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Devils Tower: A Close Encounter of the Rainy Kind
By Tom Adkinson

DEVILS TOWER, Wyo. – In my mind’s eye, my first view of Devils Tower would be a golden moment. The western sun would illuminate the soaring Wyoming monolith against a powerfully blue sky and perhaps reveal a nutcase climber trying to scale its heights.

That’s not what happened.

devils tower
Devils Tower, preserved by Teddy Roosevelt and made more famous by Stephen Spielberg, is in eastern Wyoming. Image by S. Carter/National Park Service.

Rain splattered the windshield as we approached Devils Tower National Monument. The sky was steely gray, the wind blew cold and the only color was the yellow of two school buses in the parking lot of the visitors center. It was an inauspicious first view, to say the least.

Devils Tower is in eastern Wyoming, just over the line from the Black Hills of South Dakota and technically part of that region. Devils Tower as we know it today is the result of millions of years of erosion and the forethought of Teddy Roosevelt, who as president stretched the meaning of a law to make this site America’s first national monument.

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Native American lore says a giant bear clawed the sides of Devils Tower to create the soaring geometric columns climbers love; image by National Park Service.

If you’re of a certain vintage, you’ve seen Devils Tower, even if you don’t realize it. Stephen Spielberg made this peculiar geologic formation famous in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Geologists will tell you it is an igneous intrusion formed deep underground and then exposed as surrounding layers of softer stone wore away. Native Americans will tell you it is a spiritual place that rose from the earth, carrying children to safety out of the reach of a giant bear. The vertical lines on the tower’s perimeter are the claw marks of the pursuing bear.

As we examined the less-than-postcard-pretty day, the rain diminished and a paved 1.3-mile trail around the base of the tower beckoned. The sky never cleared, but that was OK. A contemplative mood was set for a walk amid the Ponderosa pines, giants that would have seemed much bigger had the striated monolith not been perpetually visible through their swaying branches

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Even on a rainy day, Devils Tower National Monument has a special majesty amid the Ponderosa pines of Wyoming. -- image by Tom Adkinson.
  daredevil george hopkins
Daredevil George Hopkins and his family visited Devils Tower in 1968, 26 years after Hopkins parachuted onto the formation; image by National Park Service.

The trail is so close to the base of the tower that the tower is inescapable. The tower rises 867 feet above the trail and stands 1,267 feet above the nearby Belle Fourche River. It’s easy to understand why Roosevelt preserved this spot for future generations.

We met another couple on the trail, walking clockwise to our counterclockwise. I offered to take their picture and got an adamant refusal. Perhaps they were some of Spielberg’s aliens, or perhaps they wanted no record of their private travel to this remote spot.

I’ll have to return to see some of those nutcase rock climbers inching their way up Devils Tower. About 5,000 climbers a year come from around the world for their own close encounter.

Every one of them will have a story to tell, but perhaps none as good as that of daredevil pilot and wing-walker George Hopkins. In October 1941, Hopkins won a $50 bet by parachuting onto the 1.5-acre, teardrop-shaped crown of the tower.

He had everything well planned – except for a way to get down. A team of experienced mountain climbers rescued him after six cold and dreary days at the top of the world.

Trip-planning resources:, and

Published November 1, 2018

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