Devils Tower National Monument

Devils Tower, Wyoming

A volcanic plug of a platform-mountain rising from the plains of Wyoming

There's no mistaking it: rising 1,267 feet out of the plains leading to the Black Hills like the stump of some titanic petrified tree. It is Devils Tower.

(A typo in the Act of Congress establishing it as America's first National Monument back in 1906 accidentally left out the apostraphe, so it is not, in fact, spelled "Devil's Tower").

Devils Tower is a mass of 40-million-year-old phonolite porphyry, fractured into hexagonal columns that give it its famous vertical groovy texture.

What it is doing in the middle of the sedimentary plains has been debated by geologists for nearly 150 years.

It is either the plug from the core of a long-vanished volcano (a theory supported by the face that it sprouts from teh middle of a large, flat mesa that might once have been the base of the volcano), or an igneous intrusion into the sedimentary layers called a laccolith.

Either way, it took millennia for the sedimantary layers all around it to erode away, leaving this much harder igneous rock still standing to be gawked at by more than 400,000 visitors each year (and climbed by about 4,000).

It is site that had lent itself to myths and legends for centuries. Long before Steven Speilberg made Devils Tower the alien landing pad in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Lakota legend held that the fluted sides of Devils Tower were caused by a mighty bear raking the rock with his claws in an attempt to reach nine maidens who clambered onto a rock, praying to the Great Spirit to save them. He raised the rock straight up out of the ground as a column, allowing the maidens to ascend into the sky and become what we call the Pleiades constellation.

(The Native Americans, who saw Nine Maidens in the stars, must have simply had better eyesight than the ancient Europeans, who saw Seven Sisters. Astronomers—who gave it the dull designation of "M45"—say there are actually at least 1,000 stars in this open cluster. Fun aside: The Japanese only saw six stars, and called it Mutsuaboshi—though its nickname, "Unite," became the name, and symbol, of a famous car company. In Japanese, "unite" is "subaru.")

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in August 2013.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.