If you’re like me you first learned about Devils Tower National Monument from the 1977 sci-fi adventure film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Although fictional space aliens helped popularize this location for many people, the natural and cultural features alone make it worth the trek to northeast Wyoming.
Devils Tower is a dramatic feature that rises suddenly from the Black Hills. Reaching nearly 1,300 feet (almost 400 m) above the surrounding land, this monolith represents the eroded remains of an igneous intrusion. During the Triassic Period (250 to 200 million years ago) this area was inundated by a shallow sea. Mud, sand, and silt were deposited along the shifting shorelines, and over time this resulted in thick beds of shale, sandstone, and siltstone.
Somewhere around 50 million years ago tectonic collisions that helped form the Rocky Mountains gradually uplifted this region. Amid the geologic chaos magma oozed upward into the surrounding sedimentary rock. It eventually slowed and began to cool. As this igneous intrusion solidified, it naturally fractured into six-sided columns. Over the last few tens of millions of years the softer sedimentary rock has been eroded, exposing the harder igneous rock at the surface.
The columnar joints of igneous rock aren’t impervious to natural weathering, however. Water, ice, and gravity have slowly chipped away at Devils Tower, accumulating a dense boulder field around the base.
The impressive nature of this feature has been the subject of human fascination for thousands of years. Since long before the arrival of European Americans, Native Americans have considered this place sacred.
The Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, and Lakota peoples have various traditional stories relating to the formation of Devils Tower. Many involve people climbing on the big rock to flee a hungry bear who then scratches at the sides to create the vertical scores.
Today members of these tribes still visit this place to worship, often placing prayer cloths and bundles on the surrounding land.
The area around Devils Tower is nearly as impressive. Forests of ponderosa pines and oaks blanket the highlands…
…while pockets of prairie extend into the horizon:
Devils Tower is a rather enchanting piece of America, harboring geologic and cultural interest as well as natural wonder and beauty. This place is also notable for being the first national monument in the United States, earning protection from President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 under the then-new Antiquities Act. It’s certainly worth a visit, especially if your travels bring you to the nearby Badlands of South Dakota.