Devils Tower is an igneous rock butte in Wyoming. It is 867 feet tall from the base to the summit. It rises 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River. The geologic feature bursts forth seemingly from out of nowhere in the plains of the Black Hills. The tower is a sacred place for more than 20 Native American tribes. It stirs wonder in over half a million visitors every year. Read on to discover how it was formed and why it’s so unique!
How and When Was Devils Tower Formed?
The formation of Devils Tower remains a mystery, and various theories have been posited. While many details continue to be debated, this much is generally accepted as true: Devils Tower was formed roughly 50 million years ago from molten rock deep below the earth’s surface. This molten rock was forced upward and would become the feature we know as Devils Tower.
However, there is disagreement about how that molten rock formed into the butte that stands in Wyoming today. Did the rock cool underground, or did magma reach the surface?
Some believe the tower is a volcanic plug (the neck of an extinct volcano). There is little evidence for volcanic activity in the area, so this theory has many detractors.
The theory that has gained the most traction in recent years is that the molten rock cooled underground some 50 million years ago. It was likely one to two miles below the earth’s surface. It would take millions more years of erosion to expose the tower.
The furrowed columns of Devils Tower resulted from the contraction that occurred when the molten rock cooled. Those columns are possibly the most famous feature of the monolith. This columnar jointing is present on other rock features, such as Devils Postpile National Monument in California.
However, no other formation on earth features columnar jointing that soars so high into the air and spreads so wide (up to ten feet) on the feature.
Native American lore has many stories of how the tower’s famous columns came to be. One of the most famous legends is of seven little girls who were playing in the forest when giant bears began to chase them. The girls jumped on top of a boulder and began to pray. The rock supernaturally grew into the tower that we see today. The columns and cracks in the tower were said to have been made by the bears’ claws as they tried to reach the young girls.
The columns make Devils Tower a popular rock-climbing destination. The technical difficulty ratings range from 5.7 to 5.13. The National Park Service instituted a voluntary climbing closure in June since this is a sacred site to Native American tribes, and the month of June is a culturally significant time for the tribes.
The Tower’s Name
This feature was not always called Devils Tower. Native American tribes often referred to it as Bear Lodge. Other names that were given to the monolith include Grey Horn Butte, Ghost Mountain, and Mythic-owl Mountain.
The Devils Tower name didn’t exist until Colonel Richard Irving Dodge led an expedition to study the tower and map the area. In his notes from that mission, Dodge wrote, “The Indians call this place ‘bad god’s tower,’ a name adopted with proper modification…” This led to the creation of the name Devils Tower.
There is no evidence that indigenous peoples associated the tower with “bad gods.” Instead, it may have been a mistranslation that caused the expedition team to mistake “bear” for “bad god.” Others suggest Dodge purposefully changed the name of this sacred Native American site.
Either way, Devils Tower became the accepted name of the feature in the early 20th century following the book that Dodge published about his expedition.
National Monument Status
Devils Tower became the first national monument in the United States on September 24, 1906. President Theodore Roosevelt declared the rock feature a national monument under the recently-passed Antiquities Act of 1906. President Roosevelt would protect over 200 million acres of public lands while in office. These lands included 18 national monuments, along with national parks, national forests, and federal bird reserves.
When visiting Devils Tower and the surrounding area, visitors may encounter a host of different animals. Some of the wildlife around the tower include ungulates such as white-tailed deer, mule deer, pronghorn, and elk. Visitors may also see squirrels, prairie dogs, red foxes, and raccoons. While it is unlikely that guests will see them, mountain lions and bobcats also hunt in the area.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Patrick Jennings
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.