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I've visited Devils Tower National Monument several times over the years, but it always surprises me when I see it appear on the horizon on a drive through northeastern Wyoming. Nearly 900 feet in height, the geological formation rises like a solitary sentinel above gently rolling hills of ponderosa pines and grasslands.
The fluted column is a rare geological phenomenon formed when molten rock was forced upwards into sedimentary rocks about 50 million years ago.
As the magma cooled, it contracted and fractured into columns. Over the millennia the surrounding softer rock eroded, leaving the striking landmark exposed.
Devils Tower entered popular culture in 1977 when Steven Spielberg featured it in his sci-fi film 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” in which it served as a landing base for aliens. But the huge rock has been an object of fascination long before it was discovered by Hollywood. It is considered sacred by Northern Plains Indian tribes, many of which identify it with a bear, one of the most powerful of animal totems. To the Lakota and Cheyenne it is known as Bear Lodge, while the Arapahoe call it Bear's Tipi. For many centuries the tower has been a place for prayer, sweat lodges, offerings and ceremonies.
There are a number of legends that account for the landmark's unusual appearance.
A Kiowa story, for example, says that the tower was once a tree. One day, seven sisters and their brother were playing near it when the boy began to growl, his fingers grew claws, and hair erupted all over his body. Soon he had been entirely transformed into a bear. The girls ran to the base of the tree, which told them to climb to the top of its branches. As they did so, the bear began to claw at the trunk, creating deep gashes in its sides. The seven sisters leaped into the sky and became the stars of the Pleiades, while the tree hardened into stone, its sides still scored by the bear's claws.
The first detailed description of the formation by a non-native was written by Colonel Richard Dodge, who in 1875 led a military expedition to the region to investigate reports of gold in the nearby Black Hills. Calling the tower 'one of the most remarkable peaks in this or any country,” he marked it on a map as Devils Tower, most likely because of a mistranslation of the Lakota word for Bear Lodge. Despite periodic attempts to change the name of the monument, the unfortunate moniker has remained.
President Theodore Roosevelt established Devils Tower as the country's first national monument in 1906
, a designation made on the basis of its scientific value. The landmark is formed from a rare igneous rock, phonolite porphyry, and is the largest example of columnar jointing in the world. Geologists come from around the world to study its features.
The monument is also a magnet for climbers. Each year about 5,000 people make their way to the top of the tower, which is considered one of the premiere technical climbs in North America. Hundreds of parallel cracks, some wide enough for a body and others barely big enough for a handhold, divide the formation into large hexagonal columns. At the top-which encompasses about one and a half acres-climbers are rewarded with expansive views of the surrounding countryside and scenic Belle Fourche River.
Recognizing the importance of the monument to those who view it as a holy site, the National Park Service asks people not to climb the tower during the month of June, when many sacred ceremonies are held.
The climbing routes are also closed each spring to protect nesting prairie and peregrine falcons, which like to build their nests on exposed rocky outcrops.
The 1,347-acre national monument is home to many other birds as well. More than 160 species have been spotted in its blend of Black Hills pine forests with plains grasslands. Commonly seen species include great horned owls, mountain bluebirds and bullocks orioles, with frequent sightings of birds such as golden eagles, western tanagers and sandhill cranes. Other resident animals include a colony of black-tailed prairie dogs that live in a colony near the park entrance, as well as white-tailed and mule deer, cottontail rabbits, and porcupines.
On my most recent visit to the tower, I hiked the 45-minute route at its base, a trail that winds through pine forest and past jumbles of boulders and rocks that have fallen from the edifice over the years. Each turn of the path revealed a different perspective of the formation, with occasional distant views of ant-like climbers inching their way upwards.
I envied the skill of those climbers, but I think the best way to see Devils Tower is with neck craned at its base, watching as raptors glide the air currents around it. Looking at its massive form, it's easy to see why so many stories and legends swirl around it and why people come from around the world to experience it.
N. Scott Momaday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa novelist, described it best: ”There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man; Devil's Tower is one of them.”
If you go
Devils Tower National Monument
WY-110, Devils Tower, Wyoming
Open year-round, with ranger activities offered from Memorial Day through Labor Day
' Where to stay:
The Belle Fourche River Campground (www.nps.gov/deto/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm) is operated by the National Park Service; Devils Tower KOA (devilstowerkoa.com) is just outside the monument and has has nightly free showings of 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind” on an outdoor screen with the monument in the background; Nearby towns Hulett and Sundance have a variety of hotel and RV options