Devils Tower National Monument is actually named Bear Lodge or Grizzly Bear Lodge by the Native Americans, who lived in this area for the 10,000 years before white men came. It sits in northeastern Wyoming, above the Belle Fourche River. The tower rises 1,267 feet (386 m) above the river and stands 867 feet (265 m) from summit to base. It’s located in the Bear Lodge Mountains, which is part of the Black Hills. Noelle here, by the way.
President Theodore Roosevelt established Devils Tower as the first United States national monument in 1906. Wyoming also has the honor of the first national park in Yellowstone. As we’re making our way towards Mt Rushmore, where he’s honored, it’s good for me to see the hand of President Roosevelt at work. He was the 26th US president and a huge conservationist, explorer, naturalist and historian. He prioritized conservation and so established national parks, forests and monuments intended to preserve the nation’s natural resources. I think I would have liked him very much! I also really enjoyed our time at Bear Lodge.
How did Devils Tower get its name?
Col. Richard Dodge named the monument Devils Tower after a misinterpretation, which called it Bad God’s Tower. He then changed it to Devils Tower. Some historians believe that he intentionally changed the name, but I guess it doesn’t really matter in the end. However, the tower had its real name for many generations before Dodge came.
The origin story that I love stems from one of the dozens of tribes with connections to Bear Lodge. There are varying stories, but the one I especially like is that a boy and his sisters went out to the forest. Maybe gathering, maybe playing but slowly for some reason the boy began turning into a bear. He chased his sisters, who ran atop a rock, fell to their knees and prayed to the Great Spirit for protection. In answer to their prayers, the Great Spirit lifted the rock towards the skies away from the bear. The bear, while trying to climb after them, clawed at the the rock leaving deep claw marks, which we can still see in the tower today. The rock rose too high for the bear and when it reached the sky the girls were turned into the stars of the Pleiades.
This national monument made our list in part because of its proximity to friends in Sheridan and Gillette, Wyoming. So, I’ll tell you a bit about those cities too.
How was Bear Lodge formed geologically?
Science doesn’t fully agree on the formation of the tower. The land surrounding it is comprised of sedimenatary rocks. One theory is that as the Belle Fourche River rose over millenia, she wore away the rocks surrounding the harder stone of the tower itself.
In 1907, geologists decided that the tower must be an eroded remnant of a laccolith. I don’t really know what that means and frankly, it’s beyond what I actually care about it. But I think it’s basically part of a 40.5 million year old volcano. The magma cooled, the hexagonal columns formed and then the sedimentary rocks piled around it. Over time, the river wore away the rocks, leaving the tower standing alone.
How’s that for millions of years of geology broken down into a couple paragraphs? Here’s what I know for myself. We thoroughly enjoyed the 1.3 mile paved loop around the tower! It was great to be outdoors on a sunny October day. The path wasn’t crowded, although quite a few other people walked it too.
Is Bear Lodge a sacred place today?
Bear Lodge is still very much a sacred place for the Kiowa, Lakota, Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Shoshone and Crow peoples. Native people journey here for private ceremonies. And there are colorful cloths tied to tree limbs around the tower as silent prayers. Out of respect for the prayers, we didn’t take pictures or touch these cloths. But I sure wanted to. Not so much to share them here but to try to capture the peaceful feeling they aroused in me. I clearly have no idea what the cloths meant to the individuals who placed them, but it was similar to the Japanese prayer cards at temples there. The similarity spoke to me and reminded me, once again, that we are all more alike than different.
At the Belle Fourche River Campground, close to the Park’s entrance stands a statue titled, “The Circle of Sacred Smoke”. It looks like a white circle of smoke and is placed so that Bear Lodge is visible through it. Interestingly enough to me is that the artist is Japanese. Junkyu Muto created it as one of three sculptures in the Muto International Peace Project. The sculptures are placed at spiritually significant places around the world. Bear Lodge, Vatican City in Rome and Bodh Gaya, India, where the Buddha reached enlightenment.
The site where “The Circle of Sacred Smoke” stands is the location where White Buffalo Calf Woman delivered the first sacred pipe to the Lakota people. So the sculpture represents a puff of smoke from a ceremonial pipe. Throughout our time at Bear Lodge, I felt a certain peaceful connection to the area, to nature and to Steve. We both shared how much we enjoyed our time there.
Do people climb Devils Tower?
On July 4, 1893, William Rogers and Willard Ripley (local ranchers) completed the first ascent. They built a wooden ladder, attaching it to the rock and climbed to the top where they raised an American flag. Some people think they probably ascended the day before, since the flag pole was waiting for them! Their wives sold refreshments and scraps of the cut up flag to spectators. A year later, Rogers’ wife Lily climbed that wooden ladder herself and became the first documented woman to summit the tower.
You can still see portions of the original wooden ladder on the tower. We watched two hikers near the top and then climb over onto the summit during our visit. Park binoculars in one section allowed us to get a close up view of them as they made the final ascent. It was pretty neat to see. We really enjoyed sitting on a bench in the sunshine and watching the climbers way at the top of the tower. I wondered if they would stay the night or if they’d simply wander around for a while before coming back down. What a cool thing for us to see! Hundreds of climbers scale the rock tower each summer, but we just saw three of them.
Has anyone parachuted onto the tower?
I’m glad you asked! Haha. In 1941, George Hopkins parachuted onto Devils Tower without permission. I can’t remember if he lost a bet of $50 or if it was a publicity stunt, but he landed pretty much right in the center of the top of the tower. The pilot then lowered a 1,200 foot rope to him, but it completely missed the top and caught on a ledge below him. Another pilot dropped another rope, but it became so tangled that Hopkins was unable to use it. Without rope to descend, he was stuck atop the tower for six days. The second pilot also dropped food and blankets to keep Hopkins alive in the cold and rainy weather.
Finally, a mountain rescue team was able to climb up and bring him down. A group of eight climbers went up to get him while thousands of onlookers watched from below. Hopkins became beloved by the paparazzi of the time! The Old Stoney – Crooks County Museum in Sundance plays video coverage of the landing and of attempts to rescue Hopkins. It was neat to actually see the drama played out. I didn’t do a great job framing my picture, but on the video monitor you can see Hopkins waving from atop the tower. And in the photo in the upper right you can see some of the crowd watching it all. Guess people are people as we sat with a crowd watching the modern day climbers safely ascending during our visit!
More recent media coverage of Devils Tower
Steven Spielberg brought Bear Lodge to the big screen in 1977 with his movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We’re going to have to watch it again! The movie is still shown each night in the summer at the KOA Campground at the entrance to the national monument. Too bad we missed it this year at the campground. Guess we’ll have to look for it on Netflix!
Prairie Dog Town
Another cool thing about this national monument is that it has its very own Prairie Dog Town near the entrance! Seriously, it’s so cool. There are tons of these little whistlers just going about their day. Several pullouts give visitors the ability to park and watch these little cuties for as long as you want. They pop up out of their burrows, do some little prairie dog thing, whistle a little bit and then pop back down. It’s super entertaining and since we’re on the shoulder season without a lot of automobile traffic, we felt no pressure to hurry. We just kept watching!
Related animal watching: Yellowstone gave us some of the best animal viewing of any park we’ve visited.
Where to Stay
The Belle Fourche River Campground is close to the entrance to the monument. It has 46 sites with drinking water and indoor toilets. It’s a first come, first served campground with no reservations and stays of up to 14 days. RVs up to 35′ can easily be accommodated in the pull through spots, but keep in mind that there are no hookups. This campground operates from May 15 to October 15th and only costs $20 per night. It’s a beautiful campground with lots of shade trees and looks like a great place to stay. We arrived after October 15th, so no go for us.
There’s also a KOA campground at the monument’s entrance. It has a restaurant, large gift/general store and a sweet shop with fudge, ice cream and hot cinnamon sugar nuts. There’s a big swimming pool, mini golf, nightly showings of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and nightly hayrides through Campstool Ranch, one of the oldest ranches in Wyoming. While this campground costs a bit more than $20 per night, it does offer a ton of amenities. This year we paid the $22 annual fee to join KOA rewards and its already more than paid for itself. We get 10% off each daily registration rate and we’ve found that most KOAs are well kept, clean and have amazing owners. Their phone app makes it easy to book, but it doesn’t take American Express, which is our card of choice, so that’s the only downside.
We spent the night in Reuter Campground just outside of Sundance, Wyoming about 35 minutes from Devils Tower. There was only us and one tent, so it made for a very quiet evening. At only $10 per night, this campground is a great choice for a quieter retreat.
Sheridan is about 2.5 hours from Devils Tower…or if you’re in Cupcake, it’s 3.5 plus an overnight… Our friends David and Sharlyn live there, so we parked outside their house and enjoyed their company for the night. We met David, aka Red Teacup, on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2019 near Crater Lake in Oregon. I first met him along the trail and later ran into him again at the lake itself. David teaches high school history and also does chainsaw woodcarvings. So cool! If you’re in town I’d highly recommend checking some of them out at the Trail End Historic Site and Kendrick Park.
This cool little town has a chic downtown and great places to eat. We’re looking forward to coming back in warmer weather for some hiking and exploring.
Gillette is only an hour from Devils Tower, so it’s an easy place to stay while touring the area. Our friends, Justin and Liz live there, so they were the highlight of our stop! Liz took us on a driving tour, since she grew up in the town and knows its history well. What a treat for us to get the lowdown from a local!
After enjoying time with our friends, we headed towards the Cam-Plex Center to check out the coal mining equipment on display. We had a great time learning about coal mining and Cupcake even tried her hand at pulling a huge coal shovel. Definitely stop by here if you’re in town.
Devils Tower & Prairie Dogs
We highly recommend a stop at Devils Tower if you’re in southeast Wyoming. The peacefulness and tranquility of the area is top notch, while the prairie dogs add a touch of fun. We visited around October 18th and enjoyed a sunny Fall day in the high 60s. It was perfect, since the next day saw clouds roll in with a couple inches of snow. Still I’d take the cooler, sunny days of Fall over the crowded days of mid summer!