Travel Log: The Devils Tower in the Details

Devils Tower

(Gillette, Wyoming; Aug. 12, 2018) – I have stood underneath a great stone titan and been struck dumb in awe and wonder only once before. In 2004 I stood at the base of Uluru (Ayres Rock) in Australia and found myself transported to speechlessness by the sheer magnitude of size, beauty, and ancient spirits embodied in that place. The sadly misnamed Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming did the same thing to me yesterday.

The name “Devils Tower” comes from a surveyor who said (but offered no evidence) that a Native American told him the monolith was the house of the “bad god.” Truth be told, all the first nations that lived here had different names for it, but all involved association with a bear. “Bear Lodge” would be a must more apt name, but, at this late date, “Devils Tower” seems to have stuck.

Rising nearly 900 feet above the surrounding landscape, Devils Tower is the towering remnant of some type of long-lost volcanic system. The distinctive-looking “columns” that that make up the structure are the results of the igneous rock cooling and crystallizing and fracturing. In the creation tales of the first nations peoples, the details vary, but all stories agree the tower was created by the gods raising up a section of prairie to save a person or persons from being killed by a giant bear (the tower’s columned appearance being the result of the bear’s claws as it tried to climb it).

Devils Tower
Devils Tower easily dominates the landscape as you approach it, even when you are miles away.  (Aug. 11, 2018)

The tower was made famous in modern popular culture as the site of the alien landing in the 1979 epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My own first memory of seeing an image of Devils Tower was the mashed potato sculpture Richard Dreyfuss’ character created during the movie. I was surprised to see a photo of the real tower years later in a grade school text book and discover it was a real place.

As with many national parks, the tower is fairly swamped during the summer months. There is very limited parking, so you’d need to get there early or late to ensure you find a spot. I got there by 8:00 yesterday morning (Aug. 11), and by 10:00 after I finished the first hiking trail I tackled, the lot was packed out full.

The two main trails are the Tower Trail and the Red Bed Trail. The Tower Trail is a 1.3 mile trail that runs around the base of the trail on a paved trail. It gives visitors access to climb on the boulder field around the tower (the boulders are eroded parts of the tower that have collapsed). Visitors with climbing permits are allowed to go above the boulder field to climb the tower, but you can scramble on the boulders without a permit.

This trail is pretty easy; it’s paved and there are numerous interpretive markers that describe the area’s geology and ecology. It’s also the most popular and, therefore, the most crowded. You will get stunning views of the tower and you might even encounter a very brave deer and her fawns. This animal and her children were so confident they didn’t blink as they grazed and we humans were but a few yards away on the trail.

The second major trail that circles the tower is the Red Bed Trail. Advertised by the National Park Service as “moderate,” I’d classify it as “advanced.” It’s an unpaved, three-mile look that is narrow, often unshielded from the sun, and, most importantly, contains a 500-foot elevation change. Yep, you read that right, you will change elevation by 500 as you descend into the river valley and then back up. Be prepared. The trail is well worth the effort, especially as you get to the ancient Spearfish formation rocks that are the oldest rocks exposed in the park. These red stones, streaked white with gypsum, create a landscape that is the stereotypical archetype of the “Wild West” of the American past.

Devils Tower
Seen from the Tower Trail, Devils Tower looms overhead.  (Aug. 11, 2018)

The park is open 24 hours a day, and its isolated location makes it an excellent place to return after dark for some serious stargazing. If you want the “classic” view of the tower at night, go to the Joyner Ridge parking area and trailhead. The sun will set behind you, bathing the tower in a brilliant orange-red light.

Last night was one of the peak nights of this year’s Perseid meteor shower. I’m an old photojournalist, but I’ve never trained in astronomical photography. I was going to watch the shower and roll the dice photographically. Turns out I didn’t have to.

I met a Scott Balkum out there ( Scott is a professional photographer/videographer who also maintains a YouTube channel where you can find some wonderfully insightful training and guidance in the art of photography and video. Check it out:

Scott very kindly took some time to review my Nikon D5600 with me and show me how to use this mid-level camera in a way that resulted in some impressive imagery of the Milky Way galaxy looming over Devils Tower with a few meteor streaks here and there. You never know who you’re going to meet or what treasures of knowledge and experience are waiting for you if you don’t get out of the house!

Scott, I, and several other photographers spent a lovely few hours watching the light fade and stars begin to peek out. By 9:00 p.m. you could just start to see the cloudy majesty of the Milky Way. By 11:00 the galaxy was so bright you’d have thought you could read a book by its light.

Devils Tower and the Perseid meteor shower
Devils Tower sits quietly as Mars (the star to its left) shines in the night and the Perseid meteor shower streaks across the night sky.  (Aug. 11, 2018)

I finally had to call it at midnight. I’d been out all day (pretty much literally seeing as how I got there at 8:00 that morning). After spending the morning hiking the tower, I headed out to the Vore Buffalo Jump site—a sinkhole used for over 300 years by Plains Indians as a trap for hunting Bison. Then it was back to the tower for the “light show” of the meteor shower.

The sun out here in Wyoming is intense. It is a harsh, unforgiving environment. You need to make sure you keep sunscreen and bug repellant on hand and on your skin. Rattlesnakes are common, so keep your wits about you and don’t go sticking your hands into crevices or under rocks without checking to make sure someone’s not already there. Cactus grow here, so make sure you have on closed-toe shoes and watch where you step.

Still, despite the heat, critters, and cactus, Devils Tower is a truly awesome, ancient place. Even without UFOs, it will take your breath away!

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

Instagram: @sparks1524


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