We got out quickly this morning to go up to Devils Tower. We had been advised to get there early as throngs of people would begin to quickly arrive. Fortunately, we did get there early and got a great parking spot in a pretty limited parking lot. We went to the Visitor’s Center first to acclimate ourselves to the area and learn what we could about the tower.
Devils Tower was the nation’s first national monument proclaimed so by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. It is an amazingly powerful monolith whose appearance changes as much as the weather and the time of day. To some, it is a fascinating geological formation. To others, it is a traditional sacred place and still, for others it provides recreational opportunities but obviously to the approximately 500,000 visitors a year it is a very special place.
It rises 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River but the base itself is some 4,200 feet above sea level. For someone who lives at 43 feet above sea level hiking can sometimes be a challenge. Many Northern Plains Indian tribes view the area as sacred and oppose climbing on the tower. In fact, there is a voluntary climbing closure in June out of respect for the American Indian beliefs.
We decided to first take the Tower Trail, a paved 1.3-mile easy walk. It started at the parking lot and after a short, steep climb we were on our way around the tower. There are boulders all around, some good for climbers like me. And then, there are the real climbers. We saw several as the morning progressed and watch their progress. We briefly chatted with a few before their ascent. I asked them how long it took to climb – about six hours to go up and about two to go down. I did hear that climbing up took longer but climbing down was more dangerous. I can’t imagine!
The tower is composed of symmetrical columns, some as tall as 600 feet plus and as wide as 20 feet. The columns are 4, 5, 6, and 7 sided. As we walked along the tower changed minute by minute. Each step we took gave us a different view. On the North Side, it was much cooler and quieter. In fact, as we sat and rested we could hear the sound of birds in the air. We never saw any of the animals that live there.
We passed through three habitats – of course, the beautiful lumbering ponderosa pines, the open prairie and then the rightly colored mud and sandstones of the formation. As we walked along we saw remnants of prayer cloths tied in trees and left by the Indians. Out of respect, we did not touch them and they also request no photography of them.
Walking along we were able to gaze out into the valley where vast herds of bison used to live. As they were hunted to near extinction the habitat changed to ranch lands. Cattle ranching remains the primary industry of this area although we didn’t see a sign of any ranches.
When we finished our hike, we went back into the Visitor’s Center for a few minutes and discussed what to do for the rest of the day. Since it was nearly lunchtime we decided to go back to the campground, have some lunch and then go back up later in the day when hopefully the crowds would be smaller and it would be cooler as well.
We left about 4:00 to go back up and hike Joyner Ridge Trail. It’s a 1.5-mile loop trail along the north boundary of the park and then dips down into the draw below the ridge. It’s one of the more scenic but less utilized trails in the park and true to its reputation we saw no one. It’s a narrow foot trail better suited to someone in long pants. We both had on shorts! The trail was lined with wildflowers, sedges, western wheatgrass, and needle and thread grass and it hit our legs nearly every step we took. Occasionally there was a slight breeze that felt like a gift but otherwise, it was pretty warm. The first half of the trail is mainly a walk through the foliage but the last part is a bit more challenging but still an easy hike. When we hit the ravine though we could feel the difference and apparently so could the animals. We were gifted with seeing a large buck with a very large rack. That’s the first buck we’ve ever seen and we have seen more than our share of deer through the years. It definitely was the highlight of the hike although the scenery was amazing as well.
We finally returned to the campground around 6:00 and started preparing dinner and discussing the route to take to Medora tomorrow. Onward to North Dakota, our 31st RV state.