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Devils Tower National Monument: Facts and Photos of an Unusual Place

As a full-time RV'er, Stephanie writes about many natural wonders to be found in the U.S. National Parks and Monuments are her favorites.

Devils Tower Rises up From the Prairie

Devils Tower rises up from the prairie.

Devils Tower rises up from the prairie.

The First National Monument

Devils Tower National Monument, located in the Black Hills of northeastern Wyoming, is 1262 feet high, a startling monolith rising up out of the flat lands around it. In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt declared it the first National Monument.

Although there are several theories of how Devils Tower was formed, scientists still do not all agree on its history. One theory says that it is a volcanic neck, also called a volcanic plug, which was formed when hot magma within a volcanic vent cooled and hardened. As the lava cooled, hexagonal columns formed. Over the years, the soil around it eroded, until only the rock formation is left.

Other geologists believe that Devils Tower is a laccolith, an intrusion of hot magma from deep in the earth that pushed up a bulge in the rock, but never actually became a volcano. As the hot rock cooled, the eight-sided columns were formed around the sides. Further cooling caused the columns to shrink and pull away from each other forming deep grooves between them. While the tower was probably visible one or two million years ago, erosion around the rock over the course of the centuries has exposed, and will continue to expose, more of the base.

Driving towards the monument, one can see it rising up over 1200' above the Belle Fourche River and surrounding plains. The rock formation has presented a mystery and a challenge to visitors for hundreds of years. Native American tribes have built legends around it, and its nearly straight sides have challenged rock climbers to scale it. About 1% of the 400,000 visitors to Devils Tower come to the monument to climb it while others walk the 1.3 mile path around it or picnic in its shadow.

Devils Tower taken from the path around the base.

Devils Tower taken from the path around the base.

Devils Tower - A Sacred Place for Native Americans

More than 20 Native American tribes have cultural ties and legends about Devils Tower and many consider it to be a sacred place. The name "Devils Tower" is fairly recent as the rock has been called Bear Lodge by the Lakotas and other names by other tribes. Because it is considered a sacred place by many Native American tribes, there is opposition to Devils Tower being used for climbing. The National Park Service compromised by closing it to climbers during the month of June when many sacred ceremonies are conducted at Devils Tower.

The spiritual meaning of Devils Tower to many Native Americans is evident in the many brightly colored prayer bundles hanging in the trees and bushes along the trail around it. Signs on the trail ask visitors not to touch the prayer bundles as they have spiritual meaning to the people who put them there.

Traditional ceremonial rituals are still performed at Devils Tower and include prayer offerings, sweatlodge ceremonies, vision quests, the Sun Dance and sacred narratives about the origin of Devils Tower.

Bear Lodge In Native American Legend

Known by several other names by Native Americans, the place we know as Devils Tower was prominent in the legends of the Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Lakota and Shoshone tribes long before early American immigrants reached Wyoming. In Native American lore, the name “Devils Tower” was unknown, and the rock was known by names such as: Bear Lodge, Bear’s Tipi, Bear’s Lodge, Bear’s House, Bear’s Lair, Ear’s Lodge Butte.

Although each tribe had its own legend of how the monolith came to be, many of the stories featured great bears, probably the reason why Bears so often appeared in the legendary names.

Lakota, Kiowa and Sioux legends are very similar. In each story, children out playing encountered bears who chased them, wanting to do them harm. The Great Spirit saved them by raising the rock beneath them to a great height that the bears couldn’t climb. The bears tried to climb the steep sides of the rock, but just slid down them leaving giant claw marks. These grooves can be seen in the sides of the tower today.

Close up view of hardened lava columns that form Devils Tower

Close up view of hardened lava columns that form Devils Tower

Devils Tower Trivia

In 1941, professional parachutist George Hopkins attempted to land on the top of Devils Tower. A 1000 foot rope that was dropped with him (which he intended to use to make his way down) missed the top of the tower and landed on the side of the tower where he couldn’t reach it. Though he didn’t count on being stranded for 6 days while rescuers tried to reach him, he made the most of the publicity. While he sat on top of the tower waiting for rescue, supplies and blankets were dropped by plane to him.

Hiking Around and Climbing Devils Tower

The National Park Service maintains a 1.3 mile trail around the tower. As it sounded like an easy walk on more or less flat ground, we decided to hike around it. As with many trails that look easy, looks can be deceiving. Walking the trail, it seemed as if it was all uphill. Even the downhill parts felt uphill! And it felt like they lied about how long it was.

But the tower is an interesting thing to see. From a distance, it looks like a giant rock rising out of the earth. Close up, one can see the many individual columns that form the rock, and only wonder at how they were really formed. It's not surprising that Native Americans who lived near the rock for generations tried to explain the unusual rock formation and the vertical grooves cut into its sides.

Rock climbers view the vertical walls of Devils Tower as a difficult challenge. We were fascinated by the rock climbers making their way up the nearly 1200 ft. sheer walls and amazed at the number of climbers who clung to those walls in various stages of reaching the top. There are a hundred and twenty climbing routes on the tower, some more difficult than others. Experienced climbers can reach the summit in about 4 hours, then rappel back down. The visitor center says that only a third of those who try it reaches the top.

Devils Tower As Seen From the Devils Tower National Monument Campground

The Devils Tower can be seen from the campground.

The Devils Tower can be seen from the campground.

A Stunning View of Devils Tower

View of Devils Tower

View of Devils Tower

Camping at Devils Tower National Monument

The National Park Service operates a very nice small campground at Devils Tower National Monument. The campground is wooded, but has some sites with a good view of Devils Tower. Like most National Parks campgrounds, there is dry camping only. There are restrooms in the campground and there is a dump station and water filling station available. There are no hookups at the campsites.

The Mysterious Rock

Devils Tower National Monument, as it stands alone on the Wyoming prarie, is an amazing sight. Sometimes it is shrouded in fog which suddenly clears to reveal the rock rising up to what seems to be a great height. We can believe that it was formed by an ancient volcano or by hot magma pushing up from the center of the earth. Or we can choose to believe that it was formed by the Great Spirit to save the lives of seven children who were being chased by giant bears.

However it was formed, it is not surprising that this gigantic monolith mysteriously rising up from the prairie has inspired awe and legends.

Devils Tower National Monument

© 2011 Stephanie Henkel