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Where Legends Meet Nature

Devils Tower in Wyoming is an interesting mix of Native American legends and natural history.


Devils Tower in Wyoming might not feature on glossy tourist brochures, but it’s one of those hidden gems of natural history visitors are nearly always glad to see. “What stays with you is the fact that it’s completely natural,” says Matt Franzblau, an avid traveler who has visited 47 of the 50 states in the United States. “It’s a huge structure of lava and volcanic remains, with nothing man-made or artificial about it.” The whole formation, about 1,267 feet tall, is America’s first National Monument—declared by President Theodore Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

 

Chance discovery
“While planning a trip to Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore, I chanced upon the Tower and the unique nature of the formation intrigued me,” says Priyanka Jayashankar, adjunct assistant professor of management at Iowa State University. Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” was filmed in the area.

The Tower, made from cooled magma that spilled out into the surrounding sedimentary rock layers, isn’t just about geology. The Native American tribes, in and around the area, have a spiritual and cultural connection with the Tower, and there are many legends about how it came into being.

The Native American name for it is Mato Tipila, meaning Bear Lodge. The Tower is considered a sacred worship site, with colorful prayer cloths often found tied to the trees near the base. According to the National Park Service, a translator in an 1875 expedition misinterpreted the name to mean Bad God’s Tower, which later came to be known as Devils Tower.

“It’s this mix of incredibly rich history and nature that makes the Tower so interesting,” says Ed Timms, lecturer in the journalism department of The University of Texas at Austin. “It has these deep grooves on the side which look like scratches made by a bear. It is a part of a legend that says a huge bear once chased a group of young Indian girls, who climbed onto the peak to stay safe. They were believed to have been carried away by the Great Spirit,” he says. The Tower is still known for its wildlife like deer, bison, antelope, elk, turkey and the rare mountain lion.

 

Camping and more
Lee Bertram, a Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy who grew up in Wyoming, says there is a lot to do on the Tower grounds. “It’s a great place for camping. It’s not your usual tourist haunt. It’s not like Mount Rushmore and that makes it unique.” Bertram advises visitors to look around the small towns near the Tower and experience the local lifestyles. “That way you get a feel of what the state is about,” he says.

“Serious hikers climb the peak, but for less ambitious people like me, the grounds around the Tower are perfect for walking,” says Jayashankar. “It’s safe for children and takes about an hour,” says Bertram. “It has something for everyone. The natural beauty is breathtaking. Climbing the peak is amazing, but it’s a very steep climb and for very experienced hikers.”

The best time to visit is late spring or summer. “August is a great time,” says Shon McDonald, a former resident of Sundance, Wyoming. “Wyoming gets a lot of snow in winters. Also, in August you have the Wyoming Motorcycle Rally, which is great to watch.”

The towns around Devils Tower have budget-friendly places to stay. “It’s easy to get the usual fare, but those with dietary restrictions better make arrangements,” says Jayashankar. “The friendly park rangers are a mine of information.” Wyoming also has other interesting sites like the Fossil Butte National Monument, which is the state’s newest national monument, and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

“The state of Wyoming is famous for the Yellowstone National Park,” says Jayashankar. “The Devils Tower can be an interesting stop. It is a detour you won’t regret.”

 

Paromita Pain is a journalist in Austin, Texas.