Close Encounters at Devils Tower

Believe it or not, we have downtime here at TLotR as we build a new business of curated motor coach tours. We can’t take life on the road all the time. But that won’t stop us from sharing our travels.

This week, we’re scouting for a future tour and we’ll be sharing some of what we gather in the coming days. We’re excited about the October tours (Oct. 6-7, Tour #1802 and Oct. 16-19, Tour #1803), but planning the next one is always fun, too.

Speaking of which, contact us immediately if you’re interested in a mini-tour to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio for a WWI fly-in. We’ve toured the museum and the Wright Bros. historic sites before, but we’ve not visited for an air show of any kind. The WWI Dawn Patrol Rendezvous fly-in on Sept. 22-23 will be a great way to discover what Take Life on the Road® can do for you.

And now, here’s today’s featured post.

Devils Tower Wyoming

40 years ago a story set in Indiana (of all places) introduced the world to Wyoming’s Devils Tower. It was the very first U.S. National Monument, designated as such by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.

For a wordsmith and pedant like me, the lack of the possessive apostrophe is troubling, so I investigated the “why.” It turns out that in the process of making it a national monument, the apostrophe was inadvertently left out and bureaucracy being bureaucracy, the name has remained official for more than 100 years.

But the naming carries an even more intriguing story. When it was first encountered by official government surveyors they mistranslated the Lakota word wahanksica (black bear) as wakansica (bad god, or devil). Native Americans to this day press their demand that the name of the monument be changed to Bear Lodge.

But back to the Indiana connection.

Few can say they have never seen Steven Spielberg’s influential 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The character Roy Neary, an Indiana electric utility worker portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss, encounters UFOs and is, by all appearances, left with an implant of an image he had never seen. That image is Devils Tower, where Roy subsequently travels and where the film reaches its climactic end.

It’s safe to say that most readers have never visited Devils Tower National Monument. That’s understandable; you would first have to be somewhere near Moorcroft, Wyoming. This spectacular natural formation of igneous rock is not that far off of Interstate 90, between Deadwood/Spearfish, South Dakota and Gillette, Wyoming.

On our sole visit, we were bound for Idaho, so any diversion would have no effect on us being late and we were fairly certain that this might be our only chance to see this iconic site. Moving north from I-90, we faced about a 30-mile trip. As we drove, we expected to see the tower rising in our windshield, but …

Though its flat peak (about the size of a football field) is at over 5,000 feet above sea level, the surrounding area is at a pretty high elevation itself. We were probably fewer than 5 miles away before we began to see indications of a peak, but even as we entered the bounds of the park, it didn’t seem that imposing.

Tower Visitors
In the West you’ll see this cookie-cutter design at several National Park Service units. It’s pretty small for an NPS visitors’ center.

As much as we wanted to reach the tower itself, we couldn’t help but stop on the road into the park where we encountered a protected prairie-dog preserve, a veritable village of “gopher holes” where these herbivores frolic. It was a nice little bonus and a great place for photography. I only wish I had a camera then as good as the amazing one on my Google Pixel 2.


The tower is considered sacred land by numerous Native American tribes. By consensus, climbing the tower is forbidden during June, a time when many tribal people hold religious ceremonies there.

As you stand beneath the laccolith, the full impact hits you. Peregrines soar and you can’t help but marvel at the ecosystem. Climbers appear as tiny specks, giving you a true appreciation for just how massive the rock is.

Still, at its base, Devils Tower is only about 1 mile in circumference. Exploring is not strenuous, though climbing it was more than we were willing to take on. Each year, hundreds of people free-climb the tower, which I estimate is 1,000 feet above the surrounding territory and perhaps 600 feet of pure climbing from the scree, or rockfall, that circles the butte. For most of us, simply climbing the boulder field would be a serious undertaking.

All climbers must register with park personnel and all must descend on the same day. That is, you may not stay on the summit overnight.

Though we spent only a couple of hours there, a campground is nearby. Given its remoteness, the park is usually uncrowded. Recent statistical reports show that approximately 400,000 people visit the park annually.

Take Life on the Road® has no current tours planned to Devils Tower, but we’re looking into the best way to lead one.

If you’ve been to Devils Tower, share your experiences with us. If you haven’t and you think you’d like to take a motor coach tour to the Badlands of the Dakotas and to Wyoming, let us know so we can keep you informed.

If you are traveling in the West, the park does charge admission based on the size of your vehicle. A family in their own vehicle would pay $25 beginning in January of 2019. The National Monument is “open” 24 hours a day year-round.

Grand Devils Tower
Photo by David Lane

There is a virtual absence of artificial light pollution here, making Devils Tower National Monument the perfect place for night-sky photography and astronomical observation. Remember, the park is open at night and their website can point you to the best locations to shoot or observe from.

June 30, 2018: If you’d like to explore with us, we have two open tours. They are:

#1802 – Tippecanoe and Rendezvous, Too
A 2-day, 1-night visit to Camp Atterbury Museum, Tippecanoe Battlefield and Museum, Wabash and Erie Canal Park, and the 51st Annual Feast of the Hunters’ Moon in West Lafayette, Indiana.

#1803 – Fall 2018 in the Cumberlands
A 4-day, 3-night tour to the Cumberland Gap, the Abraham Lincoln Museum at LMU, Appalachian cultural and civil rights sites in the Clinch Valley (including Oak Ridge, Tennessee), the Cumberland Plateau, and Dale Hollow Lake Resort Park.

Each tour and each site can be accessed through the links at the top of this page.

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