July 23, 2017

Discovering Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming

A handful of horses graze in the shadow of Devils Tower National Monument in northeastern Wyoming.

It’s a loose analogy but I think it works: if northeastern Wyoming is like a set of washboard abs, then Devils Tower National Monument is like an outie bellybutton.

There. I’ve said it.

Analogies are useful when trying to describe something that defies description, and Devils Tower is certainly that. I could, perhaps, call it a lot of other things, too–an otherworldly monument to the forces of nature, a towering monolith of igneous rock, an icon of the American landscape–but none of those depictions seems detailed enough to place Devils Tower visually within the context of the Great Plains.

It’s simply so¬†unusual. You’re driving westbound on Interstate 90 from western South Dakota, head northwest on Highway 14 away from the town of Sundance, Wyoming, take another northbound local road and BAM! There it is. You can see it from a few miles off but nothing really prepares you for the scale of the gigantic tower erupting from the rounded hills of the eastern Wyoming landscape.

The drive there is nice enough–a winding reddish-pink paved road leading upwards, flanked by gently rolling slopes of low grasses. In early April, the air–cool with just the tiniest bit of winter in it still–was crisp and quiet and the sky was that shade of deep blue that shows the golds and reds of the American prairie to their best advantage. Save for the occasional log-hauling semi and a few fellow road trippers, my brother and I were almost alone. A handful of horses grazed nearby, including a trio of what looked like roan Shetland ponies, on the approach to the park.

Once you pay the entrance fee and take the narrow dusty road into the park to the base of the tower, that’s when you really begin to get an idea for how big it really is. You’ll need your widest angle lens to photograph the tower from up close because it’s massive. From base to peak, Devils Tower is 867 feet high with an area roughly the size of a football field at the summit.

When you realize people actually climb the monument for sport? Woah. Thanks to the binoculars provided near the visitor center, you can spot climbers nestled in one of the deep ridged chasms ribbing the tower. Devils Tower is also a sacred site for several Native American tribes, so a voluntary closure on climbing and hiking is instituted each June to respect the traditional ceremonies that take place at the tower during that time.

Can you spot the climber?

Can you spot the climber now?

Aside from being completely flummoxed by the sheer size of Devils Tower, I was tickled by the well-populated prairie dog habitat just beyond the entrance to the park. It was my first time seeing a prairie dog in person and I wasn’t nearly prepared for their high-pitched squeaks and squeals as they chased each other in pairs, scampering about among the bountiful red-earthed burrows that stretched across a wide field of dry grass.

A prairie dog hovers near a burrow at Devils Tower National Monument.

We didn’t stay long at the monument as we were pushing for Salt Lake City that night on our road trip, but I would have loved to spend some time hiking up around the debris field surrounding the tower to take in views of the surrounding prairie. I’m quite certain this won’t be my last visit to Wyoming (hello Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks!) so maybe on my next trip, I’ll add a more substantial stop at Devils Tower for the ultimate tour of northern Wyoming national parks.

2 Responses to Discovering Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming

  1. Matthew Cheyne says:

    When you finally make it to Australia you’ll have to do a tour of our various national parks. Tasmania is the best state of Australia to visit national parks as 70 percent of the state is national park reserved although the weather is cold in winter by Australian standards, it wouldn’t be too bad by Seattle standards and being so far south, Tasmania misses much of the summer heat that mainland Australia usually gets in the summer.