Devils Tower is located in the Black Hills of northeastern Wyoming.
The Devils Tower monolith rises dramatically 1,267 feet above the surrounding terrain with a summit of 5,114 feet above sea level.
About 65 million years ago, during the Paleogene Period, the Rocky Mountains and the Black Hills were uplifted. Magma rose through the crust, intruding into the existing sedimentary rock layers.
Geologists agree that Devils Tower was formed by the intrusion of igneous material, but they cannot agree on exactly how that process took place. Geologists Carpenter and Russell studied Devils Tower in the late 19th century and came to the conclusion that the Tower was formed by an igneous intrusion. Later geologists searched for further explanations. Several geologists believe the molten rock comprising the Tower might not have surfaced; other researchers are convinced the tower is all that remains of what once was a large explosive volcano.
Devils Tower did not visibly protrude out of the landscape until the overlying sedimentary rocks eroded away. As the elements wore down the softer sandstones and shales, the more resistant igneous rock making up the tower survived the erosional forces. As a result, the gray columns of Devils Tower began to appear as an isolated mass above the landscape.
As rain and snow continue to erode the sedimentary rocks surrounding the Tower’s base, more of Devils Tower will be exposed. Nonetheless, the exposed portions of the Tower still experience certain amounts of erosion. Cracks along the columns are subject to water and ice erosion. Erosion due to the expansion of ice along cracks and fractures within rock formations is common in colder climates — a prime example being the featured formations at Bryce Canyon National Park. Portions, or even entire columns, of rock at Devils Tower are continually breaking off and falling. Piles of broken columns, boulders, small rocks, and stones — or scree — lie at the base of the tower, indicating that it was once wider than it is today.
Native American Tribes including the Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Lakota, and Shoshone had cultural and geographical ties to the monolith long before Europeans reached the area.
Some of the the native names for the monolith included: Aloft on a Rock (Kiowa), Bear’s House (Cheyenne, Crow), Bear’s Lair (Cheyenne, Crow), Home of bears (Crow), Bear’s Lodge (Cheyenne, Lakota), Bear’s Lodge Butte (Lakota), Bear’s Tipi (Arapaho, Cheyenne), Tree Rock (Kiowa), and Grizzly Bear Lodge (Lakota).
The first documented European visitors were several members of Captain William F. Raynolds’ 1859 expedition to Yellowstone.
Then in 1875, Colonel Richard I. Dodge escorted an Office of Indian Affairs scientific survey party to the massive rock formation. When his interpreter misinterpreted the name to mean Bad God’s Tower, they coined the name Devils Tower.
Recognizing its unique characteristics, Congress designated the area a U.S. forest reserve in 1892.
The first known ascent of Devils Tower by any method occurred on July 4, 1893, and is accredited to William Rogers and Willard Ripley, local ranchers in the area. They completed this first ascent after constructing a ladder of wooden pegs driven into cracks in the rock face. Two years later Roger’s wife Linnie ascended the tower via the ladder, one of a total of about 215 who used the ladder.
Over the following thirty years many climbs were made using this method before the ladder fell into disrepair. The last use was by Babe “The Human Fly” White in 1927. A few of these wooden pegs are still intact and are visible on the tower when hiking along the 1.3-mile Tower Trail at Devils Tower National Monument.
The man most famous for climbing the tower is Fritz Wiessner, who summited with William P. House and Lawrence Coveney in 1937. This was the first ascent using modern climbing techniques. Wiessner led the entire climb free, placing only a single piece of fixed gear, a piton, which he later regretted, deeming it unnecessary.
Then on September 24, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt declared Devil’s Tower as the United States first National Monument.
The Monument’s boundary was set to enclose an area of 1,347 acres.
In 1941 George Hopkins parachuted onto Devils Tower, without permission, as a publicity stunt resulting from a bet. He had intended to descend by a rope dropped with him, but this failed to land on the tower summit. Hopkins was stranded for six days, exposed to cold, rain and 50 mph winds before a mountain rescue team finally reached him and brought him down. His entrapment and subsequent rescue was widely covered by the media at the time.
The 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind used the formation as a plot element and as the location of its climactic scenes. Its release was the cause of a large increase in visitors to the monument.
In recent years, climbing Devils Tower National Monument has increased in popularity.
The most common route is the Durrance Route, which was the second free route established in 1938. There are many established and documented climbing routes covering every side of the tower, ascending the various vertical cracks and columns of the rock. The difficulty of these routes range from relatively easy to some of the hardest in the world. All climbers are required to register with a park ranger before and after attempting a climb.
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