The northwest corner of Wyoming, America’s least-populated state, welcomes droves of tourists. After all, the region’s two national parks, Yellowstone and Grand Teton, certainly warrant the public’s attention. Yet RVers would be remiss to leave the Cowboy State without experiencing one of the country’s most fascinating geologic features: Devils Tower. Located in the state’s northeast corner, this impressive igneous rock formation looms 1,270 feet above the Belle Fourche River and attracts tourists, photographers, rock climbers and worshippers who consider the tower sacred.
Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential proclamation of September 24, 1906, decreed that “…the lofty and isolated rock in the state of Wyoming, known as the Devils Tower, situated upon the public lands owned and controlled by the United States, is such an extraordinary example of the effect of erosion in the higher mountains as to be a natural wonder and an object of historic and great scientific interest and it appears that the public good would be promoted by reserving this tower as a national monument.” Thus Devils Tower National Monument was created.
Visitors approaching the tower from any direction can see its jutting contours for many miles. Minimal development exists in the park (due in part to the Antiquities Act) and consists mainly of a small visitor center, with limited RV parking. The outskirts of the monument house only a few businesses, including the Devils Tower KOA (see below). So sparsely populated is the surrounding Crook County that no stoplights exist within its confines.
As prominent and popular as the tower is, however, geologists do not agree on how it was formed. Scientists generally agree that about 60 million years ago magma rose from within the earth to create the conical formation. Whether the molten rock was left behind when the volcano that surrounded it eroded or whether the magma never reached the surface, creating an “igneous intrusion” that was progressively exposed as the Belle Fourche River washed away the topsoil, is a matter of debate. Regardless, the resulting formation is a magnificent assemblage of multi-sided columns made of phonolite porphyry. The rock is various shades of grey, with cracks often running the length of the columns, which top out at 867 feet above the talus slopes at the base. The smooth rock has proven irresistible to climbers, beginning with the first men to reach the summit, William Rogers and Willard Ripley.
The two men created quite a stir when, after tenaciously banging a stake ladder into one of the cracks, they made their way precariously to the summit in 1893. As many as 3,000 people had gathered at the base of the tower to see the two men fly “Old Glory” from the summit on the Fourth of July.
Devils Tower has become one of the premier rock climbing destinations in the world. Novices and noted climbers alike challenge themselves on the more than 200 routes, with numerous guide services offering expertise; foremost among them, Devils Tower Climbing. Yet climbing itself is controversial. Among many of the Northern Plains Indian tribes, the tower is considered to be “wakan,” sacred or holy in the Lakota language. And the name Devils Tower results from a mistranslation of the Native American name “Bear Lodge.”
Visitors can walk the paved 1.3-mile Tower Trail, anytime. This easy route circumnavigates the tower and affords up-close views of the vertical columns, in addition to the surrounding valley. Other trails in the park include the Valley View Trail and the South Side Trail, which both border the Prairie Dog Town near the park entrance. White-tailed and mule deer, cottontail rabbits, porcupines and chipmunks all make their home in the park.
For more information on the area, contact www.wyomingtourism.org.