Close Encounters at Devils Tower
Perhaps the most memorable inclusion of a natural landmark in popular cinema flew into our collective imagination in 1977. Like our previous visit to Arches National Park, we have Steven Spielberg to thank for widespread knowledge of Devils Tower, where Richard Dreyfuss and pals become proximal to the location in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
[spoiler alert] After experiencing UFO activity, characters in the film are overtaken with images of Devils Tower. They see it everywhere and feel compelled to sculpt it out of everyday materials, including famous mashed potatoes. Of course, the government is in on the situation, which ultimately leads to a great nexus of tonality, adventure, and the tower.
Rising majestically over the plains of northeastern Wyoming, Devils Tower is a force to behold, an object so incredible Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed it the first National Monument of the United States, following the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906. The tower stands 265 meters (867 feet) from base to summit and 386 meters (1,267 feet) above the level of the nearby Belle Fourche River.
The origin of the name arrived thanks to a misunderstanding of a native phrase during an expedition in 1875. An interpreter allegedly thought the natives called it “Bad God’s Tower,” which then became “Devils Tower.” In reality, most Native American names refer to bears instead of devils: Bear’s House; Bear’s Lodge; Bear’s Tipi; Home of the Bear. Other native names include “Aloft on a Rock,” “Tree Rock,” “Great Gray Horn,” and “Buffalo Brown Horn.”
Unsurprisingly this tower loomed gigantically in Native American culture. The tribes have numerous stories and myths surrounding the structure and its formation. In a tale from the Kiowa and Lakota, a group of young girls was chased by colossal bears. To escape, the girls climbed atop a rock and implored the Great Spirit to save them. Their orisons were answered and the rock was raised high above the ground. The giant bears continued to pursue the girls, however, attempting to climb the rock. Their failed efforts left giant claw scratches in the tower, which produced the appearance we see today. The girls atop the tower rose to meet the sky, becoming the suns of the Pleiades star cluster.
Numerous similar tales exist in other tribes, including a Sioux story of Mato, an immense and hungry bear. This version was captured by Herbert A. Collins in a famous painting that hangs over the visitor center fireplace at Devils Tower. In a less famous setting, you can also see a print of the painting in my kitchen.
How did the tower actually come to be? Growing up, I always assumed something had, somehow, pushed the giant rock into the air. In reality, we are most likely regarding the innards of the earth. Devils Tower is an igneous intrusion, a formation that occurs when magma invades other rock. The exact nature of its formation is debated, but the consensus is the tower was formed under the surface.
What we see today are remains of a larger formation, after all the sedimentary rock on top of the tower has been eroded. According to the National Parks Service: “The simplest explanation is that Devils Tower is a stock—a small intrusive body formed by magma which cooled underground and was later exposed by erosion.” It could be a volcanic plug. Whichever notion is actually correct, the NPS concluded, “Ironically, the erosion which exposed the Tower also erased the evidence needed to determine which theory of Devils Tower’s formation is the correct one.”
The appearance of scratching is also the result of geology, an effect called columnar jointing. The rock was originally one giant blob of magma but has since become a structure of vertical hexagons. According to the National Parks Service: “As the molten rock cools from a liquid to a solid form, it begins to contract. This contraction stresses the cooling rock which begins to crack. Cracks radiate out from stress points, forming hexagonal (6-sided) shapes.” Pentagons also exist at Devils Tower. Scientists are not sure why the variations in shape occur. Other examples of columnar jointing exist throughout the world and we’ll probably explore many of them in the future, but the jointing at Devils Tower is the largest specimen.
Today Devils Tower receives over 400,000 visitors a year. Many climbers come to test themselves on the vertical walls. The land surrounding the tower is home to a colony of prairie dogs, which we recently learned speak to each other with complex language.
Richard Dreyfuss came for a third-degree encounter with aliens; you can visit for a third-degree encounter with the incredible allure of the natural world, a first-rate experience for the eyes and spirit. Just beware giant bears!
Further Reading and Exploration
Official Devils Tower website – National Parks Service
Tower of Stone – a short video on the formation of the tower
Geology of Devils Tower National Monument Wyoming – by Charles Robinson (e-book version)
Devils Tower: Stories in Stone – by Mary Alice Gunderson
Devils Tower Climbing – by Zach Orenczak and Rachael Lynn
Devils Tower Decal
Close Encounters of the Third Kind – directed by Steven Spielberg