Devils Tower, America's Uluru: A strange and controversial first monument

Sacred or not, it doesn't stop the climbers coming.

 

In a remote corner of the mid-western state of Wyoming, a strange rock formation thrusts from the landscape towards the sky. At 386 metres, it looms on the horizon from 50 kilometres away, and as visitors draw closer, its composition of huge individual columns becomes apparent, jutting from the pine-forested hill below.

Like Uluru, Devils Tower is as controversial as it is weird – sacred to native Americans who frown upon the 3000 climbers it attracts every year. It's also ingrained in popular culture as the iconic setting of 1977 blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which culminates in an alien meeting at its base.

Fewer than 6000 people live in the 4667-square-kilometre Crook County, home to the rock, in Wyoming's north-east. There are no major towns, and in June, the cow-dotted countryside that was snow-covered in winter is now lush and green in the early summer sun. Its quiet roads are popular with bikers who tour from bar to bar sans helmet, legal in the laid-back Cowboy State.

The area is also abundant with wildlife: on the approach to the tower, a lone bison sits on a hilltop, and tourists stop to watch prairie dogs who peek from holes in the ground, chattering comically.

But it's the tower that dominates the landscape here, an undeniable oddity whose three-football-field-high stature is difficult to gauge. Described by the National Parks as a "bunch of pencils held together by gravity", Devil's Causeway in Northern Ireland is the only other structure in the world like it.

Experts call it an igneous intrusion, forming around 50 million years ago and several kilometres underground as a rare volcanic liquid rock pushed its way inside of sedimentary rock. The huge columns, which are now 100 metres tall and 10-15 metres wide, formed as the magma cooled and then cracked. Over millions of years the sedimentary rock eroded, revealing the monument as you see it today.

The tower is built like an onion, with more and more columns inside of it. Columns that were once part of the tower lie broken and piled at its base as fields of boulders – columns that must have crashed down like the "Great Spirits" were playing some kind of rudimentary Flintstone game of Jenga. It has been literally thousands of years since a column last fell.

It was likely the rock's apparent erosion that convinced President Theodore Roosevelt, who was a big fan of America's west, to declare Devils Tower a national monument – America's first – in 1906.

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Local Native American tribes have a slightly different idea of what happened at the site. One popular story involves enormous bears who spotted two girls playing and began to chase them. The girls climbed to the top of the rock to safety, praying to the gods to save them as the bears scaled the rock after them. The "Great Spirit" answered their prayers, raising the rock to the heavens, the clawing bears leaving scratchmarks down the sides of the rock as the girls were thrust out of their reach. Once the rock reached the sky, the girls were turned into stars – the constellation we know today as Pleiades.

American Indian religion focuses on a sense of place and significant events that are focused on that region, which is why Devil's Tower to them is a sacred place. Coloured pieces of cloth tied to the trees around the base of the tower are sacred offerings left by American Indian tribes, reminding visitors of its importance in their culture.

To add further insult to injury, the native American name for the rock was mistranslated as "Bad God's Tower" instead of "Bear Lodge" and despite attempts to have it changed – as Ayer's Rock was officially changed to Uluru in 2002 – it seems unlikely for fear of it harming regional tourism.

Sacred or not, it doesn't stop the climbers coming, even during this month of June when they are requested – but not forced – to refrain to honour the wishes of the local tribes. We see at least three people scaling the rock on this late June afternoon.

While some of the climbing routes are relatively easy, some of the routes along the rock's sheer walls are considered to be the most difficult in the world. There are approximately 200 ways to climb the rock, a climb of at least two hours to the top which must reward those who attempt to scale its brutally upright columns with an enormous sense of satisfaction and a tremendous view.

Today, however, it's looking grim for the three who have quite a way to go before they make it to the top. Some very dark looking clouds have gathered around the summit of the rock, and as we depart, an electrical thunderstorm plays across the landscape.

The Spirit Gods have spoken.

Trip Notes

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Traveller.com.au/USA

Travelwyoming.com

Devils Tower National Monument

For the more casual visitor, there are three walking trails around the tower, and the most direct is an easy two-kilometre walk around it.

Getting there

United Airlines flies to LAX from Melbourne and Sydney daily. They have connecting flights to Denver, and then Gillette, which is approximately an hour from the National Monument. United.com

The writer travelled as a guest of Visit Wyoming, visitwyoming.com

See also: Climbing Uluru - how is this still a thing?

See also: Things you can do overseas that are banned in Australia

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