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What is the Devils Tower?

By Alan Rankin
Updated Jan 30, 2024
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Devils Tower is a natural rock formation in northeastern Wyoming. It is an igneous structure jutting up 1,267 feet (386 m) from the surrounding terrain, which is composed of different material. Exactly how Devils Tower formed is a subject of debate. Devils Tower was the first United States National Monument, established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. It is a significant site in Native American history and modern popular culture.

The tower formation is composed of igneous, or volcanic, rock. It may be the remains of an ancient volcano, most of which was erased by millions of years of erosion. Another possibility is that it formed from subterranean magma flows that solidified and were later revealed by erosion. Geologists have yet to discover conclusive evidence one way or the other, but it is clear that the tower, with its distinctive igneous columns, is unlike nearby sedimentary rocks.

Devils Tower was and is sacred to local tribes such as the Lakota, Kiowa and Cheyenne, who attributed the rock’s striations to the claws of a bear-god. Later Americans found it equally captivating. The formation was the keystone of Roosevelt’s creation of a national parks and monuments system. The possessive apostrophe in “Devil’s” was omitted, apparently by an early clerical error, and the official name remains “Devils Tower” to this day.

In 1941, a daredevil successfully parachuted onto the top of the tower as a publicity stunt. He then found he had no way down. The man was stranded for six days until a rescue party could climb up to retrieve him.

Devils Tower is a popular site for rock climbers, who generally use the “traditional” method of climbing, in which no climbing aids are left behind when the climb is finished. Nevertheless, local tribes do not approve of climbing the structure, because they consider doing so to be sacrilegious. In an effort to compromise, the U.S. National Park Service encourages a voluntary ban on climbing during June, when most tribal ceremonies involving the tower take place.

Devils Tower may be best known to many people because of its prominent use in director Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". It was Spielberg’s second hit film, after "Jaws" won him worldwide fame. The climax of "Close Encounters" involves extraterrestrials making contact with humans at the base of Devils Tower. The central character, played by Richard Dreyfuss, becomes obsessed with this upcoming encounter. He spends the second half of the film building models in the distinctive shape of Devils Tower before traveling to the monument itself.

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