Some people may only be familiar with Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming due to it being prominently featured in Steven Spielberg’s icon 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But the Tower’s history goes back much further than the Hollywood film. Millions of years, in fact.
The Tower holds particular significance to the North American Plains Indians. To these people the Tower had long been known as Bear Lodge Butte or Mata Tipila, and legends surround its creation. The Kiowa and the Lakota believe a group of young girls at play were chased by a bear. They jumped up on a rock, and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. The rock was elevated to the sky, with the bear clawing at it all the while. This accounts for the apparent scratch marks on the formation. The girls lived on as the famous constellation Pleiades. The Sioux legend consists of two boys outrunning the giant bear Mato, who wanted to make them his breakfast. They, too, were lifted skyward as Mato clawed at the rock. Unlike the unfortunate girls, the boys were rescued by the eagle Wanblee, who returned them to their village to recount their near escape.
The name Devils Tower comes from a mistranslation of the native name as “bad god’s tower” in 1875. It stuck. The tower itself consists of igneous rock rising 1267 feet above the Belle Fourche River. It is 867 feet from summit to base. The process by which the tower was formed is still open to debate, but it has been suggested that it is a volcanic plug, or the neck of a prehistoric volcano, the harder igneous rock left to stand after the softer surrounding material was weathered away. As erosion continues, more of the tower will be exposed.
Devils Tower was the first National Monument, established as such by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. The facility is open year round, but winters can be rough in Wyoming, with many road closures. And be advised that parking is extremely limited, with the main parking lot being filled between peak hours of 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM. The park hosts approximately 500,000 visitors per year, with most of them arriving between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Of these, only about one percent actually climbs the Tower. They are obviously hoping for better luck than the bear! The first known ascent was documented on July 4, 1893, when a couple of local ranchers discovered a unique way to celebrate Independence Day. In 1941, a man was transported to the top of the tower by helicopter, without permission. The rope ladder he was to use to descend missed its landing point, and he was subsequently stranded on top, in the wind and rain, for six days before a mountain rescue team could come to his aid.
The closest town to Devils Tower is Hulett, about ten miles distant. Directions may be found online. There is an excellent camping facility, the Belle Fourche Campground, found at the base of the tower for overnight visitors. The night sky over Devils Tower is a beautiful sight to behold. Just hope the hovering Mothership doesn’t block your view of the Milky Way.