Updated: Jul 7, 2022
Friday, 17 June 2022, Devils Tower NM
Wyoming has played an outsize role in the history of protected lands. When Congress named Yellowstone (residing mostly in Wyoming) as the world's first National Park, it started a trend across the country (and around the world) to protect natural and cultural jewels. However, protecting and preserving these special lands never comes easy. Moneyed interests prize them for the profits they can take from them. Locals worry about losing access to lands. In Congress, politics rears its ugly head.
To solve that last challenge, Congress passed Lacey's Antiquities Act in June 1906. This act allowed the President to dedicate "objects of historic and scientific interest" without Congress's approval. Three-and-a-half months later, Theodore Roosevelt exercised that new power to set aside Devils Tower as the first National Monument. Thus, Wyoming hosts both the first National Park and National Monument.
When I posted this blog, a friend sent me this view of the Tower from her cousin, giving the perspective of a Lakota Sioux:
This is NOT DEVIL'S TOWER nor CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE 3rd KIND... but to Us LAKOTA we call it HE' HOTA PAHA ( hey- ho-ta-ba- ha) - "GRAY HORN BUTTE". Many other tribes call it "The Bears Lodge", due to the story of a Great Bear chasing 7 sisters as they stood on a stump of a tree and prayed. The stump grew and the Great Bear clawed it, marking it. The 7 sisters became the Pleiades above in the night sky. They still Shine. The Great Bear wandered East and fell asleep. The Old Ones say that, "One day the Great Bear will awaken again." His body became Bear Butte outside of Sturgis, SD. in the Northern Black Hills.
Iron Man and I had visited this site once before. However, I had forgotten how utterly vapid the scenery was, driving through eastern Wyoming. Mile after mile of flat, treeless plains stretching horizon to horizon, with only a smattering of ranches and tiny towns as we headed north. Once we hit I-90 at Gillette and headed east, we entered hill country, and trees made an appearance. Turning on WY-14 gave us our first glimpses of the landmark.
Heavy crowds jammed the parking lots by the time we arrived, but we found a parking spot with no problem. As we headed toward the restroom, I overheard park rangers talking to some visitors. "We actually have our biggest crowds here on Wednesdays," said one ranger. "See, most people come on a week-long vacation, and they start on the weekend at one of the Dakota National Parks. They then do a loop, and we're in the middle of their track."
His partner added, "Yeah, we're like the speed bump on their vacation."
The rock-climbing community reveres Devils Tower as a premier climbing destination. That can interfere with Native American religious activities, since they view it as a sacred site. To accommodate this, the NPS has established a voluntary ban on climbing the Tower during June. I can gladly report I did not notice anyone climbing during our stop there.
That leaves two hiking loop trails circling the landmark and accessible from the Visitor Center. A shorter, paved trail stays close to the base of the Tower, offering close-up views, while the longer Red Beds Trail (dirt, 2.8 miles) provides more expansive Tower vistas as well as views of the Belle Fourche River. We'd had our share of sitting already (with more to yet to come), so we opted for the longer trail for our exercise.
The trail wandered through a lightly wooded area,
with far-reaching views into the valley beyond.
The trail dropped steadily, promising climbs for later on. Halfway along the hike, suddenly a new viewpoint opened up, and I stopped abruptly. "This is the trail we took last time we toured here!" I exclaimed.
"I saw a photo of this vista in my archives as I planned this trip."
The trail quickly demonstrated where its name came from. It meandered through a red-rocky, eroded landscape, exposed to the sun.
Soon enough, though, it returned to a greener setting, and we moved in and out of trees again. We passed one man hiking with his daughters, and I noticed him carrying his shoes as he hiked barefoot. I've tried that before. I remember how hot the rocks felt on my feet on a sunny day. Still, I'm glad I tried it.
A few minutes later, another man passed with his young son. "Gotta celebrate Father's Day this weekend!" he greeted us.
Jokingly, I responded, "Well, I just passed a dad hiking barefoot with his daughters."
He laughed. "Yeah, that's my crazy brother," he said. We chatted for a few moments. "I wanted to get my son away from electronics and into nature. I know the day will come soon that he'll have to live in a digital world, but for now, I hope to get him to seek out the outdoors also."
I couldn't have asked for a better day for the hike (except for a few clouds to add contrast to my photos). The temperature was moderate, and a steady breeze
kept us cool. We walked through the woods the rest of the way back to the Visitor Center, then stopped for a few more pictures. I noticed many colorful bundles of cloth tied to tree branches, and considered a picture until I read the interpretive sign. Native Americans, it said, wrap their prayers in colorful bits of cloth, and they hang them from trees.
"With each knot tightened, prayers release into the wind. Keeping your distance and not disturbing the bundles helps protect the prayers. This also means no pictures, please. Instead, leave your camera off and take a deep breath. Think about someone you love." I can respect that, and turned my thoughts to my beloved wife Sue back at home. Thank you so much for giving me the freedom to pursue this crazy dream!
After a few minutes, we moved back through the crowds to the car. Along the way, I noticed a man framing a photo of the tower, so I stopped well out of his field of view. When he finally noticed me, he waved me on. "Don't worry, you're not in my picture."
I smiled at him. "I wanted to say that you need a matching shot. Now go climb to the top of the tower, and I'll take a shot of you from here!"
"Not a chance in the world of that happening!"