Trip Review: Devils Tower National Monument

Trip Review: Devils Tower National Monument

May 19, 2017 / By Chris Oudean & Katie Hnatik

In the northeast section of Wyoming stands a towering mystery. Devils Tower National Monument has been captivating the imaginations of humans for thousands of years. The Native American Cheyenne tribe called it Bear Lodge, which was derived from the old folklore story. This story changed slightly between the many tribes in the area, but always included a giant bear that scratched huge marks along the sides of the mountain with its claws in pursuit of some escaping tribespeople. In one version, they climb up onto a hill and pray to the Great Spirit to protect them. The Great Spirit hears their prayers and thrust the ground they’re standing on straight up so that the bear cannot reach them. The tribespeople consider this a sacred place and have fought for many years with the United States Government to designate it as Native American land.

The name Devils Tower originates from the unnamed Native American translator of Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, who apparently mistranslated the name to mean “Bad God’s Tower”. Mr. Irving thus coined it Devils Tower, and the name stuck. President Theodore Roosevelt officially named the site a national monument in 1906. Recently, there have been efforts to recognize the correct native name of Bear Lodge and for the US government to issue an official apology, but due to economic concerns for the area, their requests have been denied. 

Devils Tower has certainly intrigued many people to visit this geological oddity over the years. It is estimated that as much as 400,000 people visit the monument annually, despite it’s location being an out of the way destination for most. As of 2017, there has been enough interest to maintain a bustling visitors center, a trading post, camping areas, and a robust rock climbing community.

The monument continues to intrigue scientists and geologists alike. One of the more popular theories is that magma made its way through the surrounding crust and stopped before reaching the surface. As the magma cooled, hexagonal columns formed. Over millions of years, erosion wore down the surrounding sediment and revealed the formation. Today this tower of solidified magma stands at 867 feet tall. There are also theories that this was once the throat of an ancient volcano that has long since eroded away. At this time, though, there is not enough geological evidence to support whether a volcano once erupted here or not.

“we stopped to experience the monument firsthand by the light of the moon.”

Our visit to Devils Tower was in August. We drove the 420 miles up from Denver Colorado in one day, which took about seven hours. We found a very affordable AirBNB rental cabin in the town of Hulett about 20 minutes northeast of the monument. Splitting the cost between five family members made it a bargain rate. The drive up was our first experience in the northern region of Wyoming. It is easy to see when driving through that this is the least populated state in the country. There are wide expanses of nothing but rolling hills and straight roads, interspersed with small towns that come and go by your windshield in mere minutes. I can imagine horseback riders tending to cattle over hundreds of miles, freely traversing the open range by day and telling endless adventure stories by the fire at night, drinking whiskey with their spurred and leather clad compadres. It’s no wonder some of the state’s nicknames are “Forever West” and the “Cowboy State”. There are a number of well known cowboy movies that were filmed here, including the award winning “Dances with Wolves”.

On approach to the tower, it’s not immediately visible due to a number of rolling hills and some elevation gain. Over the last few miles though, the tower is clearly visible in the distance. As you wander your way along the hillside, along its southern border, the tower grows bigger and bigger in the distance, until you can truly begin to take in just how massive it looks as compared to the surrounding landside. Despite our late arrival, everyone in the car was intrigued and entranced by its abrupt stance, and we stopped to experience the monument firsthand by the light of the moon. Upon arrival to the cabin, we passed out quickly in an effort to get an early start to the following day. 

The cabin we were staying was on a hill and overlooked downtown Hulett, with unobstructed views of Devils Tower in the distance. After a few cups of coffee on the front deck, we gathered our wits and corralled ourselves into the van in search of breakfast. Hulett is a small town by any measure. It’s basically one county road through the center, with only a handful of businesses fronting the main road. Of the three options, we chose the Ponderosa Cafe for breakfast. Ponderosa Cafe offers some decent menu options of traditional American cuisine and a very friendly staff. Thanks to my upbringing, I’m a big fan of meatloaf so I ordered this and was not disappointed. It comes with mashed potatoes and gravy, a perfect pairing. It tasted exactly like the meatloaf often served for dinner at my grandfathers farm in Washington, and I was instantly whisked away to happy childhood memories. Since there weren’t many other options around and our first meal experience was positive, this place became home to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

Before heading back to Devils Tower, we decided to walk around Hulett for an hour or so and check out the local peculiarities. There was a swap meet going on where many antiques were for sale, a few other cafe’s were just opening up, and a skeleton crested establishment called the Rouges Gallery. We wandered in and were surprised to find that this was one of the greatest wild west museums ever! There were countless historical artifacts that covered the last couple hundred years relating to the many interactions between cowboys and indians and the lore of the wild west in the United States. Do not pass this place by if you’re visiting! It’s a must! 

After being sufficiently distracted by this spectacle for a couple hours, we briskly made our way back to the van and spent the entire rest of the day at Devils Tower.

Just outside the fee station to the park, there is a KOA campground, which is a rather impressive setup, equipped with cabins, full RV hookup sites, tent camping, a gift shop, a swimming pool, and an outdoor theater that screens “Close Encounters of The Third Kind” every evening from June 1st to September 1st. The final scenes of the movie were filmed on that very spot!

Upon paying your fee and entering the park, you are greeted by a winding road that wanders along the south side of the tower and around to the west where the visitors center is located. We stopped short of the visitors center and headed down a side road to a parking lot with access to a few trails that traverse the outskirts of the park. We spent some time enjoying the sunny day on the Joyner Ridge Trail, a 1.5 mile loop that wanders through sparse ponderosa pine trees, rolling grass covered fields, and a surprising number of flowers native to the area. From this trail, there’s a great view of the tower beyond the forest.

“To think that natural geological processes would do something like this left me awestruck.”

The main parking area is a very busy place, serving as the entrance to the visitors center,  the 1.3 mile loop Tower Trail, and the longer Red Beds Trail, which covers roughly a three mile loop. We headed out on the Tower Trail.

The first thing that greets you is the rubble field. The narrow paved path meanders through gigantic pieces of the tower that have fallen off over time and surely flattened anything that lay below it. The field covers the entire base of the western side. Staying near the trail, we wandered atop a few of these massive expulsions of hexagonal rock. I was surprised at how straight some of them were. To think that natural geological processes would do something like this left me awestruck. I can envision some kind of alien theorists television show trying to make the case that it could only have been done by aliens millions of years ago with superior technology. Nature is far more interesting than people give it credit for.

As you make your way along the southern flank, there are a number of park benches where you can take in the massiveness of the tower and watch the mountain climbers have a go at the summit with some high powered binoculars. The surrounding area is constantly plagued by forest fires, and as sure as a porcupines gruffness, there was an active one off in the distance. We weren’t too concerned as it was small and no big alarms were sounding, so we moved on. Nearing the eastern portion, there is a slight branch off where you can see the remains of the ladder that was used to summit the tower for the first time in 1893. Built by local farmers William Rogers and Willard Ripley, the ladder has long been out of commission, but in the spirit of their feat, to this day, technical climbers will partake in this time honored tradition. Nearly 1000 people will reach the summit each year. Out of respect for the natives, the park staff request a voluntary ban of climbing in June of each year for the native tribespeople to conduct ceremonies around the monument. I’ve read that the majority of the climbers will respect this ban so that the practices of these native traditions are uninterrupted. Aside from the fact that there is no way I would attempt climbing the vertical walls of the tower, I would most certainly respect this ban myself. The sacred site is regularly peppered with prayer offerings that will come in the shape of colorful fabric tied to trees. Please refrain from touching or altering these in any way if you see them along the trail.

Coming along the east and north side, the trail continues around the base and along some of the largest single fallen hexagonal pieces. One of them must have been about 12 feet wide by 20 feet long. The trail in this portion runs right next to Devils Tower, allowing visitors to lay their hands directly on it while looking straight up it’s vertical walls.

Coming along the northern side is the area where the characters Roy and Jillian from “Close Encounter of The Third Kind” finally escape the helicopters spraying sleeping gas, and watch the alien armada put on a climactic light show for the military and loudly play those five iconic musical tones.

The last leg offers a small breakaway trail where you can take in an unobstructed view of the tower on a square patch of pavement.

-See our Photospheres of Devils Tower below:

Before leaving the park, we made a quick stop at the visitors center to learn a little more about the tower’s history. The building is small, but packed full of details of the Native American history with the tower, and is a must when visiting to take in the full experience.

If I were to visit again, I would definitely love to camp out, take in a viewing of “Close Encounters…” , and perhaps enjoy some stargazing. There is very little light pollution here and the night sky would be spectacular for viewing meter showers. There are a couple campgrounds within the park that have little to no light pollution in case the KOA campground isn’t dark enough for your taste.

For our last night, we spent the evening in the cabin, reminiscing over the days experiences, naming our favorite moments in “Close Encounters of The Third Kind”, and taking turns beating each other at the card game Rummy while sipping on tea and hot chocolate.

“The power of such stories can shape the destiny of a tribe, and that power is greatly respected.”

Devils Tower is one of those places steeped in mystery and culture. The name intrinsically draws the curious and adventurous alike. This geologic marvel baffles the mind as to its sheer size and geometry. One cannot help but wonder how these gigantic hexagonal slabs could be created in the natural world, and to form a vertical wall hundreds of feet high. Without context, I can understand how difficult it would be for the Native American tribes of the past to explain how such a formation could exist. Their only experiences to draw from would have been based on processes that take lifetimes, not millions of lifetimes to complete. Perhaps the most ferocious animal they could think of may have done this. But not just any animal, one of such immense size that it could gouge out whole sides of a mountain. The stories were handed down from generation to generation, helping to strengthen their faith and teach important ideals of survival, courage, friendship, and respect for nature. Its stories like this that taught their children important lessons that would keep them alive in the wilderness. The power of such stories can shape the destiny of a tribe, and that power is greatly respected. They consider this a sacred place of worship, and is seen as a pillar of hope, a symbol of the Great Spirit, and a strong connection to the afterlife.

Geologists tell an interesting story as well. They speak of the outer crust of the planet breaking open underneath, and the forces of molten lava seeping in and forcing its way to the surface like some sort of horrible evil attempting to escape the bowels of the earth. Just moments before it can explode into the atmosphere, the tunnel that it bored through begins to close behind it, and the energy that enabled its ascent is diminished until there is nothing left. The molten rock would cool, harden, and crystalize into hundreds of hexagonal pieces forming a mass that would take millions of years for the rock all around it to slowly erode away to expose the mass as it can be seen today.

The world is full of interesting places like this. Do yourself a favor and head out to one, explore its mysteries, and have an adventure of your own.

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