If you thought you saw Devils Tower in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you haven’t seen Devils Tower.
It’s much more impressive, even without the Hollywood special effects aliens.
We made our way to the Devils Tower National Monument from Gillette, WY, about 55 miles away. It’s a great drive through lush and wide open Wyoming rangeland and prairie. There are two RV parks there, one from the National Parks Service, one from KOA. Both offer spectacular views of Devils Tower.
But we drove up to the visitor’s center, parked our Roadtrek in a regular spot and spent a great afternoon. There is parking for larger RVs but it can be very tight and the area for big rigs often fills up.
Devils Tower is a monolith of rock that protrudes 1,200 feet above the the Belle Fourche River, standing all by itself, like a lone sentinel over the surrounding grassland. You start to see it from about 10 miles away and, at first, it doesn’t look that impressive.
Until you get up close to it.
There is something mystical about it, spiritual even. Indeed, the site is considered sacred to the Lakota and other tribes that have a connection to the area. Prayer cloths, prayer bundles and ribbons are found throughout the area, attached to ponderosa pines
by native Americans.
So many people just look at this monument from a distance, driving by. If you come here, don’t do that. Hike the tower. There are several trails you can take but we opted for the 1.3 mile route that circles the tower. It goes up and down a lot and can be quite strenuous for those not used to exercise but there are lots of benches and places to sit and if you want to really experience the tower, you need to do this.
Take your time. Listen to the silence on the north side, away from the visitors center and the lone road leading to the tower. Smell the pines. See the wild flowers. Look carefully at the tower. If you look close enough, you’ll see moving specks on the tower. Those are rock climbers. Bring along a pair of binoculars. They will fascinate you. Hundreds of parallel cracks make the tower one of the finest traditional crack climbing areas in North America.
The tower was America’s first national monument, designated by President Theodore Roosevelt under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Allow at least three hours to experience it.
No one knows for sure why its called Devils Tower. Some Indians called it Mato Tipila, meaning Bear Lodge. Other American Indian names include Bear’s Tipi, Home of the Bear, Tree Rock and Great Gray Horn. In 1875, on an expedition led by Col. Dodge, it is believed his interpreter misinterpreted the name to mean Bad God’s Tower, later shortened to Devils Tower.
The Lakota have a legend on how it came to be:
On the way out, check out the prairie dogs. Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus), to be precise. They once ranged the Great Plains from southern Saskatchewan to northern Mexico. Now, only in a few concntrated areas.
Originally named “petits chiens,” or “little dogs,” by early French explorers, these highly social animals are not really dogs, but rodents. They are members of the Sciuridae or squirrel family, closely related to ground squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks and marmots. There are five different species of prairie dogs, but only the black-tailed prairie dog inhabits Devils Tower National Monument. They’re curious and will chatter warnings to you if you get to close. But they are fun to watch and are natural posers for your photos.