A Close Encounter With A Big Rock

Towering 867 feet from its base and 1267 feet above the Belle Fourche River, Devil’s Tower is an awesome sight to behold. The park is a nice diversion to break up the long drive between Yellowstone and the Black Hills. The visitors center, hiking trails and prairie dog town enhance the experience.

Geology and History:

Resembling a fat tree stump and as tall as a skyscraper, this monolith was formed underground about 60 million years ago when molten magma pushed into the sedimentary rock above it. As the magma cooled, it contracted and fractured into grooved columns. It was not until one or two million years ago that the softer sedimentary rock surrounding the obelisk eroded away by the action of the Belle Fourche River and its watershed, exposing the tower of hard volcanic rock. According to Native American folklore, the tower’s characteristic vertical grooves were formed by the claw marks of a giant bear.

In 1906, Congress passed the Antiquities Act, authorizing the president to designate federally owned land containing historic or prehistoric landmarks or structures as a national monument. Shortly thereafter, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Devil’s Tower the first national monument. The National Park Service was created ten years later and eventually assumed the administration of all national monuments. During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed several improvements to the park. They improved the roads, added picnic facilities and a camping area, and constructed a small log museum which today serves as the visitors center.

Visitors Center:

The visitors center is located in a wooded area near the tower’s base three miles from the park’s single entrance. Since the main trails begin and end here, and it’s the only visitors center in the park... stopping here is a must. During peak months, it may take some time to find a place to park in the small parking lot. The small visitors center has some informative exhibits about the tower’s history and geology. I was fascinated by a large painting depicting the Indian legend about the giant bear and the "claw marks" on the tower’s side (see photos). The visitor center is closed from November 26 - April 6.

Hiking Trails:

This small park (1350 acres) has three main trails. By far, the most popular trail is the 1.3 mile Tower Trail. This mildly strenuous 1.3 mile trail circles the tower’s base. It made this overweight 40-year-old fella huff and puff just a little bit, but if you and your family have reasonably good health, you’ll have no problem. You’ll be walking very close to the base of the tower, so you’ll be constantly craning your neck to see the tower from each new perspective. Keep your eyes open for climbers on the tower’s sides. Red Beds Trail also circles the tower, but at a greater distance... about three miles. Tower Trail and Red Beds Trail both originate at the visitors center. The Joyner Ridge Trail is located on the park’s north side. It begins and ends at the same parking area. The South Side Trail and the Valley View Trail begin in the campground. They are both short trails leading to the longer Red Beds Trail.


The park has one tiny primitive campground. The 30 sites can accommodate tents up to 35-foot RV’s. There are no water or electric hookups, no showers and no dump station. The daily fee is $12.00.

Rock Climbing:

Of course, Devil’s Tower is popular with advanced rock climbers. It is certainly not for rookies. About 5000 climbers come to the tower annually, although there is no climbing during the month of June out of respect for Native American beliefs. Climbers must register at the visitors center.

Prairie Dog Town:

There’s a huge prairie dog town about a half mile past the park entrance... just across the river. Hundreds of the critters scurry all over the place. Some stand guard at the entrance to their burrows. We saw some of the young ones at play. They seem to have limitless energy. Although the prairie dogs won’t approach you, they seem relatively unfazed by humans. There are three parking areas where you can pull over to watch the animals. We’ve seen prairie dog towns in some other places, but its always fun (particularly for the kids) to watch them.


It’s not hard to find good places to photograph the tower. My favorite spot is right in front of the sign at the park’s entrance. You can snap a shot of the sign with the tower in the background. I like this angle because the tower appears very symmetrical and it highlights the tower’s relationship to the surrounding terrain. You can also get some good shots at or near the visitor’s center, but it’s hard to get a shot there with nobody but your own family in it.

Getting There:

US Route 14 intersects Interstate 90 in two places about 30 miles apart... Exit 154 in Moorcroft and Exit 185 just west of Sundance. The US 14 loop between the two exits roughly forms a 50-mile semicircle north of I-90. State Route 24 intersects US 14 at the midpoint of the semicircle. The park entrance is located on State Route 24, about six miles north of US 14. The road signs will easily guide you to the park. A quick look at your Wyoming road map may lead you to believe that Devil’s Tower is "just off the highway". Heck, you’re just driving an extra 25 or 30 miles, right? While the park is not too far from I-90, the extra driving time is more than you may think. After zipping along at 75, 80, 85 mph (maybe more) on I-90, you’ll need to slow down considerably on the two-lane road. You may get stuck behind a slow moving vehicle (like a big, smoke-belching log truck with a red cab, for example). The rolling terrain can make passing difficult and you’ll need to slow down for curves and blind hills. At the Moorcroft exit, you’ll need to take a few minutes to drive through the town to get between the two highways. Also, it will take a little extra time to drive the 20 mph road from the park entrance to the visitors center. If you’re traveling across I-90, plan on AT LEAST an extra hour and a half of driving time, not including time at the park.

Is the extra four hours off of I-90 worth it? Well, the tower IS pretty cool... and you can say you visited the place where the 1977 movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was filmed.

Park Fees:

Private vehicles - $10.00 for a 7-day pass

Bicycles, motorcycles and pedestrians - $5.00 for a 7-day pass

Devil’s Tower National Monument Website:


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Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming