Wandering the West
May 6, 2009
If you enter Wyoming at Evanston in its southwestern corner, it’s a long way to Devil’s Tower National Monument. It couldn’t be any farther away and still be in the same state. It’s stuck up there in the northeastern corner, by South Dakota. It’s not a weekend excursion, but clustered with everything that’s in the Black Hills of South Dakota, its part of great road trip.
You’ve seen Devil’s Tower frequently, even if you’ve never been there. A few years back Wyoming substituted the tower for the cowboy logo on its license plates. And if you’ve seen one of the best movies ever made (at least if you ask me), "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," it is the central icon of the movie.
The tower rises from the plains. Part of its attraction is that it’s just so unexpected. You’ve driven across the Great Plains for hundreds of eastern Wyoming miles and suddenly you round a bend and it just soars out of the ground. Geologists disagree on how it formed, but agree that it is volcanic in origin. Perhaps it was a hard-rock core buried beneath the surface and everything else eroded away around it. Or maybe it rose from the ground as a giant volcano. In any event, it rises 1,267 feet straight up. Its sides are composed of geometrically shaped rock columns with either 4, 5 or 7 sides, all stuck to the ones next to them. Weird.
The Plains Indians migrated through here constantly. Six different tribes consider it sacred, so none of them called it anything related to a devil. That name is a white-man invention. The tribes all have their stories, but the stories usually center on a member or members of their tribe being on top while a giant bear tries to claw his way up. All the columns that form the surface of the tower are thus the claw marks of the really, really big bear.
The funniest story about Devil’s Tower came in October 1941, just two months before Pearl Harbor. A famous stunt parachutist named George Hopkins jumped from a plane and landed on top without permission or prior announcement. The plan was to rappel down the side with a 1,000-foot rope dropped onto the top by the same plane that dropped him. You can see where this is going the rope drop missed and there was George, all alone, 1,267 feet above the plains. (Even if he’d recovered the rope, it seems to me like it was about 267 feet too short.)
Anyway, it became a big national and international story. How was poor George going to get off the top? Planes dropped food and blankets as the winds of October blew across Wyoming. An early climber of the tower, Jack Durrance from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, offered to get him down. But weather ruled out flying west. Durrance boarded a train back east while Hopkins continued his Wyoming bivouac.
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Finally, six days later, Durrance’s rescue party got to the top and brought the skydiver down. History doesn’t record what the park ranger may have had to say to him.
About one percent of the monument’s 400,000 average annual visitors climb the tower. There are various routes with varying degrees of difficulty. In places it can be free climbed. While most parties take 4 to 6 hours to reach the summit, it has been done in as little as 18 minutes.
You don’t have to climb it to appreciate it. There’s a visitor’s center and a couple of hiking trails. One goes cross-country through forest and plains, and another circles the base of the tower. I’ve done the tower base hike a couple of times. The base is littered with the remnants of columns that have broken off the sides and tumbled down, shattering into straight-sided boulders. I guess some day there won’t be a tower at all, just a monstrous pile of odd shaped rocks.
Another diversion in the small (1,347 acre) monument is the prairie dog town. Rare black-tailed prairie dogs pop from hundreds of holes dotting the ground. It’s quite entertaining, like whack-a-mole without the hammer.
Teddy Roosevelt, who spent part of his young adulthood playing cowboy on his ranch not far away in southwestern North Dakota, used his power as president to declare Devil’s Tower the nation’s first national monument. I guess he was impressed with it too.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
THE VITALS: Park City to Devils Tower 634 miles