Devil’s Tower-Something Strange in Wyoming

I  knew  my  kids  would  love  the  scene  in Close  Encounters  of  the  Third  Kind  when Richard  Dreyfuss  starts  sculpting  Devil’s Tower out of mashed potatoes. Spielberg sure  picked  the  right  natural  landing  pad for  his  alien  spaceship  to  make  contact with earthlings—there is something other-worldly  about  this  stark  monolith  rising out  of  the  Wyoming  pines  and  prairies. The Northern Plains Indians called it Bears Lodge,  and  it  has  sacred  meanings  for them  too.  Even  seeing  a  picture  of  it  is unforgettable, but visiting Devil’s Tower in  person—well,  that’s  more  special  than you’d imagine.

Time for a geology lesson. Devil’s Tower is  what’s  known  as  an  igneous  intrusion, meaning  that  it’s  a  column  of  rock  hardened by molten lava that seeped long ago into a vein of sedimentary rock. A shallow sea  once  covered  this  part  of  the  Great Plains,  and  most  of  the  rock  is  soft  sedimentary  stuff  like  red  sandstone  and  siltstone,  with  a  little  shale  mixed  in.  The flat-topped   cone   that   became   Devil’s Tower used to be under that sea, but once the waters had receded, centuries of erosion  gradually  wore  away  the  softer  rock around   the   igneous   cone,   leaving   it exposed.  Today  the  cone  thrusts  1,267 feet above the surrounding pine trees and prairie  grasslands.  That  flat  top  no  doubt gave Spielberg the idea of an extraterrestrials’ spaceport; a parachutist did land on top  in  1941,  drawing  great  publicity—especially  because  he  then  had  to  figure out  how  to  get  down!  Vertical  cracks groove  the  sides  of  the  tower  in  almost parallel  columns,  giving  it  its  distinctive furrowed look. It’s well-nigh irresistible for climbers,  although  you  must  register  at the  visitor  center  before  attempting  to ascend and follow strict regulations about bolts and drills. In deference to the Native American reverence for this sacred place, the  park’s  staff  urges  climbers  to  voluntarily  forego  climbing  in  June,  a  month with  many  religious  ceremonies  for  the local tribes.

For most of us, the best way to experience Devil’s Tower is to take the 1.3-mile paved Tower Trail that circles around the base.  It’s  very  kid-friendly,  being  mostly flat (after a steep climb at the start), with benches  and  interpretive  stations  along the  way.  Take  your  time  walking  so  that you  can  examine  this  rugged  pinnacle from  every  angle  and  in  different  lights. Bring  sketchbooks  and  try  to  draw  its stern  majesty.  And  don’t  be  surprised  if the  kids  start  mounding  their  mashed potatoes   at   dinner   that   night,   tracing ridges on the sides with their forks . . .

While  you’re  here,  kids  shouldn’t  miss the  prairie  dog  towns  on  the  park’s  east road,   where   black-tailed   prairie   dogs scamper  about,  popping  in  and  out  of their subterranean condos. You came out here  to  see  the  West—well,  this  is  about as Western as it gets.