, stop at the National Park Inn for the view. The wide covered front porch is a good place to admire the evening alpenglow on the south face of Mount Rainier. The porch’s rustic, yet comfy chairs are made for lingering as long as you’d like. There’s also a museum, an information center, and a well-stocked store and gift shop next to the Inn.
Paradise is not only a state of mind at Mount Rainier National Park, it’s a real destination perched at the 5,400-foot elevation. The panoramas from Paradise are incredible on a clear day— the snowy summit seems close enough to touch! Historic Paradise Inn was renovated several years ago and is a definite must-see. Originally built in 1917, the rustic interior and furnishings are simplistically beautiful and huge stone fireplaces at either end of the spacious lobby make warming up on chilly day a real pleasure. The Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center is a great place to learn about the geology, glaciers, flora, and fauna— everything you need to know about Mount Rainier and the surrounding Tatoosh Mountain Range. You can also shop for gifts, eat a meal, and talk to park rangers here. To get a little closer to Nisqually Glacier or the lovely wildflower meadows surrounding Paradise, pick up a trail map or a park ranger can point the way to excellent hiking. Serious mountain climbers attempting the 8+ mile trek with 9,000 feet of elevation gain to Mount Rainier’s summit team up in Paradise, so you’ll likely see gear-laden mountaineers on their descent. If snow still covers the trails you want to explore (common even in July), snow gaiters will keep your legs warmer and drier. If the trails are dry when you visit, hiking gaiters will protect your lower legs from wet weeds, briars, and the dust.
If first-rate scenery and outdoor recreation are high on your list, you’ll definitely be headed in the right direction if you visit the nation’s fifth oldest national park. And when you do, you'll easily see why Washington is known as the Evergreen State.