Rising 867 feet above the prairie, Devils Tower is an epic geological formation worth making the trip for. Our nation’s first National Monument doesn’t always make it onto the family vacation itinerary–usually for the simple reason that most have never heard of it unless they grew up in this region. This is unfortunate, as it offers something for everyone in your family: history, wildlife, geology, hiking, and even pop culture references. Starting from Keystone as a basecamp gives plenty of scenery and opportunities to explore along the way, providing a perfect itinerary no matter what your tastes.
A common question about Devils Tower, is what exactly is it? Is it a volcano core? Remains of an eroded mountain range? While some finer details of its creation are still subject to debate, scientists agree that the tower began as magma under the Earth’s surface. They can’t quite agree exactly how the magma came to the surface and cooled to form the tower—perhaps you can come up with your own theories. It is, however, the largest example of columnar jointing in the world, which is the phenomenon responsible for the tower’s many cracks and columns of rock.
Culturally, Devils Tower has been an important site for Native Tribes in the region from before our recorded history. Several tribes hold the land sacred, and still practice rituals and spiritual rites on the park grounds. While some of these rituals are open to the public, many are not. Visitors should be careful not to disturb or remove prayer cloths or any other religious artifacts they may encounter while in the park, and maintain a respectful distance from any ongoing rituals.
With the arrival of settlers in the area, interest in Devils Tower grew. Fortunately, there was interest early on in preserving the area from development. In 1892 the first temporary forest reserve was set up to protect 60 square miles around Devils Tower and the nearby Little Missouri Buttes. It would take another fourteen years, but eventually, with the help of a Wyoming congressman, President Theodore Roosevelt declared Devils Tower our first National Monument in 1906.
Since 1906, Devils Tower has been a place of reverence for many walks of life. Local tribes still sojourn here, while geologists and historians continue to explore the formation and cultural significance of the rock itself. Climbing the monument is also popular, after the first successful summit in 1893. Those interested in climbing Devils Tower must register with the park service for any activities above the boulder field, which can be done at the climbing kiosk in the visitor center parking lot. Due to the cultural significance of Devils Tower to local tribes, the park requests climbers voluntarily refrain from climbing the tower during the month of June.
Many movies have been filmed around the Black Hills area, and Devils Tower is featured prominently in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” from 1977. As a nod to this earlier film, it is also used as a location in 2011’s “Paul,” and is a topic discussed in 2014’s “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.” Perhaps it’s all of these pop culture appearances that cause people to suspect the monument was in fact created by aliens.
No matter where your trip to the Black Hills takes you, few stops will leave you in awe like visiting Devils Tower. There really isn’t any other formation like it, and the sheer size and majesty of the rock tower will take your breath away.