As it holds the title of the nation’s First National Monument (thank you Teddy Roosevelt!), Devils Tower should be on your bucket list! Several different hiking trails offer beautiful views as the site rises over the surrounding valley floor. You’ll find yourself surrounded by yellow rock layers that stand out in contrast to the red layers of the Spearfish Formation, while the gorgeous Wyoming countryside spreads out before you like a mottled quilt.
As it holds the title of the nation’s first National Monument (thank you Teddy Roosevelt!), Devil’s Tower should be on your bucket list! You’ll find several different hiking trails throughout the park, of varying lengths and difficulties. Beautiful views are available from all the trails as the tower rises above the surrounding valley floor. Below you, the gorgeous Wyoming countryside spreads out before you like a mottled quilt. The yellowed rock layers that surround you stand out in contrast to the red cliffs of the Spearfish Formation
Watch out for rattlesnakes in this area during the warmer months. You won’t usually find them on the well-traveled paths–though they will, occasionally, seek out the warmer blacktop in the mornings or evenings. However, you may come upon them in the grass if you wander off-trail, or if you are hiking some of the more rugged, grassier routes.
If you visit the Visitor’s Center, you can see views of the top of the Tower. Interestingly enough, there is actually grass up there! It offers a nice place for the climbers to relax and take a break before they trek back down. Snakes have even been found on the summit, though naturalists aren’t quite sure how they got there. It has been theorized that they may have been dropped by birds that were planning to make a meal of them. While this meant good fortune for the snake, it also meant an empty tummy for the bird. 😳
Devils Tower Hikes:
All of the hiking trails at Devils Tower are worth checking out and can be enjoyed by those with a variety of hiking expertise. You should be aware, there isn’t a lot of shade available on any of the routes. While this makes for a hot trek in the warmer months, the good news is you’re in Wyoming, so there is almost ALWAYS at least a slight breeze! 😉
The Tower Trail:
This is the main trail that traverses the base of the tower. At a little over a mile in length, it is paved or graded the entire way and offers benches for resting. This route should be accessible for most people, just watch out for the occasional root. Bring binoculars and watch for climbers on the monolith!
South Side and Valley View Trails:
Both of these are side trails that connect to the Red Beds Trail and add an additional half mile to that route. They are shorter and take you into the valley that skirts the south side of the tower (imagine that!) 😝 They wind through a prairie dog town that is also accessible from the road. The furry little critters are cute, but stay back! DO NOT FEED THEM! Their fleas carry Plague (yes, THAT plague). 😝
The Joyner Trail:
This trek is a 1.5-mile loop that covers mostly the grassland north of the tower. It also includes a connector to the Red Beds Trail if you choose to use it. Its trailhead is found in a different location on the north side of the park, which also makes a prime lunch spot as it offers one of the most dramatic shots of the monolith (see below):
Red Beds Trail:
This is our favorite hike at Devils Tower! At almost three total miles in length, this loop is the longest and most strenuous of all the trails. You can take it either direction, though both will start by heading downhill to about the halfway point and then will return uphill. So, while you think it’s easy at first, remember, it’s uphill ALL the way back! 😉 While you won’t have as good of views of the tower from this route, it tends to be far less busy and it offers more views of the surrounding landscape. It also takes you through different ecosystems including the nearby grassland and the dry, red rock bed–hence the name–of the Spearfish Formation.
Below are some of the scenic views available from the Red Beds Trail:
How was Devils Tower Formed?
There are several explanations for how the tower came to be:
The “boring” scientific explanation 😉:
There are various theories that explain the creation of the Tower, but the most accepted one is that, back when the Earth was young, this was once a volcanic plug that allowed lava to escape to the surface. The rock that formed around the plug was harder and of a different type than the surrounding rock. In later years, this softer rock eroded, leaving the plug behind.
But enough with “provable facts”, let’s move on to the far more interesting legends. 😁
American Indian legends:
The legends vary by tribe, but most feature young children being chased by a large bear. The children usually climb on a rock to escape the bear and pray for help. The Great Spirit causes the rock to grow so the children are transported out of the bear’s reach. As the bear tries to climb the rock and falls, his claws leave large gashes in the rock (this explains the igneous columns).
Several of the legends state the children are girls who eventually turned into the Seven Sisters star constellation. One Lakota Sioux legend states the bear grows tired, wanders away to the land that is now South Dakota, and eventually falls asleep. He then turns into Bear Butte, a sister volcanic plug found in the northern Black Hills.
Both of these sites are considered sacred by numerous American Indian tribes. It is common to see prayer bundles at either location and sometimes, people can be observed practicing ceremonies there. These locales are occasionally closed to visitors when certain tribal events are occurring. Please respect any religious observances you note and refrain from touching or moving them. We are truly visitors to these sacred areas and should respect them as such.
“I’m not saying it’s aliens…”
Then there’s the “other” explanation…when in doubt, always assume it’s the aliens! 👽
Some people may have never heard of one of Steven Spielberg’s classics from the 1970’s–and one of Richard Dreyfuss’ first big movies–Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This film was old when I watched it as a kid (and we don’t need to discuss how long ago THAT was! 😝). It’s always been one of my favorites, though I may be a little biased as a large portion of the movie takes place in my home state of Indiana. 😉
Devils Tower features heavily into the plot of the film, so you can imagine how excited I was to learn it was nearby when we moved to the Black Hills. The movie is relatively kid-friendly, aside from one (in my opinion) unnecessarily, frightening scene. The aliens are more akin to those found in ET than Independence Day. 😉
I STRONGLY recommend you check out the movie after visiting the tower, especially the Director’s Cut with all the deleted scenes. The Special Edition version is actually my favorite, as it is the only one to include the fabled “Mothership Scene” at the end. While Spielberg later regretted bowing to the film studio’s pressure and adding this scene in, it was always one of my favorites. Think about the special effects that were required to make this scene and how few of them would have been available to Spielberg in the ’70s. This was well before computer effects kiddos! 😳 And yes, once you hear it, that theme music will be an earworm that will drive you INSANE! 😝
Where is Devils Tower?
The tower is pretty easy to reach from the Black Hills. The directions are simple: drive west on I-90; follow the signs. 😉
Driving through beautiful Wyoming
Though it does take a couple of hours, part of the reason we enjoy this trip so much is the drive (I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy long drives through the countryside). There are a couple of different routes you can take. We like to form a loop where we take I-90 out (the quick way) to Sundance, get off on US 14 North, and take that to Route 24 North. When we leave the site, we continue on Route 24 to the north (the scenic route) and take that all the way back to Belle Fourche, SD where you can pick up I-90 again. The drive takes around 1.5 – 2 hours or so each direction, but boy is it worth it!
This part of the country is, truly, God’s Country. I love South Dakota, but the Wyoming countryside brings with it a new definition of wild and wonderful. It’s so incredibly rugged (as is the weather!) and you’ll notice the change immediately after crossing the state line. The red rocks form a distinct backdrop as they stand out in direct contrast to the dun-colored prairie.
Take the time to visit the Wyoming Black Hills, you’ll be glad you did!