Devils Tower is one of the most iconic landmarks in the US. From a holy place among many of the Plains Indian tribes to the first national monument and on to the setting for the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Devils Tower has captured the imagination of all who see it. When visiting Devils Tower, seeing the tower is, obviously the main attraction. Understanding its cultural significance is important as well. Additionally, there are some great opportunities for hiking.
Among the Plains Indians, Devils Tower is known as “Bear’s Lodge” or “Bear’s Home.” The name “Devils Tower” came from Colonel Richard Dodge. Dodge supposedly misinterpreted the native name to mean “Bad God’s Tower.” He called it Devils Tower. The apostrophe was omitted based upon the mapmaking convention of the day.
There are several theories as to how the tower was formed. The most recent theory suggests it is an igneous intrusion, which is an area where magma forced its way to the surface through the surrounding sedimentary rock. Others think it is the plug of an ancient volcano. However it was formed, it stretches 867 feet from the base, made of the same type of rock as Devils Postpile in California and Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt, used the power granted him by the recently passed Antiquities Act to create Devils Tower National Monument, the first national monument. This law allows a president to preserve any Federal land as a national monument. Wyoming is home to both the first national park (Yellowstone) and the first national monument.
The Legend of Devils Tower
As an American literature teacher, I look at this place differently. I teach the Lakota origin story of a huge bear chasing two boys across the prairie as part of my Native American Literature unit. What I love about this park is seeing how the various tribes have different but similar stories surrounding the creation of this unique landmark.
The story follows two lost boys who come across Mato, the giant grizzly bear. Unable to escape the bear, they prayed to Wakan Tanka, the Creator, to have mercy on them. The ground rose from under them, taking them a thousand feet in the air. Mato was so large, he could almost reach the top of the tower so he dug his claws into the rock, trying to get to the boys, leaving the “scratches” found in the rock to this day. The boys were rescued by Wanablee, the great eagle, who took them to their village.
Regardless of the details of origin story, it is one of the most distinctive places you can visit in the American West.
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Visiting Devils Tower National Monument
When visiting Devils Tower, know that it has an entrance fee ($25 per car for a 7-day pass) and in the summer, the lines to get in can be a bit long, especially in the middle of the day. If you’re combining this visit with other national park sites, you may want to consider getting an America the Beautiful annual parks pass. This pass covers the admission at all 419 park units, wildlife refuges, national forests and other public lands.
As you enter the park, you will pass through a large prairie dog town. We always enjoy watching the prairie dogs. They are cute and the chirps and barks are pretty cool. Just don’t get too close. They can bite and do carry the bubonic plague.
Past that, you will notice a turn off for large vehicle parking. If you are towing a camper or are in a large RV, this is where you will want to park since there is limited parking at the visitor center.
While you are there, make sure to visit the “Wind Circle” sculpture. Junkyu Muto, a renowned Japanese sculptor, created this piece, the third installment of his World Peace series.
Muto chose Devils Tower because of the reverence as a holy site by the Plains Tribes. The Lakota, in particular, hold this place as holy and the Park Service closes off the tower itself for the month of June. You can still visit but don’t go inside the Tower Trail or disturb the prayer clothes and beads left in the trees.
What to Do for a Short Visit
If you don’t have a ton of time, be sure to go to the visitor center, which has great exhibits on the tower and its significance, both scientifically and culturally.
Then take some time to walk the Tower Trail. This short, 1.3-mile walk has a bit of up and down but gets you as close as you can get to Devils Tower. The Park service paved the trail and there are benches along the way.
Honestly, though, the views along Tower Trail were our least favorite views of Devils Tower. We were just too close to it to have perspective. That said, it is easy and quick, so perfect for folks who are just stopping for a short visit on their way to somewhere else.
Hiking in Devils Tower National Monument
If you have a little more time when visiting Devils Tower, we encourage you to get out on the trail and do some hiking. Indeed, we spent several hours on the trail on this visit to Devils Tower. By hiking at Devils Tower, you’ll not only get in some exercise, but you’ll also get a wide range of views of the tower.
We combined three trails to make one long 8-mile loop. We started with the Joyner Ridge Trail, which is located off a dirt road on the north end of the park.
Pro Tip: Looking for the best view of Devils Tower in the park? Head left at the Joyner Ridge trailhead for less than 100 yards to a bench with the best, quietest view of the tower.
Following the Joyner Ridge Trail, we had plenty of great views of the tower, nearby Devils Tower Gulch and the surrounding valleys. Joyner Ridge Trail connected with the Red Beds Trail, which encircles the tower in a wide loop.
Red Beds Trail and Tower Trail
The Park Service named Red Beds Trail after areas of red dirt on the southern end of the trail. You’ll easily see this namesake red dirt near the junction of the Joyner Ridge connector trail and the Red Beds Trail.
At the Joyner Ridge connector and Red Beds junction, we kept left, doing the loop counter-clockwise, which gave us great views of the Belle Fourche River. It also gave us a relatively gradual uphill to the visitor center.
Once we got up to the visitor center (which the Park Service closed for this visit due to COVID-19), we got in the Tower Trail before picking up the Red Beds Trail to complete that loop. It led down through a wooded draw and then we reconnected with the Joyner Ridge Trail.
Back to the Joyner Ridge Trail
We followed the Joyner Ridge Trail up through a wooded, shallow ravine back up to the trailhead. All told, it took us about 3 3/4 hours to hike the trail. We took about half an hour of that stopping for pictures and lunch. It was a great hike with tons of great views.
If you have less time, you can easily choose just one or two of these three trails. Of the three, our vote is to trim out the Tower Trail. The Red Beds Trail is a little longer than Joyner Ridge Trail (2.8 miles vs. 1.5 miles) and has a bit more incline. The Red Beds Trail also gets you closer to Devils Tower.
That said, Joyner Ridge offers amazing views of the tower. Even if you don’t hike the Joyner Ridge Trail, we highly recommend you go to the bench on Joyner Ridge. The view is simply too good to miss.
Getting There and Where to Stay
Devils Tower National Monument is located in northeastern Wyoming on the outskirts of the Black Hills. It is a bit more than 30 miles north of I-90. You can easily make this stop on your way through the area. We recommend visiting Devils Tower as part of an extended stay in the Black Hills.
Indeed, we visited as part of our extended Black Hills vacation in 2020. We drove up from Custer, SD, where we stayed at the Big Pine Campground.
I suggest making a long loop out of the drive. Take Wyoming’s Black Hills Scenic Byway north and return via the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. It would make for a long but amazingly pretty day.
If you wanted or needed to stay near Devils Tower, the town of Hulett, WY is not far away. There are a few hotels and campgrounds there.
Final Thoughts on Devils Tower National Monument
We have been to Devils Tower three times now. We have stopped twice in the summer and once in the winter as part of a winter Black Hills trip. It is truly something special that must be seen.
While most folks only spend a short time at the park, you can easily spend the better part of a day visiting Devils Tower, enjoying the hikes and experiencing this tremendous place. I completely understand why Devils Tower captivated the imaginations and hearts of the Plains Indians who saw it. I get why the tribes revere Devils Tower so much.
It’s truly a magical place.