Devils Tower: Wyoming’s Famous Landmark

Fast Facts About Devils Tower

Cam Horst following "Hollywood and Vine" on Devils Tower. Photograph copyright Eric Horst

Elevation: 5,112 feet (1,558 meters); 3,078th highest peak in Wyoming.

Prominence: 912 feet (272 meters); 328th most prominent peak in Wyoming.

Location: Crook County, Black Hills, Wyoming, United States.

Coordinates:  44.590539 N / -104.715522 W

First Ascent: First ascent by William Rogers and W.L. Ripley via a wooden ladder, July 4, 1893. First technical climbing ascent by Fritz Wiessner, Lawrence Coveney, and William P. House, June 28, 1937.

Fast Facts About Devils Tower

Devils Tower, rising 1,267 feet (386 meters) over low hills and the Belle Fourche River, is one of the United State's most famous and distinctive natural landmarks. The tower is the centerpiece of Devils Tower National Monument, a 1,347-acre natural area administered by the National Park Service. The tower is also a magnet for climbers who come to ascend over 150 routes.

Named in 1875

Devils Tower was named in 1875 when the interpreter for Colonel Richard Irving Dodge's expedition translated the native name as "Bad God's Tower."

Devils Tower Geology

The formation of Devils Tower is a mystery and is debated by geologists. Most consider the tower to be a laccolith or an intrusion of molten rock that pushed into surrounding sedimentary rocks before solidifying, while others call it a volcanic plug or the remnant of a volcano's neck like Shiprock in New Mexico. No evidence in the area indicates that any volcanic activity took place here. The explanation generally accepted is on the monument website: "…Devil's Tower is a stock--a small intrusive body formed by magma which cooled underground and was later exposed by erosion."

Columnar Basalt Forms Sides of Devils Tower

Devils Tower is composed of phonolite porphyry, a grayish rock studded with feldspar crystals. As the magma cooled underground, it formed hexagonal or six-sided columns although columns have from four to seven sides. The last large column fell about 10,000 years ago. The next one to go is probably the Leaning Column on the Durrance Route. A park analysis in 2006 decided that the column continues to be safe for climbing. Similar formations of columnar basalt are found at Devil's Postpile National Monument in California.

1906: First National Monument in the United States

Devils Tower was the first declared National Monument in the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill establishing Devils Tower National Monument on September 24, 1906. Wyoming was also the site of the nation's and world's 1st national park, Yellowstone National Park which was established in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant. Devils Tower National Monument protects 1,347 acres.

Apostrophe Dropped in Proclamation

In the proclamation signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, the apostrophe in Devil's was inadvertently dropped so that the site was officially named Devils instead of Devil's. The misspelling was never corrected, hence the current spelling.

Sacred Mountain for the Lakota Sioux

Devils Tower is a sacred site and mountain to Native Americans, including the Lakota Sioux, Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Shoshone tribes. The Lakota revere Devils Tower, which they call Mato Tipila, meaning Bear Lodge. They often camped nearby where they performed ceremonies like the Sun Dance and did vision quests. Prayer offerings, including sacred bundles and cloth, are still left by the tower.

Devils Tower Mythology

Devils Tower figures in the mythology of the Plains tribes. One myth is that of 7 sisters and a bear. The sisters were playing when a big bear chased them. The girls climbed on a rock which grew like a tree, putting the girls out of reach. The bear tried to climb the tree but slid down, leaving his claw marks as grooves in the tower. The girls, high on the rock, became a group of 7 stars (the Pleiades). From this myth, the Kiowa called it "Tso-aa," meaning "tree rock."

June Climbing Closure for Religious Ceremonies

Out of respect for Native American beliefs, climbers are asked to not climb during June when religious ceremonies are held. This voluntary closure is part of an agreement to limit climbing that was written into the park's Climbing Management Plan. Still, some climbers continue to feel it is their right to climb whenever they want. Most climbers, however, abide by the agreement and refrain from climbing the tower in June. The National Park Service says there is an 80% decrease in the number of climbers in June, a figure directly attributed to the voluntary closure. For more information on the June climbing closure, visit the monument's website.

1893: First Ascent by Local Cowboys

The first ascent of Devils Tower was on July 4, 1893, when cowboys William Rogers and W.L. Ripley climbed a ladder of wooden stakes pounded into cracks with lengths, lumber attached. A crowd of 500 people watched their daring ascent. Afterward, a party of five climbed the ladder. Alice Ripley, the wife of W.L. Ripley, climbed the ladder two years later, becoming the first woman to stand atop it. A dozen other people also ascended the ladder prior to the climbing ascent.

1937: First Ascent by Technical Climbers

The first ascent of Devils Tower by climbers was on June 28, 1937, by Fritz Wiessner, Lawrence Coveney, and William P. House. The trio climbed the Weissner Route, (5.7+) on the tower's east face in 5 hours. Weisner led the entire route and placed 1 piton. For the complete story, read Devils Tower Climbed, a 1937 report about by Park Superintendent Newell F. Joyner.

1948: First Ascent by a Woman Climber

Jan Conn with husband Herb Conn, both climbers in the nearby Black Hills, did the first climbing ascent of by a woman in 1948. Jan also did the first all-woman or what she called the "first man-less ascent" of the tower on July 16, 1952, with Jane Showacre. Jan led the first pitch and later recounted it in an article in Appalachia: "I was elected to lead the first pitch because it required a long reach, and being one and three-quarters inch over five feet I was three-quarters of an inch taller than Jane. The pitch required balance and the use of small holds."

Durrance Route is Most Popular Climb

The most popular climbing route is the Durrance Route. Jack Durrance and Harrison Butterworth climbed the route in September 1938, making the 2nd ascent of Devils Tower. The 500-foot route, climbed in 4 to 6 pitches, is graded 5.6 but many climbers consider it a bit harder. About 85% of rock climbers annually climb the route. About 1% of the park's annual 400,000+ visitors are rock climbers.

Todd Skinner Speed Climbs Devils Tower

The late climber Todd Skinner speed climbed Devils Tower in a mere 18 minutes in the 1980s. A typical climb up takes from 4 to 6 hours for most climbers.

1941: Parachutist stranded on Summit

George Hopkins parachuted on the summit of Devils Tower on October 1, 1941. He didn't, however, think through the consequences of his hare-brained stunt like "How am I going to get down?" He ended up being stranded for six days on top before being rescued.

Featured in 1977 Alien Movie

Devils Tower figured prominently in the classic 1977 Stephen Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind as the landing place for aliens who took a willing group of humans into space.