Thousands of years ago, two Native American girls were playing in the woods near what is now the Belle Fourche River, when an enormous bear chased them away. The girls jumped on a rock for safety, but it was too small. Feeling sympathy for the girls, the Great Spirit made the rock grow into the sky. The bear jumps on the rock, trying to reach the girls, and every time he jumps, his claws carve deep grooves into the rock as he slides back to the ground.
That’s one of the more well-known Native American explanations for the giant volcanic plug in Eastern Wyoming that is now called Devil’s Tower.
Scientists will tell you that Devil’s Tower is either the magma plug of an extinct and weathered-away volcano or a laccolith – an intrusion of magma into the earth’s crust that never reaches the surface of the earth until long after it has cooled, and the rock around it has weathered away.
Tourists will tell you that it’s a great natural landmark destination to break up any road trip taking you between Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone (or the other way around).
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the site and its surrounding 1,347 acres as a National Monument, and about 400,000 visitors travel to the site each year for photographs and potty breaks.
Only about 4,000 visitors each year are hardcore enough to try and climb the vertical column. Climbing in June, however, is discouraged. Several tribes consider the tower sacred and view climbing the monument desecration of a religious site. The government has requested – but not required – that climbers refrain from climbing during the month of June so that the tribes can conduct their annual ceremonies without what they see as disrespectful activity. Most climbers respect the request and wait until July. A few climbers are jerks. If you’re there in June and see someone coming down from or preparing for a climb, feel free to make them feel guilty.
If you’re not into climbing vertical columns of rock, the only thing to do at the site is to take pictures or sit in quiet wonder at the mighty sculptor that is mother nature.
If you’re an animal lover, like me, though, the land around the tower and the drive up to it are loaded with fascinating entertainment in the form of hundreds and hundreds of adorable and energetic prairie dogs.
During our trip to Devil’s Tower, we spent more time with our eyes on the prairie dog towns than we did on the tower itself. The grand, stately structure is stoic and static, but the grounds are teaming with tiny adorable rodent life.
The signs warn that you shouldn’t feed them or touch them, because they need to stay wild and because they carry disease, but don’t tell that to these little beasts. The nervous little community walks a fine line between begging for food and being terrified of the humans driving along the road and stopping for photographs and chit-chat with animals that can’t understand them.
Okay, maybe not all the tourists stop for chit-chat, but I certainly tried talking to them, and they certainly seemed to understand what I was trying to get at.
Or maybe they were hoping for a snack.
Spend a little time watching these mammals, and you get a sense for the true animal community they have. Some play while others serve as guards, alerting their friends to danger. Others explore and look for food.
And they are just too darned cute for their own good. It took a great deal of willpower to not take a dozen of them home.
In any case, the point is that if you visit Devils’ Tower, don’t just look up. Sure it’s amazing, but the real entertainment is on the ground, so look down, too.