It was a bit of a stretch to travel to Devil’s Tower from our vacation home base in Southwestern South Dakota, but the splendor and spirit of the landmark made the drive worth while.
We were interested in setting our feet in Wyoming for the first time, and in understanding the history of the stone edifice in the lives of Native Americans.
Devil’s Tower was the first U.S. national monument, having been designated such by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906, after Congress passed the Antiquities Act. The act gave the president the power to unilaterally proclaim lands as parks or monuments.
Our first sighting of the monolith, as seen in the title photo, was from a pull over at a crest in the highway, 5 miles from the tower. It was striking as it arose from the surrounding rolling terrain of the upper reaches of the Black Hills.
As we got closer, and approached the park’s entrance, it was even more imposing. The tower rises 1,267 feet above the valley and measures 867 feet from its base to the top.
Geologists have determined that the tower formed approximately 50 million years ago and could be described as the result of an incomplete volcanic eruption, termed an “igneous intrusion”. It was felt that volcanic magma worked its way up through the Earth, but only got to within 1.5 miles of the surface. The magma cooled, hardened, and contracted, and when it did, stress forces caused the magma to fracture into the large columns characteristic of the structure. Then, starting 1 to 2 million years ago, the nearby Belle Fourche River, a French name meaning “beautiful fork”, caused the erosion of the overlying soils, uncovering the tower of columns. Interestingly, this erosion was the source of some of the layering deposition discussed in our previous articles on the Badlands National Park, which lies 165 miles east of the monument.
The columns are extraordinary in their size and are considered the longest and largest natural rock columns in the world. Some are more than 200 foot long, up to 8 feet wide, and have from 4 to 7 sides.
Over time forces of nature, such as precipitation, heat, freezing, and thawing, have caused some parts of the columns to fracture and break away from the tower, resulting in the large boulder field at its base and strewn on the mountainside below. Our daughter Ellen is present to give some size reference.
These changes are most pronounced on the western and southern faces, as they are more exposed to these elements, and the boulder fields at the base are larger on these sides.
Interestingly, in the 118 years since Devil’s Tower was made a national monument, there have been no additional stones falling from the columns. Clearly the boulder field accumulated over many millennia.
Some boulders have tumbled further from the tower and are interspersed amongst the ubiquitous Ponderosa Pines on the hillside below.
The top of the tower is a mild dome and about the size of a football field. It has a thin layer of soil that hosts sagebrush, native grasses, and prickly pear cactus. Fauna (animal life), including chipmunks, wood rats, snakes, and birds, inhabit this isolated ecosystem. I did not climb to the top to confirm this information.
The setting for the most part is one of nature, where prairie and stream meet mountain. The end of season grasses danced in the steady breeze and were woven in amongst the mature Ponderosa Pines and boulders that graced the mountainside.
Other than large parking lots and the trailheads, the setting is largely undeveloped. There is a small building for restrooms and a Civilian Conservation Corp era visitor center. From that location the many visitors get a great view of the western aspect of the Devil’s Tower.
Here some visitors were engrossed with watching climbers ascend the face of the stone pillar from a distance.
The park reports that approximately 4000 individuals successfully climb the tower each year, and everyone must check in before they attempt the ascension. With the risk involved that is understandable.
I estimate that 15 people where climbing on the day we were there; doing so in 25 MPH winds. Truly athletes.
The first climbers to successfully ascend the tower did so in 1893, to raise money in otherwise difficult economic times. Their wives charged admission and sold concessions and it was attended by approximately1000 people. They used a “ladder” that was wedged into a crevice, the remnant of which can still be seen 129 years later, as captured in the below photo.
Modern climbers embrace technology, using the latest in hardware and communication. We saw several teams utilizing a lead climber to assist those following.
Being the father of 3 daughters, I loved seeing young women being the lead climbers.
Over 220 identified “routes” to ascend the tower have been used and perhaps the easiest starts at this slump rock. Please note the size of the climbers for scale.
As one looks at the stone columns, one sees large areas of yellow-green pigmentation.
This is caused by the growth of lichen, largely on the non-sun facing surfaces.
Watching the climbers was a favorite past time of some park visitors, but getting on the trails allows one to experience the setting on a more intimate level. We chose the asphalted Tower Trail because of its proximity to the tower. There are others, including the Red Bed Trail, which is bare dirt and also encircles the tower, but is further out. I felt that it would not offer the up close views that we desired. In the photo below you can see two hikers using the Red Bed Trail below us.
Even though the park was crowded on this day, you still felt like you were having a personal rendezvous with nature, as outside the perimeter of the trail was a beautiful grassed Ponderosa Pine woodland, with occasional extended views of the largely undeveloped valleys below. In the first photo below, you catch a glimpse of the small Belle Fourche River winding its way through the valley.
As I mentioned before, part of our interest in Devil’s Tower was the area’s historical association with Native Americans. At least 24 tribes viewed Devil’s Tower as a spiritual center. In fact, the general Native American name for the tower was Bear Lodge. Indigenous oral histories suggest that the bear association relates to a story that the large column formation was caused by a bear clawing at the structure.
The name Devil’s Tower originated in 1875, when during a scientific expedition the commander wrote that “the Indians called the shaft ‘Bad God’s Tower’.” He then modified the phrase to “Devil’s Tower”. Historians debate whether this was intentional or due to a mistranslation. Some Native American organizations have lobbied for a name change back to Bear Lodge.
Native Americans still cherish the Tower and worship here. They offer up prayer offerings which may be colorful cloths or bundles and leave them at the base, frequently on a tree. These were commonly seen along the park’s trails. They provide a personal connection to the site. They are similar to ceremonial objects from other religions, and may represent a person making an offering, a request, or simply in remembrance of a person or place. Visitors are asked to leave these items alone.
The Tower is closed to climbing in June each year to allow indigenous peoples to worship during their most sacred month. In addition, some sides will be closed at other times of the year to limit disruption of nesting birds of prey.
As with many hikes, there was more to this experience than the ever present stone looming over us. There were also interspersed small colorful shows put on by wildflowers.
Hoary Tansy Aster – one of the later blooming flowers. The petal color can range from pink to purple.
Common Yarrow – formerly used for many medicinal purposes including to break fevers and as a poultice to apply to rashes.
Rough Blazing Star – a Liatris species at the western tip of its range and at the end of its flowering season.
Common Mullein – Native Americans would place the thick velvety leaves of this plant inside their moccasins to help insulate from the cold.
Missouri Goldenrod – one of the most broadly distributed species from the Goldenrod family. This one has just finished flowering and is now setting seed.
Studying trees at Devil’s Tower was interesting because there are relatively few species. The largest and most common tree is the Ponderosa Pine. Mature specimens have a characteristic bark with orange-red plates and dark crevices.
The needles occur in fascicles of 2 to 3 and have great regional variation in length, with those from the Rockies and Black Hills tending to have shorter needles of 3-5 inches.
The cones of the Ponderosa Pine are egg shaped and composed of rigid, pointy, woody scales.
Here, arising amongst the boulder field is a Ponderosa Pine adolescent that experienced some damage from a porcupine feasting.
Another evergreen seen along the trail were the Rocky Mountain Junipers. These tended to be small compact trees and would take on a blue cast when laden with berries.
One tree that I was really excited to see was the white barked Quaking Aspen. They are one of the iconic tree species of the Rocky Mountain region and are noted for how their leaves tremble in the slightest of breezes.
Interestingly while they can reproduce sexually through pollen, population spread generally occurs asexually with additional stems arising off the parent root system. Each of these “trees” are genetically identical and the tree group as a whole is called a “clone”. There is a grove of Aspens in Utah that is the largest known living thing on Earth. Nearly 50,000 stems arise from a single root system and the entire clone covers over 100 acres and weighs 6,000 tons.
Finally there were Bur Oaks. Compared to the Bur Oaks in the eastern U.S., these were small in size and often appeared in shrub form. They were at the most western aspect of its native range.
I find it interesting that Wyoming only has two native oak species, while the 7 county area of Northern Kentucky where I reside has 11.
One last interesting bit of Devil’s Tower history was its marquee role in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
In summary, Devil’s Tower is a worthwhile addition to everyone’s travel wish list. It is a dynamic mix of geology, Native American history, nature, humankind, and spirituality. Everyone that we approached that day, either formally or informally, were in awe of the setting. It makes one reflect on the passage of time, and the reality of the minute window that each of us inhabits on the timeline of Earth. Personally it makes me recommit to do my part to help heal the Earth, and for that matter, try to better understand other peoples and cultures.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.
Location – Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.
Parking – Multiple lots. Asphalt for handicap parking but gravel for others.
Facilities – Indoor near Visitor Center.
Trail Conditions – rolling asphalt trail that I would grade as easy. The Tower Trail was 1.7 miles. It would be good trail to use a stroller or wagon on.
Print Map Link – https://www.nps.gov/deto/planyourvisit/maps.htm
Benches – Many
Picnic Tables – at Visitor Center
Kids – Kids 4 and up should do well.
Dogs – Prohibited
Suggested Paired Hikes – There are several additional hikes in the park, some involving different ecosystems.