Devils Tower National Monument was the first national monument established in the United States. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the extraordinary tower in the northeast corner of Wyoming and created the 1,347-acre Devils Tower National Monument to ensure that the rock formation was preserved. Devils Tower rises 867 feet above the surrounding pine forest and has a one-mile circumference. The tower has an impressive exterior of firm rock formed into wide symmetric columns. This siding puzzles geologists and captivates tourists. Tower Trail circles Devils Tower, providing a paved 1.6-mile loop with 150 feet of elevation gain and views of the tower from every side.
A sign at the trailhead describes the look of Devils Tower:
No two sides are alike. Notice how the Tower’s appearance changes as you walk through the boulder field and the ponderosa pine forest. From the eroded columns on the south to the smoother north side, the Tower has many faces. On the west side, the fallen, broken columns tell the Tower’s future.
Devils Tower wears several faces on this hike, looking different depending on where you are and what time of day it is. Begin from the monument’s main parking area, find the trail across from the visitor center, and hike uphill toward the tower. A short climb gets you to the start of the loop. From here, the trail becomes gradual, rolling over the terrain surrounding Devils Tower.
The loop can be hiked in either direction, but you will probably be drawn to the right first for a counter-clockwise exploration. The south side of the loop brings you very close to the base of the tower. Later, on the north side, the trail takes a wider track around fallen boulders, passing through a forest of ponderosa pines. The loop offers numerous perspectives of the tower, and viewpoints have been established in the northwest and southeast corners of the loop at particularly good vantages.
Signs along the trail describe the geologic history of Devils Tower:
The process began about 50 million years ago. Magma (molten rock) was injected into layers of sedimentary rock, forming the Tower one and one-half miles below the earth’s surface. It has since taken millions of years to erode away surrounding sedimentary rock to expose the Tower we see today. Geologists agree the Tower is an igneous (hardened magma) intrusion, but have three different interpretations of the Tower’s original size and shape. Because of erosion, we may never know which interpretation is correct.
The three explanations that geologists have for the existence of Devils Tower are that it is either an igneous stock, a laccolith, or a volcanic plug. The igneous stock theory explains the tower’s irregular shape, speculating that the stock was formed when magma cooled and crystalized before reaching the earth’s surface. The laccolith theory bets that Devils Tower was once part of a larger mushroom-shaped igneous intrusion that broke down into the current shape. The volcanic plug camp believes Devils Tower was a cylinder-shaped igneous intrusion that fed a volcano and became plugged with magma, solidifying underground into the shape of the Devils Tower. All theories believe that rivers then spent millions of years eroding material around the tower and excavating it to its current height. The Bell Fourche River continues to wash away soft sediments, slowly exposing the hard-to-move rock making up the Devils Tower.
The Sioux who lived in this area had their own origin story. A few girls were playing nearby when suddenly giant bears began to chase them. The girls climbed up on a rock and prayed for the Great Spirit to protect them. The Great Spirit lifted the rock, creating a tower into the sky. The bears could not reach the girls, but tried, leaving deep claw marks on the side of the tower. These claw marks explain the column-like shapes on the outside of Devils Tower.
Both the folklore and geology provide interesting answers for how the unique tower was created and why it stands out so distinctly from the surrounding landscape. Because the rock is so stable, Devils Tower is a popular place to climb. You will need a permit to get any closer than Tower Trail. As you hike around Devils Tower, you won’t get tired of looking up at the long even columns, seeing things from all sides on this satisfying stroll. No permit is required to hike Tower Trail, but there is an entrance fee for Devils Tower National Monument.
To get to the trailhead: From the southwest, take Interstate 90 to the town of Moorcroft between Gillette and Sundance. Get off at exit 153 for Route 14. Drive east on Route 14 for one mile and make a left to Yellowstone Avenue to stay on Route 14. Drive north for 25.6 miles and turn left on Route 24. Proceed six miles to Route 110, turn left, and drive 3.4 miles past the monument entrance to the visitor center parking area.
From the southeast, get off I-90 at exit 185 just west of Sundance. Turn right at the end of the offramp and head northwest up the other side of Route 14. After 19 miles, you will reach the intersection with Route 24. Turn right there and proceed to Devils Tower.
Trailhead address: Devils Tower National Monument Road (County Road 174), Devils Tower National Monument, Devils Tower, WY82714
Trailhead coordinates: 44.590295, -104.71983 (44° 35′ 25.06″N 104° 43′ 11.38″W)
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