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Devils Tower: a sacred place, a confluence of energy, a sci-fi movie location.
Devils Tower: a sacred place, a confluence of energy, a sci-fi movie location.

Devils Tower

Field review by the editors.

Devils Tower, Wyoming

In 1977, Devils Tower -- an eons-old geological oddity -- was split asunder by an entirely manmade event. That's the year Steven Spielberg's sci-fi blockbuster "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was released. Before then, some minor percentage of Americans (ignoring, for a moment, the original Native Americans) knew it as a National Monument seen on road trips -- a slight detour between Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park. It was relatively obscure, with an ominous name and no clear promise of vacation payoff like its more famous neighbors (Giant President faces! Scalding hot geysers!).

Devils Tower creation myth painting.
Devils Tower creation myth painting.

After 1977, Devils Tower was known around the world, and forever entangled in the invisible Ley-lines of space alien landings, government conspiracies, and the poor sculpting properties of mashed potatoes. For whichever reason, about 400,000 visitors make the pilgrimage each year.

Devils Tower is 867 ft. from the base to the summit, 1,267 ft. above the Belle Fourche River. Considered an igneous intrusion, molten granite-like rock (phonolite porphyry) pushed up from a volcano 50 million years ago, then surrounding sedimentary rock wore away between 5 and 10 million years ago (one sign places it at only one or two million years ago). The origin of its furrowed columns is not totally settled by geologists.

The western U.S. is filled with mountains and buttes, but Devils Tower has a memorable shape, sproinging up out of relatively flat surroundings of plains and forest.

For this reason, it figured prominently in the lore of Northern Plains Indians, who considered it a sacred site for thousands of years. Each of a half dozen Indian tribes has their own story about its origins. Indians called it Mato Tipila, Bear's Tipi and Bear Lodge. In the visitors center, there's a painting of the Cheyenne "Legend of Devils Tower," depicting a giant monster bear clawing up the side of the Tower. The Indian tale goes that a bear had a love affair with a brave's wife and turned her into a bear. The Great Spirit protected the husband and his six brothers by growing the rock out of the ground so that they had the high ground and killed the bear.

Devils Tower trail - prayer bundle advisory.
Devils Tower trail - prayer bundle advisory.

In 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt (no stranger to killing bears) preserved the site by turning it into America's first national monument. The official NPS website notes: "A clerical error resulted in the lost possessive apostrophe (i.e. 'Devils Tower' instead of 'Devil's Tower')."

Devils Tower has remained a popular destination for rock climbers, who enjoy the 4-6 hour thrills of climbing the Tower's vertical faces. Six climbers have died since 1937. Anyone scrambling above the boulder field at the base of the Tower needs a climbing permit granted in advance.

Every Devil's Tower adventure starts outside the Park, with scenic views of its aberrant shape from all directions. Near the entrance a couple of large gift shops draw in tourists worried that they might run out of Devils Tower souvenirs if they wait until later. There's not a chance of that happening at the Devils Tower Trading Post. Aside from hundreds of mini-DTs and DT-branded swag, the inventory includes a mass of space alien items.

Devils Tower Trading Post - plenty of alien swag.
Devils Tower Trading Post - plenty of alien swag.

Across the street, businesses affiliated with the Devils Tower KOA offer even more souvenirs, food and snack options. The far end of the parking lot abuts an outdoor theater of plastic chairs and a large projection TV in a cabinet. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is played each summer night, starting at dusk.

Inside the National Monument, the Hollywood extraterrestrial connection is completely ignored. After paying the park entry fee, travelers stop along a stretch of road to see Prairie Dog Town. Irresistibly cute varmints pop out of burrows and scamper from hole to hole. They have learned to hold still for close-ups.

Devils Tower Trading Post.
Devils Tower Trading Post.

Continuing on, visitors wind around to the "back" and park near the base of the Tower. The small log-cabin visitor center provides details about the site, and helpful rangers to answer questions.

Casual visitors walk a bit up the trail to the boulder field at the base of the Tower, where the size of everything becomes more apparent. Little specks on the Tower turn out to be climbers, slowly ascending among the vertical furrows. The trails are fun to walk, and you might catch yourself imagining sinister helicopters dropping sleep gas on your comrades. Devils Towers is awe inspiring, even without the pop culture baggage.

Devils Tower.

The National Park Service maintains a voluntary climbing shut-down for the month of June, out of respect for the cultural significance of the site. The involved tribes might prefer to end all climbing forever, but this seems to be the working compromise. The NPS has placed respectful signs advising visitors to stay on trails, since the "Tower is held sacred by many American Indians and highly regarded by other peoples." Native American prayer bundles and prayer cloths are visible in the forest at the Tower base. A petition to rename Devils Tower "Bear Lodge" (which is what the local tribes call it) has not been successful.

Also of note in the park:

Circle of Sacred Smoke: A wobbly white ribbon representing peace pipe smoke is the work of sculptor Junkyo Muto. Visitors photograph Devils Tower through the hole in the sculpture.

Night Photography: The park remains open 24/7, so it's possible to set up long camera exposures, watch for meteor showers, and other stargazing pursuits. Devils Tower is distant enough from towns and cities to minimize light pollution.

Devils Tower

Devils Tower National Monument

Hwy 110, Devils Tower, WY
Devils Tower National Monument. 1-90 exit 185 just west of Sundance. Drive west 19 miles on US Hwy 14, then north six miles on Hwy 24, then west 3.5 miles on Hwy 110.
$20 per car entry to National Monument.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Prairie Dog VillagePrairie Dog Village, Devils Tower, WY - < 1 mi.
Close Encounters at Devils TowerClose Encounters at Devils Tower, Devils Tower, WY - < 1 mi.
Random Missile LauncherRandom Missile Launcher, Hulett, WY - 20 mi.
In the region:
Open Pit Mine Hole, Lead, SD - 50 mi.

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