According to Kiowa legend, seven little sisters and their brother were out playing one day. Suddenly the boy was struck dumb and turned into a bear. The bear chased the girls until they came to the stump of a great tree. The tree spoke to them saying that they could climb it to safety. As they did, The stump rose into the air. But the bear didn’t give up. He jumped as high as he could scoring the tree as he fell back to Earth but he still couldn’t reach the girls. Eventually he died of exhaustion and the maidens became the stars of The Big Dipper.
And what of the great tree that saved the maidens? The Indians called it Mateo Teepee, meaning “Grizzly Bear Lodge.” We know it today as Devils Tower. Another Indian legend claims that Satan himself beats his drum on the summit of the Tower and creates thunder during the summer thunderstorms. It’s present name was given to it by Colonel Richard I. Dodge, commander of a military escort for a United States Geological Survey party in 1875, who referred to it as “One of the most remarkable peaks in this or any country.” In his book The Black Hills, Dodge explained: The Indians call this shaft the Bad God’s Tower. The name adopted with proper modification, by our surveyors.” Located in northeastern Wyoming, Devils Tower is the United States’ first National Monument.
The place to begin your exploration is the monument visitor center near the tower. Exhibits tell of the natural and cultural history as well as the geology of the area. Although not as charming as the Indian legend, the geological story of the towers’ origin still holds its own fascination. Actually it’s origin isn’t definitely known, but the most widely accepted explanation is that 60 million years ago a mass of molten material oozed up into deep sedimentary beds. In this area, these beds appear as layers of shale, sandstone, gypsum and limestone. It is thought that these layers forced the hot liquid rock to cool slowly. As it cooled the igneous (fiery) rock contracted creating a series of joints or cracks. The Devil’s Tower appears to be made of polygonal columns.
But then how did Devil’s Tower come to stand so starkly on the landscape? It is after all the tallest and largest rock formation of its kind in the United States and on clear days it can be seen for 100 miles. It owes its prominence to the fact that the sedimentary rocks are so much softer, so much more easily eroded than the igneous rock of which it is composed. Plus the Belle Fourche River nearby has been an active erosional agent for millennia. The river along with other agents of erosion – wind, frost and rain – has stripped away thousands of feet of sedimentary layers to expose the hard resistant core of solidified magma. These agents have also given the tower its present shape. Freezing and thawing of water in joints and crevices has broken off many columns and sent them crashing into the talus slopes at the tower’s base below. Although the frost heaving still goes on, no columns have fallen in recorded history.
You can see the effects of these forces for yourself by taking the Tower Trail for one mile around the base from Devil’s Tower. What you see is a monolith of fluted columns rising some 867 feet from the base covered by a jumble of broken blocks. From its 1,000-foot wide base, the tower tapers to a flat top of 275 feet across and 1.5 acres in area. You’ll notice that the tower seems to sit atop a shield. This is due to falling columns that have been covered over with soil and have slowed the rate of erosion directly around the base of the Tower.
Devils Tower is located where the ponderosa pine forest that clothe the Black Hills to the east intermingle with the grasslands that carpet the rolling plains to the west. The monument is also a natural exhibit of plant succession. For instance, the multi-colored lichens on the rocks at the tower’s base represent nature’s first step in the process, while the ponderosa pines that line the trail represent the last step. Lichens not only grow on rocks, they also gradually break down the rock into small particles and collect windblown dust that form a base for higher plants such as liverworts and mosses. As more soil forms, the grasses move in and gradually form a thick mat of roots that builds the soil. This in turn provides the proper conditions for wildflowers such as cinquefoil, yarrow and prickly pear. Next shrubs like sagebrush, currant, squawbush and serviceberry get a root hold. Finally, forests of quaking aspen, juniper and ponderosa pine become established.
Keep an eye out for chipmunks and cottontail rabbits while you’re on this trip. If you’re hiking it in early morning or at dusk, you might be lucky enough to see whitetail or mule deer. Keep an ear open too for the descending slurred whistles of canyon wrens and the “drumming” of hairy woodpeckers. The monument has more than 90 species of birds including bald and golden eagle, prairie falcons (which nest on the tower), Audubon warblers, mountain bluebirds, Western flycatchers and black-capped chickadees.
During your walk, you’ll also notice the remains of a wooden ladder on the tower. On July 4th 1893, before a crowd of 1,000 people, William Rogers and Willard Ripley made the first recorded ascent up Devil’s Tower. They managed this feat by driving hard wooden pegs into a crevice and securing them with a continuous wooden strip. The ladder was 350 feet long. (Actually their first ascent was probably earlier than July, since a flagpole was awaiting them at the top.) Two years later, during an annual picnic on the 4th of July, Mrs. Rogers became the first woman to reach the summit and she used the same ladder. A party of three climbers, led by Fritz Wiessner, made the first conventional ascent of the Tower, in 1937. More than 1,000 climbers from around the world now come to Devil’s Tower each year to try the more than 80 routes to the top.
Another trail that starts at the visitor center’s parking lot is the Red Beds Trail. It loops around the tower for 2.8 miles and goes through several of the monument’s life zones, like the ponderosa forest and the grassland. It eventually overlooks the Belle Fourche River and the Red Beds, which is one of the sedimentary layers that the river is currently eroding. The bright orange-red layer is part of a prevalent outcropping of sandstone and siltstone in Wyoming and South Dakota. Because they are so easily eroded, the beds have gentle slopes.
Still another trail that starts near the tower is the Joyner Ridge Trail. This 1.5 mile loop takes hikers through grassland and ponderosa pine forests like the others but also through one of the few deciduous forests in the monument. This would be a good trail to hike in the fall as the box elder, wild plum, chokecherry and bur oak herald the coming winter.
The last trail within the monument starts at the campground. The Valley View Trail also forms a loop by connecting with part of the Red Beds Trail. For much of its length, the Valley View Trail parallels the Belle Fourche River.
It also encircles a prairie dog town. Prairie dogs are the most frequently seen mammals in the monument. Their town is about 1/2 mile from the monument entrance and is bisected by the entrance road. So you can also enjoy watching the animal from a roadside exhibit. The Great Plains used to be home to millions of these critters but they’ve almost been exterminated due to conversion of the native prairies to ranch and farmland.
To reach the park, take Wyoming Highway 24 for 7 miles north of US Highway 14 which loops off Interstate 90. The entrance is 33 miles northeast of Moorcroft, Wyoming and 52 miles southwest of Belle Fourche, South Dakota. The entry fee is $10 but is free for holders of the Golden Eagle Passport or the Golden Age Passport. They usually start charging in mid-April and stop in September.
The visitor center is about 3 miles from the east entrance. It has exhibits on the Tower’s history, natural history, and geology. The park is open all year.
The monument has its own campground which is open from May 15th through September 3rd. There are no hookups, use is first-come first-serve. Two private campgrounds are located near the park. The Devil’s Tower KOA is just outside the entrance to the monument. Their season is mid-May through mid-October. The other campground is the Devil’s Tower View. It’s less than a mile from the monument entrance at the junction of Highway 24 and Highway 112. It’s open year-round but there’s no water when it gets too cold late in the season.
Climbing the tower is strenuous and exhausting. The average time for climbing to the top is between four and six hours. In the interest of safety all climbers must register with the park ranger both when starting the climb and when returning. That’s also your opportunity to get safety hints and the latest information on the conditions on the tower before you go.
Whether or not you climb it, the central feature of the monument is that awe-inspiring tower. “A dark mist lay over the Black Hills and the land was like iron,” wrote N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa writer. “At the top of the ridge I caught sight of Devil’s Tower, upthrust against the gray sky as if in the birth of time, the core of the Earth has broken through its crust and the motion of the world was begun. There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man. Devils Tower is one of them.”