Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Devils Tower in Wyoming

Driving in the middle of nowhere for over an hour, we were starting to give up hope on our planned Close Encounters of the Steven Spielberg kind. Then it emerged in the distance - -  Devils Tower - - a stately tower bestride a hill. Its mesmerizing aura pulls like a powerful magnet. It’s had that effect for millennia, with the Northern Plains Indians and other indigenous people considering the Tower a sacred site. Even Congress recognized its singularity, designating the area a U.S. forest reserve in 1892 and later, in 1906, Devils Tower became the nation's first National Monument.

Our first look at Devils Tower in Wyoming. 

We couldn’t wait to get a closer look at the protruding spire. We passed onto the National Park site and took a winding road up to a parking lot. The area offers a few hiking paths, but Judy and I chose the popular Tower Trail, a paved, 1.3-mile loop around the base of the formation. The route is a smooth, flat trail, but your neck begins to get sore because you can’t resist staring up at the fascinating structure.

Looking up at Devils Tower.

Kids climb on the rocks near the base, many take selfies, and informational signs appear as you walk the circuit. Documented claims place the naming of Devil's Tower to 1875 when an interpreter for expedition leader Colonel Richard Irving Dodge misinterpreted a native name to mean "Bad God's Tower." The apostrophe never made it through the translation. All information signs use the name "Devils Tower," following a geographic naming standard eliminating apostrophes, perhaps easing the burdens on cartographers.  Native American names for the monolith include: "Bear's House" or "Bear's Lodge" "Bear's Lair. "

Kids climbing on the rock pile at the base of Devils Tower.

The bear reference harkens back to native legends, which tell that  “a group of girls went out to play and were spotted by several giant bears, who began to chase them. To escape the bears, the girls climbed atop a rock, fell to their knees, and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. Hearing their prayers, the Great Spirit made the rock rise from the ground towards the heavens so that the bears could not reach the girls. The bears, in an effort to climb the rock, left deep claw marks on the sides, which had become too steep to climb. (Those are the marks which appear today on the sides of Devils Tower.) When the girls reached the sky, they were turned into the stars.”

The Legend of the Bear

Enchanting, but that story hasn’t persuaded the geologists. They offer a few differing theories but agree that a volcanic intrusion created the structure, but don’t agree on exactly how that process took place. One theory states that the tower is all that remains of an ancient explosive volcano. A common explanation holds that the tower was entirely underground when formed, becoming visible only as the surrounding mantle eroded over countless ages.

Ridges cover the surface of Devils Tower.

Other theories suggest that Devils Tower is a volcanic plug or that it is the neck of an extinct volcano. Presumably, if that were the case, the volcanic ash, lava flows, and volcanic debris would have eroded long ago.

Broken columns

Hexangonal columns

The tower today offers a well-defined rib-like structure. Look close, and you'll see the ribs as hexagonal segments uniformly shaped, like a pencil. Condensation as the tower cooled and hardened are thought to have created pressure points that produced the fracturing that generated the hexagons. It appears that entire columns of rock broke off and fell, given the piles of broken columns, boulders and smaller rocks piled at the base. These indicate that the monolith was once wider than it is today.

Climbers are dwarfed by the staggering Tower.

Halfway around we noticed a few climbers attempting to reach the peak. They looked like they were studying where next to place their feet and hands. No adventurous thoughts from us, climbing was not an activity on our "to do" list! However, the National Park permits those that register. We delighted in the view of the valley from this vantage point.

View of the Valley below Devils Tower. 

The climactic scenes of the 1977 classic “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” dramatized the natural wonder and made it a commanding visual image. Even for those who have never been can recognize a photo. Today the park sees about 500,000 visitors per year.

Wildlife also frequent the area; we spotted a deer and many squirrels in the forested hills. Prairie dogs are plentiful along the base road. When we finished our loop, we naturally hit the gift shop. We found an endearing poster of the bear climbing the tower, and laughed at the little alien figure in a corner.

Deer as seen in the surrounding forest at Devils Tower.

Oh those cute prairie dogs!

Unless you feel like hiking more of the trails, you’ll only need about two hours maximum in the destination. No matter how it came to be, Devils Tower is an astounding geologic feature the likes of which I’d never seen before. The movie was a great escape, but visiting in person was otherworldly.
We had to stop for one more photo on our way out. 

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