Join the Almanac in a coast-to-coast exploration of America’s most beloved national parks and historic sites. This time, we visit Devils Tower, a National Monument in northeastern Wyoming that’s steeped in lore and legend.
The Kiowa oral history of Devils Tower is as follows: Seven little girls were playing outside their village when a group of bears started to chase them. The girls jumped on a low rock, and one of them prayed, “Rock take pity on us, rock save us!” The rock began to rise beneath their feet. The bears jumped to reach the girls, but broke their claws on the side of the rock and fell back to earth, leaving vertical grooves in the naked stone sides. The girls eventually reached the sky, and are now the seven stars we know as the Pleiades, which in wintertime are positioned right above the tower, appearing to be chased by the Great Bear.
The first Europeans to encounter this extraordinary formation were probably fur traders passing through this region of present-day Wyoming, but no written records of these encounters exist. In 1875, Colonel Richard Irving Dodge led an expedition to the area. Though it was called “Bear Lodge” on previous maps, it was likely a translation error that resulted in the name “Devils Tower,” which originated with the Colonel’s 1876 report and 1880 book. This name has proven controversial, even insulting to many tribes, and there is a proposal to rename the formation “Bear Lodge.”
Today, the tower is home to tourism and rock climbing, as well as sacred prayer sites. Though no one was climbing on the hot day we visited, it is a popular site for alpinists due to hundreds of parallel vertical cracks in the tower’s shaft. Tourists from all over the world gather here, some to scramble up the loose boulders at the tower’s base, others to gaze up at it from the visitor’s center. On the north side of the formation are prayer flags and other relics, reminders that the site is a shrine as well as a geological wonder and tourist attraction.
Travel Tip: Devils Tower captured the attention of Hollywood and the nation in 1977 with the release of Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the classic sci-fi movie which portrayed it as the place where aliens chose to make formal contact with humans. The nearby Devils Tower KOA campground has a nightly outside screening for visitors.
Visit the National Park Service website to learn more about Devils Tower and to plan your visit!