Travelers roaming through the northeastern Wyoming prairie will be treated to a strange and wonderful sight: a striking stone column rising seemingly out of nowhere. It’s Devils Tower, a 867-foot pillar beckoning everyone from Native Americans to geology buffs to rock climbers to come closer, drink in the sights and sounds, and learn more about the remarkable cultural and natural history surrounding the monument.
Geology of Devil’s Tower
How did such an unusual rock tower get here? Scientists aren’t entirely sure. Geologists do know that an intrusion—or the forcible movement of magma into or between other types of rock—of igneous rock formed the tower. As the magma cooled, it contracted to create a series of hexagon-shaped columns made of a rock called phonolite porphyry, which give the tower its textured, striped look. Some think the magma that formed Devils Tower intruded all the way to the surface, while others think erosion wore away the softer sedimentary rock to eventually expose the tower. Other scientists even think the tower comes from an extinct volcano, though there’s no other evidence of volcanic activity in the area. Natural forces continue to shape Devils Tower as wind and water keep eroding the pillar—it’s rare, but sometimes entire columns break away and fall to the ground around the tower.
History and Culture
Historians have identified more than 20 Native American tribes with important cultural ties to Devils Tower, among them several bands of the Lakota, Blackfeet, Crow and Northern Arapaho. Traditionally, tribes have held everything from vision quests to sacred dances to sweat lodge ceremonies to funerals at the tower. The monument remains a sacred place for some Native Americans.
In more recent history, two local ranchers notched the first ascent of Devils Tower in 1893 using a wooden ladder. The ladder remained in place for other climbers until 1927; in 1937, a group of New York climbers were the first to use technical rock-climbing techniques to reach the summit. And in 1941, George Hopkins became the first person to reach the top without climbing the tower—instead, he parachuted onto it. Unfortunately, Hopkins couldn’t get down without help and spent six days stranded on top until his rescue.
And for some, Devils Tower’s defining cultural moment (for Hollywood, anyway) came in 1977, when it made a starring appearance in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
What to do at Devils Tower? Plenty
Exploring: About 8 miles of trails wind through the monument, taking hikers around the tower itself and through forests, meadows and a prairie dog town. Must-see: the Circle of Sacred Smoke sculpture, a piece of art honoring Native American tribes (accessible by trail or road). In winter, the trails offer quiet adventure for cross-country skiers.
Camping: Grab one of the 50 first-come, first-served sites at the Belle Fourche Campground for a night under the stars. Sites cost $20 per night.
Climbing: Hexagonal geologic formations make the tower renowned for crack climbing, and climbers flock to the park from all over to try its long and challenging routes (rated from 5.7 to 5.13). Please note that the monument voluntarily restricts climbing during the month of June out of respect to the Lakota people, who consider the tower a sacred site and who hold a number of cultural ceremonies this month. Please be respectful and do not climb at this time.
Ranger programs: The park operates free guided activities in summer and fall. Hike the 1.3-mile trail around the tower daily while learning about the area’s geology and cultural history; drop in on a 20-minute ranger talk (topics vary); or enjoy an evening program at the park amphitheater. Check the visitor center for topics and times.
Devils Tower National Monument is in northeastern Wyoming, along the Belle Fourche River and off of Wyoming Highway 24. The closest gateway town is Hulett, Wyoming (13 miles away); other nearby towns include Sundance, WY (30 miles), Moorcroft, WY (35 miles), Gillette, WY (63 miles) and Spearfish, SD (63 miles).
For more information:
Devils Tower National Monument
Devils Tower, WY 82714