Native American legend has it that Devils Tower in eastern Wyoming was created when a giant bear clawed at the sides of a tree that grew larger and taller as the bear climbed. When the tree trunk was fully transformed, it stood as a mammoth stone monolith, lording over what is today the eastern Wyoming landscape.
I thought about this myth as we headed west on U.S. Highway 14 toward Devils Tower National Monument. The June air was humid and rain had been falling continuously, so our first glimpse of the tower, from perhaps 10 or 12 miles out, was like looking through a gauzy veil. From that distance, the tower didn’t seem that formidable, but it certainly looked unique — an enormous rock piercing the horizon on an otherwise flat landscape.
Myths aside, this unique tower began life about 50 million years ago when the center of the earth pushed forth a column of molten magma that never actually erupted through the planet’s crust. Then it took many more millions of years for the sedimentary rock around the column to erode, eventually exposing the tower.
Today, Devils Tower rises 1,267 feet above the river below, and stands 867 feet above the base. Measure again in a few thousand years and the numbers will be different; scientists say that continuing erosion will uncover more of the igneous rock as time goes by.
Some entries on Trip Advisor suggest that visitors pull off to the side of Highway 110, take a picture or two and move on to other things. No need to pay an entry fee to the park, they say. Do this, however, and you’ll miss feeling and understanding the full force of the events that created this natural-but-unearthly skyscraper.
We paid our admission fee and headed for the Tower Trail (1.3 miles) that circumvents the 1,000-foot base of the tower. It got us as close to the big rock tower as possible without donning climbing gear. But there are 5,000-plus people a year who do put on the ropes, carabiners and belay devices and scale the huge hexagonal columns. Apparently the large number of parallel cracks in the rock make it a climber’s paradise.
It was three of these climbers who provided tangible perspective on the size of Devils Tower. About halfway around the loop trail, a group had stopped to point and gaze at three tiny specks clinging to the tower’s sheer columns. They were barely visible to the naked eye, and truth be told, I could only spot two — one red, one white — clinging to the wall about halfway up. Their presence changed the tower from one really big rock to freakily ginormous, almost beyond comprehension.
By the way, the park service says that there are about 220 routes to the top and that it takes between four hours and six hours to ascend Devils Tower. However, in the 1980s, a climber name Todd Skinner accomplished the superhuman by climbing to the top in 18 minutes.
Visiting Devils Tower also reminded us of a film favorite — Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” In it, Richard Dreyfuss’ character Roy Neary developed an obsession with the shape of Devils Tower — recall the mashed-potato sculpture — before he figured out what it was. Once he understood, he experienced an inexplicable draw to the tower, which became the landing zone for an immense UFO.
Back on the trail, we passed piles of crumbled rock — massive boulders that have broken away from the tower’s face. It reminded us that even nature’s seemingly permanent features are always changing and that nothing is forever.
We also passed signs reminding visitors that the area is still sacred to many Native Americans, but the request for quiet went unheeded. Families with delighted (read noisy) kids, reveling in all of this outdoors, were impossible to contain.
Part of the wonder of Devils Tower was watching how its shape and surrounding area changed as we followed the path around the base. The wooded areas provide homes for dozens of species of birds and it’s common to see white-tailed deer bounding through the trees. The flat grasslands have been claimed by a thriving, playful and protected prairie dog community.
It was in 1906 that President Theodore Roosevelt declared Devils Tower the country’s first national monument, thus making Wyoming the home of both the first national monument and the first national park (Yellowstone). Today, there are more than 400 in the National Park System.
At day’s end, I had only one more question: What happened to the apostrophe in “Devil’s?”
According to an internet search, when the 1906 proclamation was issued by Roosevelt, the apostrophe was inadvertently missing and the misspelling was never corrected.