America's Original Mystery Monolith Towers Above the West

The country's first national monument is steeped in the uncertain.

There is nowhere on Earth like it: An 867-foot plume of cooled magma frozen in time, standing sentinel in Wyoming’s ranch country. From afar, its symmetrical rows of 10-foot-wide columns appear as if a giant bear clawed up its sides, like some sort of celestial scratching post. Simply looking at it requires an admission of bewilderment.

Devils Tower is the nation’s first national monument, designated with the flick of a pen by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906. Of course, its human history goes back thousands of years before that: This is sacred ground to some two-dozen Northern Plains tribes, including the Lakota, Shoshone, and Arapahoe. How it got here, we’re not exactly sure. What’s its future? Well, that’s not entirely concrete, either.

Laura Hedien / moment / getty images

50+ million years ago during the Laramide orogeny—a mountain-building event—parts of the U.S. were being pushed skyward, from California all the way to the Black Hills. Devils Tower is part of that wild tectonic story, a magma plume that boiled its way through sedimentary rock one or two miles down, but never made it to the surface on its own.  

So far, that geologic origin story isn’t all that special. 

“It’s kind of a small fry for some cooled magma bodies,” explains Dr. Erik Klemetti, associate professor at Denison University. “Think about all the granite in the Sierra Nevada in California,” like Yosemite’s Half Dome, which underwent a similar process of uplift and erosion. 

But even though Devils Tower isn’t super-sized, it’s still in a class of its own: The tower’s columns are the largest examples of columnar jointing on Earth.

Diana Robinson Photography / moment / getty images

For columnar jointing to occur in the first place, conditions have to be just right. That means “slow, gradual, monotonous cooling like you would get in a magma body that is miles beneath the land surface,” explains Klemetti. “The crust is hundreds of degrees cooler, but because rock is such a good insulator, it can take tens of thousands of years to cool fully.” 

As to the columns’ unparalleled size—those at California’s Devils Postpile National Monument, for example, average two feet to the tower’s 10—those exact details remain unknown.

To the outside eye, the tower’s columns look perfectly carved by the gods. But get closer and you’ll notice a more complicated story. 

“It's not as uniform as it may look,” writes Nick Myers, the monument’s chief of interpretation. “Individually, the columns are similar in size, but overall the tower itself is very diverse—especially the top.” The individual columns, he points out, can be five-, six-, or even seven-sided. 
But beyond those basics, we don’t precisely know the tower’s origins—some even say it’s the neck of an extinct volcano.
“We have a very, very good idea as to what happened here,” adds Myers, “but we may never know definitively.”

Kathryn Froilan / moment / getty images

Local Indigenous tribes, of course, have their own explanations. The oral history of the Crow weaves a far more sudden tale: Two girls were being pursued by a gigantic, hungry bear. In answer to their desperate prayers, the Great Spirit shot the ground underneath them up into the sky and the girls out of reach. The bear climbed the tower in pursuit—scratching out the columns—but couldn’t make it to the top. 
The sacred narratives of the Cheyenne, Lakota, and Kiowa are similar, and sun dances, sweat lodges, and prayer offerings are regular occurrences on the site to this day. If you see prayer cloths or other religious artifacts at the park, do not disturb them. They are not yours.
Which brings up a necessary point: This is sacred Indigenous land, commonly referred to as Bear Lodge. Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a spiritual leader of the Lakota, spearheaded a 2014 request to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to get the tower renamed as such. 
“The [current] name is offensive,” the proposal states, “because it equates cultural and faith traditions practiced at this site to ‘devil worship,’ in essence equating Indigenous people to ‘devils.’”

Unlike South Dakota’s Black Elk Peak or Alaska’s Denali, the request hasn’t progressed too far yet—but it did spur on Sen. Mike Enzi (WY) and Rep. Liz Cheney (WY-At Large) to introduce legislation protecting the name in early 2019. Per USBGN policies, any proposed name change won’t be considered until at least 90 days after the beginning of the next session of Congress, or January 3, 2021. 
That said, the NPS works “very closely with all affiliated and associated tribes at Devils Tower,” according to Myers, and space for Indigenous tradition is a constant conversation. Since 1995, there’s been a voluntary ban on climbing the tower—there are 100+ routes—during the month of June, when Indigenous ceremonies are most numerous. Many routes also close in April to protect nesting prairie and peregrine falcons.
Regardless of how this igneous giant came to be, what it’s called, or if and when you should climb it, a few things remain clear: Respect this sacred site, its mysteries, its traditions, its flora and fauna—and look out for gigantic bears.

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Jacqueline Kehoe is a writer, photographer, and geology geek. See her work on Instagram at @j.kehoe.