Crook County, Wyoming – Many movie buffs recognize Devils Tower from the ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘ movie from the late 1970s. While the movie is celebrating its 40th anniversary, the monument was recently revisited by a drone to give a unique view of the natural formation.
The name “Devils Tower” originated in 1875 during an expedition led by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, when his interpreter reportedly misinterpreted a native name to mean “Bad God’s Tower”. Also known as Bear Lodge Butte, the tower is composed of igneous rock in the Bear Lodge Ranger District of the Black Hills in northeastern Wyoming. It rises 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River, standing 867 feet from summit to base. The summit is 5,112 feet above sea level. It is the first United States national monument, established on September 24, 1906, by President Theodore Roosevelt. The monument’s boundary encloses an area of 1,347 acres.
Park geologists believe molten rock composes the Tower but might not have surfaced, while others are convinced the tower is all that remains of what once was a large explosive volcano. The popular belief is it didn’t 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, and 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. Portions, and even entire columns, of rock at Devils Tower are continually breaking off and falling. Piles of broken columns, boulders, small rocks, and stones, lie at the base of the tower, indicating that it was once wider than it is today.
The monument is sacred to several native American Plains tribes, including: the Lakota, Cheyenne and Kiowa. According to the Kiowa and Lakota, a group of girls went out to play and were spotted by several giant bears, who began to chase them. In an effort to escape the bears, the girls climbed atop a rock, fell to their knees, and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. Hearing their prayers, the Great Spirit made the rock rise from the ground towards the heavens so that the bears could not reach the girls. The bears, in an effort to climb the rock, left deep claw marks in the sides, which had become too steep to climb. Those are the marks which appear today on the sides of Devils Tower.
In a Cheyenne version of the story, the giant bear pursues several girls and kills most of them. Two sisters escape back to their home with the bear still tracking them. They tell two boys that the bear can only be killed with an arrow shot through the underside of its foot. The boys have the sisters lead the bear to Devils Tower and trick it into thinking they have climbed the rock. The boys attempt to shoot the bear through the foot while it repeatedly attempts to climb up and slides back down leaving more claw marks each time. The bear was finally scared off when an arrow came very close to its left foot. This last arrow continued to go up and never came down.
The Tower was featured heavily in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. The 1977 film tells the story of several individuals’ experiences with extra-terrestrial phenomenon. Focusing on the experiences of Roy Neary (played by Richard Dreyfuss), the story follows him from his initial encounter with a UFO to his growing obsession with visions of a mountain and the uncontrollable desire to go there. After Neary’s actions grew more intense and obsessive, he decides that he must travel to Devils Tower with fellow UFO witness Jillian Guiler (played by Melinda Dillon), whose son had been taken by the alien visitors.
The Tower had been selected as the contact point, and the area was evacuated by the military under the guise of a chemical leak. Upon reaching the Tower and evading military capture, the two, along with a group from the United Nations and others who had encountered the aliens, witness the arrival of the extra-terrestrial mothership. After the aliens return previous abductees from some twenty years previous, Neary and others are chosen to go with the aliens to outer space.
Devils Tower draws about 400,000 annual visitors to the National Park, but is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It is worth noting that while interesting to see the actual top of Devils Tower, the drone operator violated National Park Service guidelines. According to their website, “the National Park Service requests that pilots of aircraft maintain a minimum distance of 2,000 feet above the nearest ground mass within national park units. Additionally, there is a 2-mile no-fly advisory zone around Devils Tower. The use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, inside of Devils Tower National Monument is strongly discouraged.“