Devils Tower, America’s first National Monument, was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 – ten years before there was a National Park Service. Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming is hard to describe. The first word that comes to mind is awesome but that is widely overused and really doesn’t do it justice.
We recently took the two youngest grandsons on a trip which included Devils Tower. We were all awed by the tower and all trying to figure out how to explain how impressive it is. It’s not just a big rock rising above the surrounding landscape. Its striated surface and imposing size are unique.
Standing 867 feet high and rising 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River with a diameter of 800 feet, the base is covered with fallen columns and pine trees.
Many Native Tribes have connections with Devils Tower. Most have individual oral histories about the creation of the Tower and its significance to them. There are similar elements in many of these narratives but they are unique in the details. The common theme is that of a bear. Bear Lodge is one of many Native American names for the Tower. Several of these stories can be found at https://www.nps.gov/deto/learn/historyculture/first-stories.htm.
When we visited, there was a voluntary climbing closure in effect through the month of June to respect American Indian cultural values associated with the Tower. Along the Tower trail we saw cloths or small bundles attached to the trees. These were Native American prayer cloths and represent the spiritual connection many tribes have with the Tower. A sense of place dominates the religion of American Indians, as opposed to a sense of time and personal and group ceremonies are still practiced at the monument.
Geologists have studied the formation since the late 1800’s and theories on its formation differ. They do agree that Devils Tower began as magma but the processes by which it cooled to form the Tower or its relationship to surrounding geology are disputed. Early geologists concluded that the Tower was formed by an igneous intrusion (forcible entry of magma through other rock layers). Other ideas have suggested a volcanic plug or the neck of an extinct volcano but there is limited evidence of volcanic activity in the area and most of the rock is sedimentary. The simplest explanation is that Devils Tower is a stock – an intrusive body of magma which cooled underground and was exposed by erosion.
The most striking feature of Devils Tower are the columns. Rising hundreds of feet into the air and stretching to 10 feet in width, they are spectacular. Column formations occur only in igneous rocks which originate from lava or magma. The molten rock begins to contract as it cools and the stress created by this contraction begins to crack the rock. Cracks radiate out from stress points and normally form hexagonal shapes. The Tower also has many pentagonal columns. Scientists are uncertain why there is this variation in shape. The Tower is formed of a rare igneous rock, phonolite porphyry, and is the largest example of columnar jointing in the world.
To get to Devils Tower you have to be intending to go there – it’s not a place you happen upon. Having said that, we were surprised by the number of tourists there.
We took two hikes at Devils Tower. The Tower Trail begins at the Visitor Center and encircles the base of the tower. There are numerous interpretative signs along this 1.3 mile paved trail.
The other hike we did was the Joyner Ridge Trail which, being away from the Visitor Center and a woodland and prairie trail, we had all to ourselves. From various vantage points on this trail, we could see the changes in the Tower created by the changing light and atmosphere.
In 1875 a U.S. Geological Survey party went out to map the Black Hills region. Their military escort was headed by Colonel Richard Dodge. He was fascinated by what the Natives called Mato Tipila and is generally credited with giving it its present name. His interpreters misunderstood Mato Tipila and translated it as “the bad god’s tower.” Dodge modified it and called it Devils Tower in his 1876 book entitled The Black Hills.
The (Fort Laramie) Treaty of 1868 guaranteed the Black Hills region to the Native Americans. In 1874, in violation of this treaty, Gen. George A. Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills and, as a result of his reports of the discovery of gold, miners followed in droves. Subsequent occurrences led to full-scale war and in the fall of 1876, the Natives were compelled to cede the Black Hills and other land in Wyoming to the whites.
There was early support for the idea of preserving the Tower as a national or state park. In 1891, 60.9 square miles was set aside as a temporary forest reserve. Fifteen years later it was proclaimed a National Monument.
Although it was difficult to reach early on, the Tower became a spot for people in the vicinity to camp and picnic. In 1893, a 4th of July celebration was held there with the feature attraction being the “first” climbing of the Tower by William Rogers, a local rancher. In preparation he and Willard Ripley, another local rancher, prepared a 350-foot ladder to the summit. They drove pegs of oak, ash, and willow into a continuous crack between two columns on the southeast side of the formation. The pegs were braced and secured to each other by a wooden strip. It’s estimated that about 1,000 people came to see the event. After climbing for about an hour, Rogers reached the top and unfurled an American flag. (They had planted a flag pole prior to the exhibition climb.)
Almost a quarter of a century after designation as a National Monument a full-time National Park Service employee was stationed at Devils Tower. It was 1928 before a bridge over the Belle Fourche River and a somewhat decent road to the Tower were built. From 1935-1938 a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp was located nearby and many improvements were made.
In 1937, the first ascent of the Tower solely by rock-climbing techniques was made. In 1941, without the knowledge of the Park Service, George Hopkins parachuted on to the top of the Tower. Unfortunately his plan for descent did not work. Food, blankets and water were dropped to him and he spent six days on the Tower while search and rescue figured out how to get him down.
The hexagonal columns and parallel cracks make Devils Tower one of the finest traditional crack climbing areas in North America. Registration before climbing is mandatory.
Rising like a rocky sentinel above the prairie and the pine forests, Devils Tower is phenomenal.
For more information: https://www.nps.gov/deto/index.htm