In early June, we joined the legions that have been entranced by the giant rock. We settled into a campsite with a view of the tower, and for two days hiked and explored the pillar from every angle.
Composed of giant hexagonal columns that are the tallest (more than 600 feet) and widest (up to 20 feet) in the world, Devils Tower is a beautiful natural geometric sculpture. Every side of the tower shows a different face, and the forces of nature continue to sculpt and change the rock.
Geologists think the tower was formed from molten magma forced into sedimentary rock underground almost 50 million years ago. As the magma cooled, it fractured into hexagonal columns. Over millions of years, the soft sedimentary deposits eroded, and bit by bit, the pillar was revealed.
The Plains Indians tell a different story of how the tower came to be. Tribal legends vary slightly, but most stories involve a giant bear that clawed gashes into the rock. The Kiowa tale is my favorite:
While playing near a stream, seven young girls were chased by bears. The girls scrambled to the top of a low rock, praying to the Great Spirit to save them. Hearing their prayers, the Great Spirit raised the rock to the heavens, and the bears tumbled backward, clawing the sides of the tower as they fell. To ensure their safety, the Great Spirit placed the girls into the sky, where they were turned into stars and became the constellation we call the Pleiades. In winter, the seven stars can be seen directly above the rock.
For thousands of years, the tower has been spiritually significant to the tribes of the Great Plains. They leave colorful prayer cloths tied to trees circling the base of the monolith, and in June, hold sacred ceremonies at the tower. While we were there, we watched tipis being raised in the campground for a ceremonial gathering.
About the name…it drives my editor (that’s me) crazy that there’s no apostrophe in Devils Tower. But that’s how the name was originally recorded, and so it stays, a glaring grammatical error. More of an issue, though, is that the sacred monolith was named Devils Tower at all. For centuries, the Plains Indians have called the tower Bear’s Lodge, or Bear’s Tipi. The name Devils Tower was the result of a white man’s careless translation of the Indian name. The tribes object to the connotation of evil associated with a place they hold sacred, but their attempts to have the tower renamed have been thus far unsuccessful.
More than two dozen tribes consider the tower to be a holy place. According to Lakota legend, this is where White Buffalo Calf Woman presented the first sacred ceremonial pipe to the Lakota people. To honor the spiritual significance of the tower, Japanese artist Junkyu Moto created the Circle of Sacred Smoke. The sculpture represents a puff of smoke from a ceremonial pipe and perfectly frames the tower.
As for the connection to Teddy Roosevelt and Steven Spielberg, in 1906 President Roosevelt named the tower as the first national monument in the U.S. And in the sci-fi cult classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg chose Devils Tower as the site where aliens land and make contact with humans. (Should you need a refresher on the movie, it plays every night at the amphitheater just outside of the monument at the KOA.)
We hiked most of the trails at Devils Tower, enjoying the changing face of the pillar from every direction. The Tower Trail is undeniably the most popular—it’s an easy 1.3-mile path around the base of the tower with lots of people making the trek. But by striking off onto the intersecting trails, we found plenty of solitude. We especially enjoyed the Red Beds Trail, a 2.8-mile loop that offers beautiful views of the tower and the surrounding Belle Fourche River valley.
We also hiked from the campground to the monument on the South Side Trail, which travels through a prairie dog town. As we tried to figure out what we thought was a mystery bird with a repetitive chirping call, we finally realized we were hearing prairie dogs talking to each other. In early June, baby prairie dogs are abundant.
About the campground
If you can do without electricity or water hookups, Belle Fourche River Campground is a delightful place to stay. Located within the monument, the sites are spacious and set in a grove of cottonwood trees. Many have beautiful views of the tower. All sites are first-come, first-served, with water faucets for filling tanks, restrooms with no showers, no dump station, and iffy Verizon. Hiking to the monument from the campground is wonderful. We loved our peaceful stay.