Driving on Highway 90 in Wyoming, just west of the South Dakota border, you can’t help but see it.  To the north, jutting straight up out of the plains of Eastern Wyoming stands a rock tower,  known as Devils Tower, over 800 feet above the floor of the valley.  Even at 80 miles per hour, it stays in your vision for several minutes, drawing you in for a closer look.

Devils Tower from a distance
The tower juts over 800′ above the valley floor

For centuries, Native Americans have lived around the tower and been drawn to its presence.  Early explorers, trappers, settlers, all commented on it as they passed by.  Eventually, it was declared our first National Monument by President Teddy Roosevelt.

So what is it and why is it there? Inquiring minds want to know!

The local American Indians had several stories about how the tower was formed, most having to do with a really large bear!

A Girl and a Ball Chased by a Bear

Painting of bear climbing Devils Tower
This painting depicts a different Cheyenne narrative about the Tower, where a man rescues his wife from a giant bear with the help of his six brothers.
NPS / Herbert Collins

The Arapahoes tell of a father who had seven children, 5 boys, and 2 girls.  They were camped near the high rocks, which at that time had smooth sides.  The two girls were exploring and one picked up a bone of a bison.  Upon picking it up, she became a bear and made scratches on her sister’s back.

The bear-girl told her sister not to tell the others. But tell them, she did. The bear-girl was angry and started chasing her sister.  Meanwhile, her sister kicked a ball up to the top of the big mountain, and the bear-girl chased the ball.  But try as she might, she could not get to the top of the mountain and left scratches on the sides as she slid down.

From this time on, the Arapahoes called the tower “Bear’s Tipi.”

Two Girls Chased by a Bear

Another story comes from the Crow Indians.

Two girls were playing around some big rocks in the area.  There were lots of bears in the area.  One exceptionally large bear saw the girls and decided to eat them.  The girls ran away from the bear, into the pile of rocks, but the bear kept coming.

The Great Spirit saw that the bear was about to catch the girls and caused the rocks to grow up out the ground.  The bear kept trying to catch them by climbing the tower, but he kept sliding down, leaving deep grooves in the rock.  The bear gave up, but the girls are still there.

Seven Girls Chased By a Bear!

The Kiowa tell a similar story.

One day, seven girls were playing and were chased by some bears.  The bears were about to catch them when they jumped onto a rock about three feet high.  One of the girls prayed to the rock, “rock save us!”.  The rock heard them and began to grow upwards.

The bear kept trying to reach them, scrambling up the tower from all sides, leaving scratches in the side of the rock.

The girls are now seven stars in a group.  (We call this star group the Pleiades).  In the winter, these stars are right over the high rock.

For more “First Stories” see https://home.nps.gov/deto/learn/historyculture/first-stories.htm

So if it’s all about bears, why is it called “Devils Tower”?

Closeup of columns in Devils Tower
The columns of the tower reminded the Native Indians of bear scratches.

The names “Bear Lodge,” and “Mato Teepee” were on maps between 1874 and 1901. In 1875 Lieutenant Colonel Richard Dodge wrote in his 1875 journal, “The Indians call this shaft ‘The Bad God’s Tower.’”  It is believed that a guide for Lt. Col. Dodge was the source of this translation, and “Bear Lodge” may have been mistakenly interpreted as “Bad God’s.” As a result, “Bad God’s Tower” then became “Devils Tower.” The name “Devils Tower” was applied to maps of that era, and then used as the name of the national monument when it was proclaimed in 1906.

As recently as 2014, there have been requests to change the name of the National Monument back to “Bears Lodge”.  The government has refused to make this change based on the confusion it would cause to travelers looking for “Devils Tower”.

Did you hear the one about the parachutist that couldn’t get down for 6 days?

In October 1941, George Hopkins wanted to show the world that a parachutist could land in a very specific small space.  The top of Devils Tower, at a little more than an acre, was a perfect target and Mr. Hopkins just couldn’t resist.  The plan was to parachute to the top of the tower, and have a rope ladder dropped after him, so he could get down.

Well, Mr. Hopkins succeeded at landing on the tower, but his ladder did not!

George Hopkins after his descent
George Hopkins (left foreground) with park superintendent Newell Joyner (right) and two reporters after he was rescued. – from https://home.nps.gov/deto/learn/historyculture/first-fifty-years-george-hopkins.htm

For six days, he stayed on top of the tower, not knowing how to get down.  The National Park Service dropped in supplies while they considered how to get George Hopkins off of the tower.  Finally, Jack Durance, an expert climber who had previously scaled the tower, offered to lead a party to climb up and help Hopkins down.  They laid out a safe route for the descent, which was completed easily.

The US entered WWII a few months after this, where Hopkins would work with the military training the airborne divisions in the art of parachuting.

How do the geologists tell the story of the Devils Tower?

Devils Tower closup
The Devils Tower was named as our first National Monument in 1906.

There are three theories by scientists about the formation of Devils Tower, but they are really variations of the same story.

Devils Tower was formed as a volcanic magma “stock” which pushed up through the surrounding sandstone.  As the plug cooled, still encased in the soil, the magma contracted.  Hot magma takes more space than cooled magma.  The cooling rock formed into the crystalline columns that we see now.

Over millennia, the soft sandstone eroded, leaving the plug visible above the flat area around it. The crystallized magma columns sometimes collapse, forming the boulders cluttered around the bottom of the formation.  In the end, all things dissolve.  Entropy at work again!

3 geological theories
The 3 theories of how Devils Tower formed. From https://home.nps.gov/deto/learn/nature/geologicformations.htm

The three theories are all variations of this theme.  In the first, the stock was the inside of a volcano which climbed above the sandstone surface.  The outside of this volcano has since eroded away.  The problem with this theory is that there is no evidence of volcanic rock in the area that would be the remains of that volcano.

The second theory states that the volcanic plug never extruded above the soil surface but stayed below ground.  So the plug stayed while the soil surface eroded away from it.

The third story is a variation on the second.  In this theory, the volcanic plug had a mushroom-shaped cap that covered and protected it while the surrounding area eroded.  This cap has since broken and crumbled around the bottom of the tower.  Perhaps!

Do you enjoy stories as much as I do?

We travel the country and see the sites.  But the travel is much more fun when you learn the “back story” for the places you see.  Oh, the stories we could tell!

References and further reading:

National Park Service – Devils Tower

Wikipedia – Devils Tower

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Judy Kerns

Great stories! We visited Devils Tower years ago and loved it. Hope to return someday for a longer stay.