Devils Tower National Monument in northeastern Wyoming was the United States’ first National Monument. The relatively small area has one main striking landmark – the impossible to miss tower itself, which you may even recognize from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s the perfect stop to add to your South Dakota or Wyoming road trip. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know for your visit to this small, but spectacular national monument.
Note for 2020: Devils Tower National Monument is open for recreational use, but its visitor center and the Belle Fourche Campground are both closed indefinitely. Please check the park website for current information as the phased reopening progresses.
Where is Devils Tower?
The Devils Tower location really is fantastic for those that are road tripping out west. It’s located just about 20 miles north of I-90, which runs through the northern part of Wyoming and South Dakota. Adding it on to your trip as a detour only adds about 27 extra miles of driving, which is a tiny amount when compared to the scope of Wyoming or the American west – our most recent trip involved 3,928 miles of driving so the 27 extra didn’t even make a dent.
There isn’t much around Devils Tower, but you’ll find a couple shops and restaurants just outside the entrance, as well as very limited lodging.
How was Devils Tower formed?
Devils tower geology is pretty fascinating. It’s made of volcanic rock, but it is believed to not be a remnant of a volcano. Instead, geologists think that Devils Tower was formed by a column of lava that pushed up between sedimentary rock chunks and eventually hardened. As the softer sedimentary rock eroded over thousands of years, the column was exposed and took on the striking appearance we all know today. Devils Tower stands 867 feet above the surrounding land, though its top is actually almost a mile above sea level.
Visiting Devils Tower
Whether you want to climb to new heights or stay firmly planted on the ground, you’ll love a visit to this National Monument!
Devils Tower Climbing
One of the most popular things to do at Devils Tower is rock climbing. Beginners and experienced climbers can both attempt to make it to the summit – on my last visit we talked to a couple watching their adult son make the climb to the top after taking his first lesson the day before. Once you reach the summit, you can relax on the approximately football field-sized expanse and enjoy the view from the top before making your way back down to the ground.
Climbing Devils Tower does not require any additional fees, but you must register with the park and describe your expected route. Half of your registration slip should be left at the climbing kiosk at the beginning of the trail head, and the second half must be returned when you finish your climb. Find out all the info you need to plan your climb here.
Though it does not enforce it (it’s unclear to me why this is voluntary and not just a park rule), the park strongly discourages you from climbing Devils Tower or scrambling in the boulder field at its base during the month of June out of respect for the many Native American ceremonies and gatherings that occur during this month.
Devils Tower hikes
Don’t worry – you don’t ever have to leave the ground to visit Devils Tower National Monument if you don’t want to climb. The most common thing to do is walk the Tower Trail, a 1.3-mile long paved loop that circles the bottom of Devils Tower. Though it’s paved, there were some rougher sections that would make it challenging for wheelchairs, though not impossible. Along the way, you can get up close views of the tower, the large boulder field full of rocks that have broken off of the tower over the years, and panoramic views of the valley below. There is also an area with viewing “tubes” pointed at a particular area where an old wooden ladder once used to make the first recorded ascents is still visible. You can also spot it with the naked eye, but having the guide for where to look definitely helps. The park recommends arriving early on weekends or visiting during the week as this trail can get very crowded.
The national monument has other hiking trails that draw smaller crowds as well if you’d rather get away from the masses. The Valley View Trail is easy like the Tower Trail, though much shorter. It crosses through Prairie Dog Town toward the Belle Fourche River in a fairly level area.
For a slightly more challenging hike, try the Joyner Ridge Trail (1.5 miles) or the Red Beds Trail. Both are rated moderate but do have some steeper areas as they gain elevation along a ridge. These trails will give you great, panoramic views of Devils Tower as it looms above the surrounding area.
Prairie Dog Town!
Prairie dogs don’t have quite the cache as buffalo and other western animals do, but oh my goodness are they ever cute! As you drive the main park road from the most common entrance on the east side, you can’t help but notice the large field full of holes and prairie dogs. These little critters are absolutely adorable and unlike other kinds of wildlife that roam a little more irregularly, they’re pretty much always in the area. You’ll definitely want to pull over at one of the designated areas and watch them for a while.
Devils Tower at night
While at first glance it may seem like there isn’t much to do at Devils Tower at night, because of its dark skies it’s actually an excellent stargazing area. During parts of the year, rangers even offer nighttime interpretive programs. Some of these allow you to learn about Lakota constellations – you’re probably familiar with constellations from Greek and Roman mythology, but the Lakota had their own celestial tradition. There’s even a constellation that is said to resemble Devils Tower itself. Even without an organized stargazing option, because the park is open 24 hours a day, you can always visit on your own to enjoy the night sky.
Native American history at Devils Tower
Many different tribes that lived in the area had their own legends regarding the origin of the tower and some consider it to be a sacred area. When I visited the park as a kid, we learned the Kiowa legend about young girls being chased by bears. When the girls jumped on a rock and prayed to it to save them, it began to rise from the ground. The cracks on the sides were left by the bears as they clawed at them. The girls were eventually pushed all the way into the sky and live on as a constellation that we generally refer to as the Pleiades. The National Park website lists legends told by members of several tribes.
As you’re visiting you will likely also see pieces of cloth tied to tree branches around Devils Tower. These are prayer cloths or prayer bundles left by Native American visitors and the park requests that visitors not touch or photograph them.
Devils Tower Visitor Center
The park has a small Devils Tower Visitor Center at the main parking area near the beginning of the Tower Trail. Here you’ll find park rangers who can offer information about the national monument, some interpretive exhibits about its history, and a small bookstore.
Belle Fourche River Campground
There is one campground located in the southeastern corner of the national monument. The Belle Fourche River Campground has 46 sites and can accommodate RVs up to 35 feet in length. Restrooms and water spigots are available, but hookups are not offered. Note that the campground is first come first served and does not accept reservations. If you’d like to camp with a guaranteed spot (I could never show up anywhere without a reservation), try the Devils Tower KOA located just outside the park’s main entrance.
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