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.