Devils Tower

July 25-27, 2017
Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming

The geological phenomenon was striking in a new way from each different perspective.

We spent a few days camped at Devils Tower, our nation’s 1st National Monument. We were “welcomed” to the campground by a camp host who seemed to revel in the authority that the position afforded. As we pulled our camper into the space he approached in his “World’s Greatest Dad” t-shirt like he wanted to tell us something. “Oh, nothing,” he said, as he continued to stand there and watch us drop our trailer. He made a few comments that seemed like thinly veiled attempts to criticize people’s parking, or maybe our parking, but he didn’t ask us to move. After some awkward attempts to joke with our kids, he turned to walk away and his attention was promptly turned toward a truck that was making its way around the campground loop more quickly than he approved of. “Slow down!” he bellowed in an angry yell that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. His voice was the sound of conflict. The truck applied the brakes, but you could tell by the World’s Greatest Dad’s quick, angry march across the campground loop in an attempt to cut the guy off that he wasn’t satisfied. “I said SLOW DOWN,” he yelled again, with a sound that could only be described as a bark.

“I did slow down!” the driver yelled back through the open window.

“Get back here!” the host yelled, now chasing the truck in a stomping jog. “STOP! Come HERE!”

The truck did not stop. I wouldn’t have either. “I SLOWED DOWN!” the driver called out again as he made his escape, keeping up just enough speed that the World’s Greatest Dad couldn’t catch up to him.

Brad and I exchanged glances that read, “Let’s keep a low profile here,” and continued to set up camp.

The good news is we did not encounter the camp host again…and there’s no bad news. It was a great campground with views of the impressive granite tower right outside our dining window. And since we were on the last row of sites, the view from under our canopy was a private vista over a sage brush field where a doe and her fawn grazed throughout the day with a bright, red canyon side behind them.

Home sweet home at Devil’s Tower Campground.

Next to our campground was an enormous prairie dog colony where dozens of the cute little rodents scurried around nibbling on grasses, peeking across the field on their hind legs, and wiping their faces together in what looked a whole lot like little kisses between family members.

Coral photographing our prairie dog friends.
Different tribes had different accounts of the tower’s creation in Native American lore, but most involved a bear chasing 7 sisters to a stone that lifted them up into the sky for protection. The lined columns are what remains of the bears claw marks. Bears lost their long tails as punishment for this episode, and in some tails the 7 sisters trapped on top became the Pleiades Constellation.
When white explorers named this place “Devil’s Tower”, it was possibly a translation error. Even though the name of the landmark had something to do with ‘bear’ in about 12 languages, the word for ‘bad god’ might have sounded similar enough to cause this mistake. We heard him tell someone, “It would be like remapping Rome and calling the Vatican the Gates of Hell.” We asked if there was any discussion of renaming this place, like Mt. McKinley becoming Denali, or Harney Peak reverting to Black Elk Peak. He said it will likely never be changed due to the historical significance of this being the first ever National Monument, protected by Theodore Roosevelt.

I continue to be floored by the beauty of so many places in our huge country, and Devils Tower was no exception. But it’s also a new thing for us to be visiting these sites during peak season, and I’ve been struggling with the feeling of disgust that I get from being corralled around in large groups of tourists. I’ve seen people throw banana peels down on trails, kids picking handfuls of protected wildflowers, and people hiking through wilderness areas with music blasting. (I would judge no one for this tactic in bear country, but that’s not where we were.).

At the Devils Tower Visitors Center we heard the following exchange between a park volunteer and a random tourist.

Tourist: “Do you guys have helicopter rides to the top of the tower?”

Park volunteer: “No, sir.”

“Well, I see all these people rock climbing up the tower to the top, but what about all of the handicap people who come here that aren’t able to rock climb?”

“Sir, only about 5,000 people climb to the top of the tower each year. That’s only about 1 percent of our annual visitors. The rest of us just hike around the paved trail at the base.”

“Well, why doesn’t the park offer helicopter rides for everyone else?”

“The air space around the tower is protected so that the tower isn’t damaged. And the ecosystem on top is very fragile so helicopters wouldn’t be allowed to land there.”

“What about all of those climbers going up there and walking around?” the tourist was starting to get huffy.

“We ask them to only stand and walk on the tops of the rock columns and not cross over the grassy ecosystem.”

“Well, is someone up there enforcing those rules?”

“No,” the park volunteer replied, his composure somehow remaining calm in the face of this ridiculous conversation.  “But we find that most of these climbers are happy to follow such rules that protect the natural environment.”

The tourist stormed off, flabbergasted at the idea that he couldn’t take a helicopter to the top. This extreme example of entitlement and an attitude of guiltless exploitation of natural resources left me trying to pick my jaw up off the floor. As Brad and I discussed this interaction on the way home, the girls said, “Dad, you’re not supposed to call people idiots.” I considered adding a caveat to that rule for people who demand to take helicopters to the top of Devils Tower.

Brad & I each took one girl on a hike to explore different trails and get some much-needed one-on-one time.
Volcanic action underground likely created this bizarre landmark. Then over many years, the nearby river eroded away all of the softer rock and dirt, exposing this tower to the sky.

Sometimes the rules at these places can feel a bit extreme. “C’mon mom, can’t i just keep this one ___________” (Insert rock, flower, leaf, acorn, etc. here). But seeing the hordes of people trampling through these amazing places with so much disrespect gives me new resolve for our family to continue to be the best stewards of these places that we can be. Our family’s mantra has been “Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but pictures. Kill nothing but time.” This was met with new enthusiasm when I noticed one morning that a medium-sized spider had constructed a web inside our camper, above the couch.

“Oh, please don’t kill it!” the girls begged. “She will catch all the flies that get inside!”

“Oh, we can watch her wrap them up!”

I couldn’t believe how far we had come since the shrieks induced by previous tiny indoor bugs. I would like to say that this was in thanks to all of our recent outdoor exploration, but it’s really more likely that it’s because of their recent infatuation with the movie Charlotte’s Web. Either way, I’m grateful for so many chances to interact with the natural world and gain a new respect for the way we interfere.

5 Comment

  1. Clay says: Reply

    And you’ve probably never seen Close Encounters, have you?

  2. TED KOLTER says: Reply

    Close Encounters was not shot at devs tower.

  3. Garrett says: Reply

    Lol I literally was looking to see if I could get a ride on a helicopter to the top of devils tower. I can see you definitely don’t approve!! My motives are different than those of your fellow camper. I want to enjoy the majesty of the view of creation from that point of view! I think it would be a spiritual and eye opening experience!! Wanting this and knowing that I’ll probably never be able to climb it I was just seeing if this was an option. I do agree with you on not picking protected flowers or throwing trash into the environment!! I just want to enjoy the magestic landscape of our nation!! Without destroying it so I understand why they don’t allow helicopter rides. I guess I just have some of the American way in me. I want it now and I want it easy🤷. I enjoyed your article though, thank you!!

  4. Steve says: Reply

    Hey, if Richard Dreyfus can climb it without ropes then it can’t be that hard!

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