Devil’s Tower National Monument: ET Landmark, Sacred Bear Lodge, and Geological Wonder

Apparently, aliens find Devil’s Tower a prime landmark. In the 1977 movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, selected folks kept seeing the tower as a paranormal experience. One even sculpted a mashed potato image of it. Eventually those getting the message realized that they were being invited to show up at the huge rock monument and climb on a flying saucer. Paul, another movie about alien visitors, featured Paul, a colorful alien named after the dog his UFO crash-landed on. He used the location to call his mothership to pick him up after being stranded on Earth for several decades. (Photo from a display at Devil’s Tower Visitors’ Center.)

Devil’s Tower is special in a number of ways. Volcanic columns have always captured my imagination. The first I ever encountered were at Devil’s Postpile in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains when I was backpacking down the John Muir Trail in the 80s. Since then, Peggy and I have seen several, including one when we recently visited Yellowstone. Most are formed when a surface flow of lava starts to cool and contract. As it contracts, it cracks into the multi-sided columns seen at both Devil’s Postpile and Devil’s Tower.

The lava flow columns at Yellowstone National Park.

A significant difference is that Devil’s Tower was formed under the surface of the earth instead of as a volcanic flow on top. There are a couple of theories. One is that it was formed by lava forcing its way up through sedimentary rocks below the surface. The other is that it was formed as a plug in a tube that supplied lava to a volcano. In either case, the lava cooled much more slowly than it would have on the surface. The result was that the columns are both wider and longer. In fact, with widths up to 20 feet, and heights up to 600 feet, the columns are the widest and the tallest in the world. Formed approximately 50 million years ago, erosion has cut away the surrounding rock over the past several million years, exposing the edifice we see today. It’s a continuing process.

Devil’s Tower reaches 867 feet (264 meters) into the sky and is one of the most prominent landmarks in the Western US. It’s no surprise that Theodore Roosevelt declared it America’s first National Monument on September 24, 1906. Millions of visitors have since made their way to the natural wonder located in a remote section of northeastern Wyoming.

Hundreds of years before Roosevelt became one of America’s first and greatest conservationists, however, American Indian tribes in the area had already recognized how special the tower was and considered it sacred. They still do today. As Peggy and I explored the tower, we found hundreds of colorful cotton prayer flags and medicine bundles that tribal folks had tied to the limbs. Visitors are requested to honor the sacred nature of the flags and not to disturb or take photos of them.

The tribes are also lobbying for a name other than Devil’s Tower, which seems entirely reasonable given their beliefs. Their consensus is Bear’s Lodge. The huge rocks that have broken off from the tower over the eons would seem to make an excellent location for bears to hang out and hibernate. Grizzlies and black bears were common in the area before being wiped out to make the world safe for cows. Local ranchers apparently had little sense of humor that bears liked an occasional beef or lamb dinner. Rare.

A painting in the Visitors’ Center depicts a huge grizzly climbing to the top of the tower reflecting a tribal legend. The natives appear focused on the bear’s nose. I once read if a bear attacks you, sock it in the nose. It’s supposed to be sensitive. I’ve never had the opportunity to test the theory even though I woke up once with a bear standing on top of me. Screaming loudly seems to work as well. The bear’s claw marks here suggest it was creating the columns. I’ve often seen such claw marks on trees during my 70 plus years of wandering in the woods. Bears use it to mark their territories. The higher up the tree, the bigger the bear. If you see claw marks on anything 867 feet up in the air, I would suggest you vacate the premises. Quickly. (Photo from painting at the Devil’s Tower Visitors’ Center.)

A number of impressive views of Devil’s Tower are available when driving into and out of the monument. We stopped several times to take photos. These are three of our favorites.

Photo by photographers Curt and Peggy Mekemson.

The real treat was when we arrived at the Visitors’ Center, however. After a quick perusal of the displays and books, we went for a mile walk around Devil’s Tower that starts and ends at the Center. The hike was easy and all of the views were spectacular. They varied significantly. Peggy and I urge you to go for the walk if you visit the National Monument. All the photos, BTW, are taken by Peggy and me unless otherwise noted.

Photos of Devil's Tower by photographers Curt and Peggy Mekemson.
Photos of Devil's Tower by photographers Curt and Peggy Mekemson.
Photos of Devil's Tower by photographers Curt and Peggy Mekemson.
Climbers flock to Devil’s Tower for the thrill of climbing it. We saw several. Permits are required. No climbing is allowed during June when local Indian tribes gather for ceremonies. I like this photo for the perspective it gives on the size of the columns as well.
Photos of Devil's Tower by photographers Curt and Peggy Mekemson.
A flock of birds flew over the top and landed. That would be our preferred method of getting to the top, too— as opposed to climbing.
Photos of Devil's Tower by photographers Curt and Peggy Mekemson.
The ‘Window,’ created when a number of columns decided to collapse, is a prominent landmark. A sign told visitors not to worry about any columns falling on them since none have fallen in recorded history. Another way of looking at it is that you could become a part of history…
Photos of Devil's Tower by photographers Curt and Peggy Mekemson.
Beautiful fall colors added a fun touch to our visit.
Photos of Devil's Tower by photographers Curt and Peggy Mekemson.
They continued to entertain us as we left the Monument on the way to our next adventure.

Peggy and I are driving into Big Bend National Park today, which is at the very southern tip of western Texas. The last time we were here, we celebrated Christmas in 1999 as part of a year-long sabbatical we took from work to explore North America. This time we are celebrating out 30th Anniversary. Talk about an adventure! I was on the edge of turning 50 and Peggy was 42 when we were married in 1992. We’ve had an incredible life together, and, amazing to both of us, we are still out wandering the world. We will be off the grid for at least part of this trip. See you next week. And thanks for visiting.

32 thoughts on “Devil’s Tower National Monument: ET Landmark, Sacred Bear Lodge, and Geological Wonder

  1. I simply love this post. Your photos of Devil’s Tower, or Bear’s Lodge, are all spectacular. The fall foliage and the cloud-spotted sky add to the beauty of your compositions. I am so impressed. I also loved the shot of the climber, because until that shot it was hard for me to imagine the size of the columns. I’m glad you are celebrating your 30th anniversary. That is a lot of years of being happy with who you’re with. ❤

    • Thanks much, Crystal. It was a fun post to do. The Tower is spectacular and a great subject for a camera. And you are absolutely right on the climber in terms of putting the size of the columns into perspective.
      30 years is a long time. Even more so when it started when I was 49. 🙂 We both realize how very lucky we are.

    • I’m with you on the climbing, G! I am more than willing to get my thrills in other ways. A helicopter would have got us to the top just fine. 🙂
      Thanks on the Anniversary wish.
      BTW, Peggy and I ran out of time to go into Organ Pipe National Monument so we missed the opportunity to meet your brother. It would have been fun. –Curt

  2. We have some photos of Devils Tower in our collection, but I did not know or forgot that the columns are so big. Several other lava flows around the world have crystalized into hexagonal shapes, so something similar but different must have been going on.

    • What I read, Ray was that most of the volcanic columns come from volcanic flows on the surface and cool relatively fast. Because Devil’s Tower was formed several miles under the ground, it took much longer for the lava to cool and allowed the formation of much larger columns. –Curt

      • Yes, I got that’s likely the cause of their size at Devils Tower. Reading your reply makes me think it is likely the speed of cooling of surface flows is likely the reason for the hexagonal shape of those we have seen elsewhere: Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway, Aldeyjarfoss in Iceland and Tasmania’s Cape Raoul.

  3. I love Devil’s Tower and the legends surrounding it. Your photos are wonderful! Perhaps the most intriguing thing, though, is that you once woke up with a bear standing over you? That sounds absolutely terrifying!

      • With all my years of wandering in wild places, Lexi, I have lots of bear stories. The story about waking up with an unwanted visitor took place in the back country of Yosemite. I was previewing a new route for backpack treks I was leading at the time and camped on a small creek. Having hung my food well so the bears wouldn’t get it I happily went to sleep. The weather was good so I was sleeping outside my tent. I woke up around 4 with a pressure on my chest. My eyes snapped opened to discover a bear snout about five inches away from my face, sniffing. A young bear was standing on top of me apparently smelling my breath to see what I had eaten for dinner. 🙂 Needless to say, I screamed/yelled very loudly at the bear. He jumped off of me and I jumped out of my sleeping bag so fast I don’t even remember doing it. I grabbed my flashlight and found not one. but tow pair of eyes staring back at me. I let loose a barrage of rocks and the bears took off up the mountain. Unfortunately, they had managed to climb the tree and drop my food on the ground. They got everything except for a chunk of cheese. Adding insult to injury, one of them took a bite out of my rum bottle. I did have the bottle. –Curt

    • First, Dianna, thanks. Devil’s Tower is special.
      As for the 4 A.M. bear, it was very scary. But brief. Just long enough for me to scream/yell loudly. The bear jumped off of me and I vacated my sleeping bag. My flashlight showed two sets of eyes staring back at me. Never have so many rocks been thrown in such a short period of time. The bears did get my food, however, and I was left with a 23 mile resupply trip that included backpacking into and out of Yosemite Canyon that day.

      • Yikes! That’s terrifying. I don’t think I’d have slept the rest of my trip after that (or, quite possibly, ever again). Glad you made it out unscathed.

    • Thanks Alison. I say the rock formation of all rock formations except the West has so may other magnificent examples of rock monuments.I think there is an idea for a blog there, however. 🙂 Anniversary and Big Bend were great fun. –Curt

  4. Happy anniversary, Curt and Peggy! Devil’s Tower is such a weird and striking natural feature. I almost couldn’t get a photo that I felt captured the scale and bulk of this thing. You guys did a great job with that! Have fun in Big Bend and that whole part of West Texas – such a cool place.

    • Thanks, Lexi. We loved Big Bend. Peggy and I celebrated Christmas there 22 years ago and swore we would come back. It took a while. 🙂 This time we explored much more of the park. Wow. We even had a herd of javelinas stop by for a visit. What fun.
      As for Devil’s Tower, it really does have an other-worldly feel to it. No wonder ET likes it. –Curt

  5. I would love to check out that place. The history is fascinating, and it’s no wonder that it’s a national landmark. I enjoyed the legend of the bear claws making those striations. Bear’s Lodge sounds good to me. Thanks for the wonderful photos too!

    • It is really worth a visit, D, if you are anywhere near the area. Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Mt. Rushmore, the Crazy Horse memorial, and Deadwood are all within easy driving distance, no more than 2-3 hours from each other max. If you are into motorcycles, grin, Sturgis is there as well. Thanks. –Curt

  6. Happy Belated 30th Curt and Peggy! I’m delighted you ended up in a spot you love. Wow your pictures of are surreal. Devils Tower is unbelievable. So happy you’re having such a great time! 💞

    • Hard not to have a great time when you spend your days hanging out amid America’s natural wonders with a woman who is always a delight to be with. 🙂 BTW, my next blog will be on Yellowstone. I remember you made a trip there last summer.

      • awwww sooo true Curt and that is so lovely! I just love it. I do remember and I’m sooo glad you got there. Time is rapidly flying by as you are enjoying another trip around the sun my friend! ❣️

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