The Black Hills are usually associated with South Dakota, but the hills extend across the Wyoming border into a region known locally as the Bear Lodge and revered by Northern Plains Indians as a sacred site for worship ceremonies.
Col. Richard Dodge bestowed the name of Devils Tower on this rocky outcrop amid the hills in 1875, and the name has stuck, although some Indian tribes would prefer that the tower, like the region, be called Bear Lodge.
The term “Bear Lodge” originated with an Indian legend, which has it that seven girls were playing in the area when a huge bear accosted them. Stepping upon a rock, the girls pleaded for rescue from the bear. The rock then rose upward, carrying the girls to safety while the bear clawed at the sides of the rock, leaving the marks still visible today. The girls then ascended into the heavens to become stars. (There are many variations of this legend handed down by various Indian tribes.)
The first recorded ascent of the 867-foot tower was made on July 4, 1893, by William Rogers and Willard Ripley. Two years later, Rogers’ wife became the first woman to make the ascent.
Then, nearly 100 years ago, on September 24, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower and the surrounding area as our nation’s first national monument. Today, about 400,000 people a year visit the monument to marvel at this wonder of nature, and about 5,000 people come from all over the world to take on the challenge of climbing to the top.
The geology of the Devils Tower is a fascinating story, involving some disagreement even among the experts. Some geologists believe the tower is the neck of an ancient volcano that erupted millions of years ago and has since become exposed by erosion of the surrounding materials. Others believe that the magma rising from within the earth never actually reached the surface in an eruption, but stopped short of that. Either way, erosion processes over millions of years exposed the tower as it now stands. The rock actually is not granite, but a similar igneous type known as phonolite porphyry. The Belle Fourche River, flowing near the park, carved much of the surrounding landscape.
The top of the tower, which is 5,112 feet above sea level, covers 1.5 acres, and the surrounding national monument occupies 1,347 acres. The tower served as a backdrop for the 1977 Oscar-winning science fiction movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The monument has numerous hiking trails, one of which will take you 1.3 miles around the base of the tower. My favorite vantage point is to drive the gravel road to the northwest side of the tower. Here there are no crowds and no development to interfere with the serenity of the scene. This also is a good place to shoot photos.
If you look carefully at some of the pine trees here you can see little Indian prayer bundles, typically some kind of offering, perhaps tobacco or sage, wrapped up in cloth and hung from a tree limb. One that I saw consisted of pine needles wrapped by beads. A small pocketknife adorned another. A sign posted by the National Park Service implores visitors not to disturb these religious icons.
The national monument includes a visitor center and a campground that can accommodate RVs. There are no hookups, but water and restrooms are available. The campground is open seasonally on a first-come, first-served basis. If you prefer more deluxe accommodations, just outside the park entrance is a full-service KOA campground where you can get a great view of the tower right from your campsite. Across the street is a trading post.
Driving the three miles from the park entrance to the visitor center will take you past the park campground and right through a prairie dog town. Here you can admire hundreds of these little barking critters up close and personal. In addition, we saw several flocks of wild turkeys right in the campground and along the road to the visitor center. Deer, rabbits, chipmunks, porcupines and numerous birds also occupy the area. And by the way, if you decide to climb the tower, be sure to register with a ranger and follow the rules—the nearest medical facility is 60 miles away.
The Devils Tower National Monument is open year-round. The entrance is 33 miles northeast of Moorcroft, Wyoming, via U.S. 14. The visitor center is open seasonally. Entrance fees apply. For more information call (307) 467-5283, or visit www.nps.gov/deto.
Arnold J. Theisen is a freelance writer and photographer living in Irrigon, Oregon. His email address is [email protected].