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Is Devils Tower Worth Visiting, a first timer’s perspective

Devils Tower National Monument is an amazing and an entirely unique park that is steeped in cultural history, religious symbolism and geological features. During our Western Trek, we knew we had to consider a visit.

My first exposure was as a kid watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it is more than a pile of mash potatoes! This monument is steeped in Native American culture, has some awesome hikes, as well as being a pretty cool volcanic rock feature.

Is Devils Tower Worth Visiting?

Yes! I believe it is worth the time and effort to visit. Devils Tower has a number of things that make it captivating and worthwhile to visit. 

  • For nature lovers, there are a number of hiking trails, climbing and camping around the monument to enjoy. 
  • History your thing? As the first National Monument in the National Park System, it holds a special place in NPS history, with some interesting stories to tell.   
  • It is also a sacred place. An iconic structure of Native American cultural significance.  
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Where is Devils Tower?

While the Monument is a little off the beaten track in the northern section of Wyoming, it is still fairly close to the Black Hills. Getting to the location takes only an hour and a half from Rapid City, South Dakota

Due to this easy drive, you can incorporate a visit to Devils Tower in conjunction with a drive through Black Hills National Forest, Deadwood, Homestake mine in Lead, Wind Cave National Park or a visit to Mount Rushmore National Monument. 

Why is Devils Tower So Special?

It’s a really big rock

The Tower sits at 867 feet (264 meters) tall and sticks out like a sore thumb when looking across the landscape of this area. It is made of a rare igneous rock, Phonolite porphyry. This rock makes the distinctive column like structure around the formation and is the largest of its kind in the world.

So how did this Tower loom out of the earth? Well, the formation of the Tower is believed to have occurred over 50 million years ago and started as a magma or molten rock buried two miles underground. As the magma cooled, and the softer sedimentary rock around it eroded over millions of years, the ‘Tower’ was exposed. 

There are several different theories on how the magma actually formed, but there is no denying that the results of the erosion have put on display an amazing geological feature.

Cultural Significance

Over 20 indigenous tribes have some narrative about the formation of Devils Tower. Bear Lodge is one name given to the tower by the Kiowa people. The Kiowas say:

“Eight children were there at play, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur. Directly there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified; they ran and the bear after them. They came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them. It bade them climb upon it, and as they did so it began to rise into the air. The bear ca me to kill them, but they were just beyond its. reach. It reared against the tree and scored the bark all around with its claws.” 

Quotations from N. Scott Momaday

from NPS Brochure

Why is it called Devils Tower?

While Bear Lodge was one of the many Native American names for the Tower, Col. Richard Dodge named it Devils Tower in 1875 during a gold survey of the Black Hills. That name stuck, apparently.

Planning Your Trip to Devils Tower

  • Entrance Fee: There is an entrance fee into the National Monument. Make sure to get your America the Beautiful National Park Service pass before you arrive. It is well worth the annual cost.  
  • The park is open year round.  
  • Amenities: there are picnic areas and restrooms in the park.  
  • Camping: The Belle Fourche River Campground is open May 15 – Oct 15.  RV and Tent camping, but no hookups or extra amenities (no showers or laundry)
  • Respect the Land: Remember that this place has a great amount of spiritual significance to indigenous people so treat it with respect. You may find hanging ornaments on trees around the trails.  Leave these prayer bundles alone.  Practice your Leave No Trace principles!

A Special Note about Parking

The monument becomes exceptionally busy during the summer months. We planned for an early morning arrival, and we were glad we did. That early, we were just able to find a parking spot.

If you do not arrive until later in the day, after noontime, the parking lot will be full. The park uses a portable stop light system to hold traffic outside of the parking lot until a space opens up in the main parking lot.

During major events, like the weeklong local Sturgis motorcycle rally that happens in early August each year, the park may have a shuttle system to bring people to the main parking lot from the campground.

What to do if the parking lot is full

If you find that the main visitor center is completely full, there is another option than sitting in a long line of cars to wait for an open parking space.

Instead of parking at the visitor center, turn left and park at the picnic area parking. Find the beautiful Sacred Circle Sculpture and connect to the South Side Trail. After crossing the main road (110), this trail will intersect with the Red Bed Trail. Go left toward the vistior cetner.

It is a 1.5-mile hike with a 440ft elevation gain but may be worth it rather than staying in the car with some screaming kids and a barking dog!

map of Devils Tower trails with route from picnic area to Visitor Center highlighted
Highlight route is best route from Picnic Area to Visitor Center

Top Things Not to Miss on Your First Visit

  • Visitor Center 
  • Get your National Park Passport Stamp
  • Hike the Tower Trail
  • Photography along the Joyner Trail
  • Circle of Sacred Smoke Sculpture
  • Rock Climbing

A stop at the visitor center is a must do to ensure you get a full understanding of this National Monument. There is a gift shop, exhibit that teach you about the cool volcanic features of Devils Tower, and the religious significance of the site. The visitor center is open 9:00 – 5:00pm most days.

An interesting fact, the Civilian Conservation Corp was utilized during the Great Depression to build the Visitor Center and other buildings in the early 1930’s, as well as make improvements throughout the park.  

National Park Passport Stamp

The stamping location for Devils Tower is actually at an outside ‘kiosk’ where you can also pick up the Jr. Ranger book and other information. This makes sense, as the park is open 24 hours and this allows easy access for all visitors to get their stamp, even when the visitor center is not open.

  • Distance: 1.7 miles
  • Type: Loop
  • Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
  • Elevation:
  • Location: Off Devils Tower Visitor Center

The Tower Trail is the most used trail at the park, as it goes from the visitor center and does an entire loop around the perimeter of the Tower. For some reason, I envisioned the site to be more desolate and was surprised by the number of trees and foliage. On this route it took us less than an hour.

Walking around this amazing structure was fascinating, as the texture and lines on the Tower kept changing as we moved around. My kids were having a ball scrambling the rock field. Unfortunately, we were on a bit of a timeline, so we had to move along faster than they would have liked.

  • Distance: 1.7 miles
  • Type: Loop
  • Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
  • Elevation:
  • Location: Off Devils Tower Visitor Center

After our ‘lap’ around the tower trail, we drove back toward 110 and turned right to another parking lot that was the trail head to the Joyner Ridge Trail. This is a longer hike, but takes you further away from the Tower, and provides a different perspective of the Monument. 

The family decided they were in need of a ‘rest’, so I hiked a short up the trail to get some pictures. One cool thing that we did utilize at this site was a selfie picture stand.  It allowed us to get a group photo (as that one car left, and we were by ourselves).  

Trail head for the longer Red Bed Trail Devils Tower
Trail head for the longer Red Beds Trail

Additional Hiking Options at Devils Tower

While the Tower and Joyner trails are the most used, there are several other hikes that are longer and off the beaten track that will allow you a different view of the monument. Check out the Red Beds Trail, South Side Trail, and Valley View trails if you have more time to explore.

Visit the Prairie Dog Town

A little feature that I did not expect, was the prairie dog fields near the monument.  We parked alongside of one field, and they were everywhere!  You could hear them chittering and running all over the place. Too cute. One note on this; DO NOT FEED THE PRAIRIE DOGS. They apparently bite and may carry the plague. (Yikes!) Please take this seriously!

On the way out, as I mentioned earlier, we saw a LONG line of cars waiting to park. Reminder to come early in the busy summer season! 

Circle of Sacred Smoke Sculpture

Do not do what we did and complete miss this awesome sculpture. It is located in the picnic area near the campground. It represents a puff of smoke from a pipe, and you are supposed to frame the tower within the ring when viewing.

Rock Climbing

When westerners first discovered Devils Tower in 1875, they originally exclaimed that it was ‘unclimbable.’ and impossible to scale. Of course, that would not stand.

On July 4, 1893, a ‘first ascent’ was recorded by William Rogers, and Willard Ripley. This was promptly followed two years later by his Roger’s wife, using the same long ladder her husband used. 

Climbing exhibit at Devils Tower National Monument
Climbing Devils Tower

Today, over 4,000 climbs occur a year, with over 220 climbing routes used. We noticed climbers walking up with their climbing racks during the start of our hike. While on the trail we even spotted climbers on the monument!

It should be noted that many indigenous people believe the Tower is sacred and should not be climbed upon.  

Night sky viewing

Another advantage this park has is its remote location and the fact that it is open 24 hours. This apparently allows for some amazing nighttime star gazing!

Where to Stay Near Devils Tower

  • Devils Tower Camping: There are camping options within the park (Check out Recreation.gov).  There is also a KOA campground that is right next to the park boundary that you can look into as well.
  • Other Lodging Options: As mentioned before, the site is within an hour and a half of Rapid City, SD. We stayed at the Historical Occidental hotel in Buffalo, WY. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, and even President Theodore Roosevelt stayed here!  If it is good enough for them, then it should be good enough for you!

Best Time to Visit Devils Tower

I would say the best time to visit is when you are nearby! Each season is a little different, and the winters can be challenging. Clearly, the summer months give you more options, although you do need to plan accordingly to avoid the impact of the crowds.

How Much Time Do You Need at Devils Tower?

Our family’s visit to Devils Tower was about 2 hours, and included stopping at the visitor center, hiking the entire Tower Trail and a portion of the Joyner Trail, and a visit to the Prairie Dog Town. 

For a longer visit you can bring a picnic lunch, hike one of the longer trails or come in the evening and take in the big sky at night for some star gazing.

So, is Devils Tower worth visiting? If you cannot already tell, absolutely! If you are in the area, make sure to visit and experience this truly unique National Monument!

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