Devils Tower National Monument – Crook County, Wyoming
Updated: Oct 10, 2020
Wyoming is home to some of the most fascinating national parks and monuments. The state has the first national park in the world (Yellowstone National Park) as well as the country's first national monument, the Devils Tower National Monument. This monument, located in the northeast corner of Wyoming, is one of a kind, mysterious and unique. Where can you find a magnificent tower in the middle of a somewhat flat plains landscape? The tower definitely dominates the landscape, protruding high above everything else so that you can see it even from afar. This is nature's skyscraper.
Seeing the tower from afar is of course not good enough. We had to see it up close and personal, not intimately close as climbers do, but close enough to see some of the details of the tower.
Before reaching the park, you will pass colonies of prairie dogs. They might be cute, but they can carry diseases, so just admire their antics from afar and don't go near them. Don't try poking in the hole of a prairie dog either, this might be an abandoned hole and a rattlesnake or black widow spider might be residing inside.
Devils Tower is the first designated National Monument in the United States. It was established on September 24, 1906, by President Theodore Roosevelt under the terms of the Antiquities Act.
The name Devils Tower was a mistranslated native name “Bad God’s Tower". It was named as such in 1875 during an expedition led by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge. Intentional or not, the name remains today. Irving described the tower as “one of the most remarkable peaks in this or any country.” It reaches a height of 867 feet above the surrounding terrain.
NATIVE AMERICAN TRIBES
Many indigenous peoples of the region had connections with the area around Devils Tower, including Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, Shoshone, Lakota. Devils Tower is a sacred and holy place to the tribes. It has always been a gathering place, a refuge and a place of community, not only for native people but also for local ranchers. Even today, native tribes still use the park for traditional ceremonies.
Native American tribes have their own stories and legends on the formation of Devil's Tower. The referred to the tower by different names, “Matho Thipila” or “Bear Lodge" in Lakota, “Tree Rock" in Kiowa, and many others. Each tribe has their own oral history. Different scenarios but representing the same legendary character, a bear.
In reality, Devils Tower, a natural monolith that rises above the surrounding terrain, is an intrusion of igneous rock (liquid rock that forms under the earth’s surface) or plutonic rock, formed through cooling and solidification of magma or lava. There are several theories as to how Devils Tower was formed, including the theory that it was the remains of a once large explosive volcano.
The landscape surrounding the Devils Tower is composed of mostly sedimentary rock. The tower did not emerge until the overlaying sedimentary rock eroded, and the softer sandstone and shale survived. The vertical basalt monolith formed when molten rock intruded into overlying sedimentary rock and cooled into columns, then shrank thus developing cracks.
CLIMBING THE TOWER
We are not climbers, just hikers. But if you are, most probably you have either climbed the tower or are planning to climb it. Hiking the loop at Devils Tower you will find climbers either preparing to climb it or on their way up. Like this one in the photo - Hermann really zoomed in to take a good picture of this.
The hundreds of parallel cracks in the tower makes it the finest traditional crack climbing in North America. The first recorded climbers who reached the top of the tower did it in 1893, over ten years before the establishment of the park as a national monument. Two ranchers, Willard Ripley and William Rogers, who lived near the area constructed a simple stake ladder to climb the tower. Their accomplishment began a long history of climbing the Devils Tower. Visitors can still see the remnants of this ladder today.
Later, a new tradition of climbing without the use of a ladder was accomplished. In 1937, a group of rock climbers led by German-American climber, Fritz Wiessner, together with Lawrence Coveney and William House, pioneered the route to the top - the Weissner route which remains one of the popular routes today. Less than a year after Weissner, another climber, Jack Durrance, discovered an easier route. Today the route is known as “Durrance Route”, the most popular climbing route on the tower.
Native Americans objected to people climbing the tower, but an agreement was reached that bans climbing during the month of June when the tribes are conducting ceremonies, rituals and prayers around the monument. Not everyone respects this, but most climbers honor this voluntary ban.
WEATHERING & EROSION
Surrounding the base of the Devils Tower is lots of rubble, massive rocks and fragments of columns that have broken off due to frost wedging, a process of water seeping in to the cracks, then freezing and expansion forcing the rock apart. Weathering from wind, gravity and precipitation also slowly erodes the tower and in time it will be a mound of rubble.
If you are not a climber and just want to experience the uniqueness of the place, there are four hiking trails in Devils Tower National Monument - Tower Trail, Red Beds Trail, Joyner Ridge Trail, South Side/Valley View Trails. These are all easy and connected loop trails from 1.3 to 2.8 mile hikes. Tower Trail is even paved. The hike provides different views and perspectives of the tower.
Along the trail, you might find trees with pieces of cloth hanging on tree branches. These are prayer cloths and represent the spiritual connections many tribes have with the tower. It is advised for visitors not to disturb or remove them. It is also considered insensitive to take photographs of them.There are benches along the trail with interpretative panels about the natural and cultural history of the park.
BELLE FOURCHE RIVER
Belle Fourche, meaning "Pretty Forks", refers to the two rivers, Red Water River and Belle Fourche (pronounced belFOOSH) River, that join together. It was named by a French fur trapper in the 1700's, but to the Lakota tribes, it is known as the "Sun Dance River". It is said that the rivers were much larger millions of years ago and carved most of the landscape in the area, exposing Devils Tower.
Belle Fourche River, which begins in the northeast of Wyoming, flows about 290 miles to the Cheyenne River in western South Dakota. The creation of a dam and reservoir in the 1950's greatly decreased the flow of this river and the absence of spring floods created long-term impact to the ecosystem.
RED CLIFFS & YELLOW SILTSTONE
The red sandstone cliffs above the river are part of the park. You will see these geologic formations by hiking the Red Beds and Joyner Ridge Trails. The cliffs have layers of gray shale, yellow sandstone and red sandstone which encircles the Black Hills region for 500 miles.
Don't just look up at the tower - all around you will find wildflowers along the trails such as evening primrose, death camas and many others.
WHERE TO STAY
There are camping sites at the park with grill, picnic table and potable water. You can also stay at the KOA campground as well, located just outside the park, which is where we stayed. There are cabins along the Belle Fourche River as well as views of the Devils Tower. How can you beat that? We were here early spring so the place was really quiet.
On our road trips, we try to visit not just one but several significant sites along the way, which makes the long drive worthwhile. While in the area, there are other historic sites nearby that you can visit, such as Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the town of Deadwood.