What: Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming, our first national monument and an instantly recognized icon of the American experience.
How to Get There: Take Interstate 90 from either the east or west, pick up US 14, take SR 24 north, and then SR 110 into the park. Devils Tower National Monument is 80 miles west of Sturgis, South Dakota, and about 19 hours northeast of Los Angeles, California.
Best Kept Secret: There’s just so much to see in this part of the United States. South Dakota’s Black Hills lie to the east (that’s no secret). Instead of taking the most direct route (described above), get lost in the hills to the east of Devils Tower and retrace the 1874 Custer Expedition. The riding and the scenery are magnificent!
Avoid: Making the trek to Sturgis and not taking a day to see Devils Tower.
With the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind playing in my mind, iconic Devils Tower appeared before me as I rode north across Wyoming’s high plains. Instantly recognizable, the dark monolith climbs 867 feet above its surroundings. Attributing the divine, the supernatural, or even an extraterrestrial vibe to Devils Tower is a natural reaction; it’s been done by no fewer than six Native American peoples, Steven Spielberg, and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.
One of the things that makes Devils Tower so dramatic is its distinctiveness; it just doesn’t look like it should be. While no one can dispute its existence, to this day geologists can’t agree on how it came to be. The rock docs agree that it was formed by magma (molten rock) forcing itself up between other rocks; what they argue about is how this occurred. One camp holds that the formation was pushed upward by molten rock below, another believes Devils Tower once was a larger structure worn down by erosion, and yet another feels the tower is the throat of an ancient volcano.
The technical description is that Devils Tower is a laccolithic butte comprised of phonolite porphyry (which is dark-colored rock); non-technical terms that come to mind are amazing, impressive and one of a kind. One of the things only noticeable upon closer examination is that Devils Tower is comprised of sharply defined columns with four, five and sometimes seven sides. These structures and their unique polygonal cross sections appear to have almost been machined.
The Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow, Arapaho, Shoshone and Kiowa Native Americans all treat Devils Tower and its surrounding regions as sacred ground. Wyoming’s early white settlers recognized the special nature of Devils Tower. Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower as the first U.S. national monument in 1906. Roosevelt, no stranger to the area, hunted big game and raised cattle in the nearby Dakotas; his likeness adorns nearby Mt. Rushmore. Native American names for the monolith include mato tipila (bear lodge), the bear’s tipi, the bear’s home, the tree rock and the great grey horn.
An 1875 U.S. Army expedition misinterpreted one of these Native American names as Bad Gods Tower, which morphed into Devils Tower.
The ride to Devils Tower National Monument is impressive. Wyoming is a beautiful state and its rolling plains approaching Devils Tower make this first national monument stand out even more. I’ve been there twice, both times after visiting South Dakota’s Black Hills area. The Tower is visible from great distances — there’s no missing it or mistaking it for anything else — and the ride in provides varying perspectives. Devils Tower has such a commanding presence and it so dominates the landscape that the temptation is to stop for photographs as soon as it comes into view, but that’s not necessary. The views and the perspectives just keep getting better and then, suddenly, you are at the park entrance.
Once inside the park, you can walk directly to the base and take a 45-minute hike completely around Devils Tower. Heartier souls can even climb to the top, which was beyond my abilities, but the hike all the way around is well worth the effort. The polygonal columns that are Devils Tower are impressive with their massive size and precision-machined appearance, and getting a 360-degree look adds greatly to the wonder of it all. — Joe Berk