On the way home from the Black Hills (where Bria saw her first concert!), we took a detour to visit Devils Tower National Monument.
The drive snakes through the rugged beauty of land tended for generations by Wyoming ranchers. Lush green valleys, hills of rich red rock, and this strikingly beautiful rock formation. Devils Tower, the first national monument in the United States, is located 33 miles northwest of Moorcroft, 27 miles northwest of Sundance, and 52 miles southwest of Belle Fourche, South Dakota.
If you aren’t from the area, that basically should read — “in the middle of nowhere, but wow, is it ever pretty.”Devils Tower shoots 867 feet up from the visitors center, making it visible for miles around.
President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Devils Tower the first national monument under the brand spanking new Antiquities Act in 1906. Fun fact: The first national park (Yellowstone) is also in Wyoming. Roosevelt’s action was taken to protect the tower from commercial exploitation.
The Civilian Conservation Corps came along in the 1930s, setting up a camp and building camping and picnic facilities, as well as log buildings that now house the visitor center, ranger office, and entrance station. They also made road improvements and build a trail around the tower.
Formation of Devils Tower
Devils Tower is made up of an igneous rock called phonolite porphyry, formed one and a half miles below the surface about 50 million years ago. There are many ideas on how that might have happened, with four primary theories. There is a whole geology lesson available online for those who want to spend more time geeking out on the details.
While this story is one of change, geologists believe the formation has remained virtually the same for 10,000 years, since erosion made it visible on the prairie.
American Indian Lore
There are many first stories of Devils Tower. They can be found here. Go check them out and share your favorite in the comments!
The visitor’s center is also a great place to learn more about the lore, and discuss with learners young and old the stories that have been passed down in native tradition.
If you are a rock climber, this is an epic one!
Climbers must register with the ranger’s station before starting their climb, and of course check in upon return. They recommend being prepared for sudden storms and always carrying rain gear. The rangers will be happy to provide additional safety and climbing information. One note to be aware of — there is a voluntary climbing closure in June out of respect for American Indian beliefs.
Records of climbs have been kept since 1937. Over 220 climbing routes have been used, and around 5,000 climbers take on the challenge each year. There are all kinds of fun stories to learn related to climbing of this mammoth, but here are two of our favorites…
According to the brochure, with much fanfare and over 1,000 spectators, two local ranchers named William Rogers and Willard Ripley made the “first” ascent on July 4, 1893, using a wooden ladder for the first 350 feet. (The fact that there was already a flagpole at the top for raising Old Glory atop the Tower suggests they may have ascended a day earlier without the fanfare…)
Of course it is likely there are many others who climbed the tower before the Europeans came along.
Our other favorite story wasn’t so much one of climbing up, but a story of climbing down. It was during World War II when a professional parachutist named George Hopkins jumped from an airplane to the top of Devils Tower. He wanted to prove that a parachutist could land with precision on a small target and he did, but there was one small problem — he was on the one acre target, but his rope was not. He was stuck!
Despite not being consulted before the jump, the National Park Service now had a problem to solve – one that made headlines all over the country. An airplane dropped food, water, and warm clothing to keep him alive, and ideas flooded in. Should they try a blimp? An experimental helicopter? In the end, a rescue climbing team was sent. Made up of several famous climbers including Jack Durrance, Chappell Cranmer, and Paul Petzoldt, the party arrived on October 5 and made the rescue on October 6, six days after the fateful jump. More than 7,000 people came to the monument to witness events first-hand!
Hiking at Devils Tower
Justin and Bria chose to take a portion of the Red Beds Trail, hiking 1.3 kilometers from the Visitors Center to the Prairie Dog Town.
The hike was filled with things to see and do. They looked down on a valley, beautiful green flanked by conifers on both sides, a river winding a ribbon silver through the middle. They saw burned trees, chased grasshoppers, and picked wild flowers.
There was even a chance to explore some droppings – they decided probably those of a rabbit and a prairie dog – along the trail, and speak with a few prairie dogs in their own chirpy language.
Bria was very intrigued by the colors as they moved along the trail. “As we got lower down, the ground started to get red, more clay-like,” she told me when she reached the spot at the bottom where I was waiting with the car.
If you’ve never seen a prairie dog town up close and personal, this is a fun one. It is located directly next to the road, so the animals are used to having their photos taken. But don’t feed them! It is not only illegal, but very dangerous for the wildlife to be fed human food. Also be sure to never approach them. Despite their cuteness, they are wild animals and will bite.
The residents of this park are black-tailed prairie dogs. These communal animals make for great entertainment – we could watch them for hours!