Located in northeastern Wyoming, Devil’s Tower is a powerful astounding geologic feature protruding out of the prairie 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River – more than four football fields tall. The tower is America’s first national monument put in place on September 24, 1906 by US President Theodore Roosevelt. The monument’s boundary encloses an area of 1,347 acres.
Considered sacred by Northern Plains Indians who occupied the area at the time along with 20 other indigenous people, the formation was originally named “Bear Lodge”, an English translation of a Lakota name “Mato Tipila”. Twenty years later, indigenous cultures of the Black Hills were being removed by the US Army. Colonel Richard Dodge led an expedition into the Black Hills and he wrote about his observations “the indigenous call this place ‘bad god’s tower’” and later it was modified into “Devil’s Tower” and the name stuck.
In the Lakota Sioux legend, the story is told like this: “Six girls were out picking flowers when they were attacked and chased by bears. The Great Spirit felt bad for them, and raised the ground beneath their feet. The bears gave chase and attempted to climb the newly formed tower, but they couldn’t get to the top. The bears fell off, clawing the sides of the monolith”.
Since the people first arrived at Devils Tower more than 10,000 years ago, the monolith has remained unchanged. Depending on the time of day and the weather, the formation can look dramatically different: yellow green against a clear blue sky; in shadow the tower is black and seems taller; in fog it is shrouded in mist; in winter it is covered in a dusting of snow; during sunset the sun’s rays turn the face the colors of the sky.
Devil’s Tower is a geologic mystery how it was formed. One thing all geologists agree on is that the Tower is not a volcano but an igneous rock formed by underground lava and magma. That magma pushed upwards throughout layers of sedimentary rock – termed laccoliths – creating what is termed an “intrusion” altering the landscape on the surface. Several other laccoliths can be found along the northern edge of the Black Hills.
You might have remembered the 1977 movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” directed Steven Spielberg. He visited several unique landmarks, as far away as Euroed India, but Devils Tower stood out. See the trailer here.
The most striking feature of the Tower is the collection of the the massive vertical columns, termed “columnar jointing” which appears as lines and grooves, on the face of Devil’s tower. It only occurs in igneous rocks, as shapes form during the cooling process from the magma cooling below the surface. The phenomenon of columnar jointing is actually one that occurs as the rock itself is forming, not from weathering over the years.
There are other spectacular formations of this around the world – such as California’s Devil’s Postpile and Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway – but Devil’s Tower is the largest in the world and 10 times the size. Because of the hundreds of parallel cracks, the Tower is one of the finest crack climbing areas in North America.
The oldest rocks visible in Devils Tower National Monument were laid down in a shallow sea during the Triassic – a geologic period which spans 50.6 million years from the end of the Permian Period 251.902 million years ago, to the beginning of the Jurassic Period 201.36 Mya. Both the start and end of the period are marked by major extinction events.
Dark red sandstone rock and and maroon siltstone, deposited with shale, can be seen along the Belle Fourche River, a tributary of the Cheyenne River approximately 290 miles long in Wyoming and South Dakota. Oxidation of the iron minerals causes the redness of the rocks, or known as Spearfish Formation.
Constructed in 1935 from ponderosa pine logs, other local materials and help from he Civilian Conservation Corps, the Devils Tower Visitor Center was orginially designed as an administration building for the park. Today, it is the primary visitation area for visitors. Inside you can find park staff, information on the park and exhibitions. In 2021, Devil’s tower received a record breaking visitation with over 500,000 visitors to Devils Tower, primarily between June, July and August.
Devils Tower National Monument is accessed via Wyoming Hwy 24. From the east, take Interstate 90 exit 185; from the west, take Interstate 90 exit 153 (both exits are for US Hwy 14). Follow the signage from major highways to be directed toward the park. The visitor center is at the end of the park road, 3 miles from the entrance station.
As of 2022, Devils Tower National Monument will be accepting entrance fee payments via card and digital payments only. Visitors can purchase Devils Tower National Monument entrance passes in advance by going to Recreation.gov or https://www.recreation.gov/sitepass/2661. Visitors purchasing from Recreation.gov will have a digital pass they can store on a mobile device or print out, saving time when they arrive at the park.