A solitary monolith like a massive tree stump thrusts up from the rolling cattle-ranch country of northeast Wyoming. A legend of the Kiowa people who lived in the region says the Devil tower was created when seven little girls were chased by an angry bear. The girls jumped onto a low rock, which started to stretch upwards from the ground, carrying them beyond the bear’s reach. As the bear tried to get to the girls it clawed at the rock, leaving grooves down its sides. Eventually, the bear died from exhaustion, but the girls were forever as the seven stars visible in the Pleiades cluster.
Devils tower, the United State’s first National Monument, is a massive cluster of multisided columns, that rises 865ft (265m) above the forested mound at its base. It measures 1000ft (300m) across at the base and tapers to 275 ft (85) across at the summit.
Geologists say that the tower started to form about 50 million years ago when hot molten material deep in the earth rose towards the surface through weaknesses in the rocks above. This mass of molten material slowly cooled and solidified material was worn away, slowly uncovering the cluster of many-sided columns.
The distinctive bulk of Devils Tower may be seen from 100 miles (160km) away, the colour of its lichen-encrusted sides changing with the light and time of day. It was a landmark for early European settlers, who turned the area into a cattle-ranch country. More recently, the tower was seen by millions in the 1977 film ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, when it featured as the landing site for the alien’s spaceship.
Near the foot of Devils Tower are the underground tunnels and chambers of prairie dogs – rodents the size of small rabbits that bark like dogs. Now they were killed because they were thought to be depriving cattle and sheep of grass.
‘Inaccessible to anything without wings’ was how Colonel Richard 1. Dodge described the tower’s summit in 1875 when he escorted a US Geological Survey party there. It was he who gave the tower its name after he heard that the Cheyenne people knew it as Bad God’s Tower because of an evil god who lived at the top and beat drums that made the roar of thunder.
It was not long before someone set out to prove Dodge wrong. On July 4, 1893, a crowd of a thousand people watched local rancher William Rogers haul himself up using his ‘ladder’ – wooden pegs driven into a vertical crack and joined together for stability.
From the summit, climbers see five states spread out before them – Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. Prickly pear cacti and sage grow at the top – the seeds probably carried by birds – and rattlesnakes and chipmunks have made their way up. A skydiver who landed on the summit in the 1940s had ample time to study both the view and the wildlife. He lost his rope and could not climb down, and was marooned there for six years before rescue arrived.