Devils Tower National Monument

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The sight of Devils Tower can’t help but give you an other-worldly feeling.  Sure, it probably has something to do with this odd mountain’s appearance in Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  But even if you’ve never seen the movie, you still might get the feeling that the Tower would make a good landing pad for an interstellar craft.

While Martians may want to use the mountain as nothing more than an airport, you will probably want to make it a destination — and it’s worth spending at least a couple of hours here.  Add a sunset or a sunrise, and you’ll truly experience something special.

The picture above is one of the first good views you’ll get of Devils Tower, as you approach on Wyoming Route 24 (which skirts the eastern side of the National Park, before following the Belle Fourche River for a while).  Those other mountains are the Missouri Buttes, which are just a few miles away from Devils Tower.  They would likely be the most noticeable landmark around these parts, if that strange column of volcanic rock didn’t attract all the attention.

The park road turns off from Route 24, then circles around the south side of Devils Tower, then comes to an end at the visitor center, which is located just below the mountain on the west side.  As you complete the semicircle around Devils Tower, you get several nice views of the mountain, and each angle looks different.  In one spot, the Tower will almost appear to have a hook to it…

… while at another spot, it appears more vertical, and a bit fatter on one side.

The most popular trail in the park is easy enough that almost anyone can hike it.  The loop trail takes you around the base of Devils Tower, giving you the chance to see it from every possible angle.

The base of Devils Tower provides the perfect place to play on some very big boulders.  The rocks that surround the mountain used to be part of the giant hill, but over time, the columns broke free and tumbled down.

Here’s your geology lesson for the day.  Devils Tower is made of Phonolyte porphyry, which is an igneous rock similar to granite, except it lacks quartz.  While it’s not exactly clear how Devils Tower formed, geologists believe it was not a volcano.  Instead, it was an igneous intrusion, which means magma welled up through sedimentary rock, then cooled.  The surrounding rock eroded away, leaving the column of rock exposed.  When the magma cooled, it contracted, leaving evenly spaced stress points throughout the column.  Over time, those stress points turned into cracks, and eventually the columns separated.  Columns can have 4, 5, 6, or 7 sides.  Devils Tower’s columns are the widest (10-20 feet) and tallest (up to 600 feet) in the world. 

You (and of course, your kids) can scramble over the rocks, up to a point.  There’s a clearly marked line which casual visitors are not allowed to pass.  If you want to go any further, you need to register with park rangers.

For some people, “any further” means all the way to the top.   Devils Tower is widely regarded as having the best “crack climbing” in the country, if not the world.  Keep a close eye on the mountain as you circle it — you’re almost guaranteed to see some people perched on the top of some of those broken columns of rock.

While rock climbers are strongly encouraged to register, the National Park Service does not limit the number of climbers, or tell them where to go.  There are rules to follow (don’t leave equipment behind, and don’t carry a drill to place new bolts) and suggested guidelines (the NPS recommends climbers avoid the mountain in June, out of respect for the Native Americans, which consider this to be sacred ground).  Also keep in mind, there is no professional rescue team based at Devils Tower, and the nearest emergency room is 60 miles away.  If you need to be rescued, you will have to rely on other climbers to help.  For all the guidelines, read the NPS Devils Tower Climbing page before you go.

Even though I was battling cloudy skies and occasional rain showers, there were some occasional great views of the surrounding landscape, which is everything you’d hope Wyoming would be.

Just past the trail’s halfway point (it’s a 1.3 mile trail, so the halfway point would be at about .65 miles), the path curves around an absolutely huge fragment of a fallen column.  This up-close look will no doubt give you a better appreciation for the mountain’s structure.  Don’t worry about more columns falling, though.  There have been no major falls during the past 200 years of recorded history at the Tower.

You won’t see Devils Tower constantly as you circle.  The trail spends much of its time underneath a canopy of trees, which often get in the way of the view.

By the time I reached the backside of Devils Tower, the skies had grown cloudier, it was rainy, and cold.  I was also suffering with a cold, so I trudged on without stopping, except for occasions to catch my breath.    Back at the parking lot, I stopped in at the visitor center, then hit the road again.

On the way out of Devils Tower, I stopped to check out a prairie dog town along the park road.

Just like my previous experience with prairie dogs in Badlands National Park, these guys were more than willing to put on a show.

Devils Tower received its name due to a misinterpretation in 1875.  An interpreter thought its Native American name meant “Bad God’s Tower”.  In reality, some Indians called it “Mato Tipila”, which means Bear Lodge.  Indian folklore claims the columns were formed by a giant bear scratching at the sides of a mountain, while in pursuit of Sioux children (in one story, two boys, in another, six girls).

Did you notice, there’s no apostrophe in Devils?  This is due to a clerical error, that occurred when the proclamation declaring Devils Tower as a National Monument was first published, back in 1906.  The error was never corrected. (The USGS also discourages apostrophes in place names.)  By the way, Devils Tower was America’s first National Monument.

As you leave Devils Tower National Monument, head back down Route 24, then follow US 14 westbound.  It’s a surprisingly long drive back to Interstate 90, and the landscape flattens out quite a bit (translation: boring).  The only diversion along the way is Keyhole State Park, which surrounds Keyhole Reservoir.  The area is great for boating and fishing in summer, and snowmobiling in winter — but if you’re just passing through, it doesn’t offer much.  Once you reach Interstate 90 , continue west to Gillette and Buffalo.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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