Devils Tower and the Red Beds Trail: Close Encounters of the Natural Kind

“Well I guess you’ve noticed … something’s a little strange with dad”

~ Roy Neary, after sculpting Devils Tower out of mashed potatoes in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind

It is impossible to look at Devils Tower without thinking about Close Encounters of the Third Kind. At least for my generation. Stephen Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi classic burned the tower’s image into my squishy twelve-year-old brain, linking it forever with extra-terrestrial life forms visiting earth. It was the first time I had ever seen Devils Tower, and it would be forty-five years before I saw it in person.

The night before we hiked, we camped in a KOA – not our usual style of campground – where we were able to set up our tent with a clear view of Satans spire, which loomed over us a mere 1,300 yards away. Had we prepared mashed potatoes for dinner, I would surely have sculpted a starchy replica of the beautiful butte in anticipation of the next day’s hike. As it was, I gobbled down a sandwich that evening without a thought of making art out of it.

Pro tip: If you have never had the pleasure of seeing “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, the Devils Tower / Black Hills KOA Journey shows the entire film every evening on an outdoor screen. Parts of the movie were filmed on the grounds.

We slept well, and at 7:30 the next morning we were stepping off onto the Red Beds Trail.

We started our trek through grassy forest dotted with pines. Within moments, we were treated to unobstructed views of the 867-foot tower as it stretched skyward, the morning sun rising behind it. When we weren’t gawking at the tower, the view south was also first-rate. Through breaks in tall, Ponderosa pines, we could see for miles over the undulating Wyoming prairie. The Belle Fourche River meandered through the grassy plains, a wandering silver thread on a mottled blanket of green and brown.

As our circumnavigation of this singular formation continued, we descended the sizable mound that forms the base on which Devils Towers sits. The particulars of the tower’s geology are unsettled. From the National Park Service website:

“Geologists have studied the formation since the late 1800s, and today still wonder how it formed. Although much of the Tower’s geologic story is agreed upon, theories differ on certain details. Devils Tower may appear as if it thrust up through the ground, but this dramatic feature was exposed gradually through the processes of weathering and erosion. We know that the Tower is formed of a rare igneous rock, phonolite porphyry, and is the largest example of columnar jointing in the world.

If you’re a person who is really into columnar jointing, this may be the place for you, although I have no idea how anyone could concentrate on geology with the excitement of imminent first contact. If, on the other hand, you are just out to appreciate the nature … and you can keep your extra-terrestrial anticipation in check, this is a fantastic place to hike. We continued around the south side of the tower.

As we tramped, and the tower slowly sank behind the hill to the north, some movement attracted our attention. A furry, brown head poked up out of the tall grass to our right and chirped a familiar chip. The marmot stood, unperturbed, and watched our passing with a mild interest before returning to rooting for … well, whatever it is that marmots root for. The trail took us along the base of some yellow and beige cliffs, where the tower was completely lost from view. Stately mariposa lilies stood at attention as we passed, while less formal wildflowers brightened the grasslands with flecks of color. We passed bright-yellow prairie sunflower, white and pink honeysuckle gaura, and purple thistle as we worked our way around Devils Tower.

Halfway through our trek, and due east of the tower, we passed another point of interest, the one for which the Red Beds Trail was named: the Spearfish Formation.

Wait. What?

Yes, I know. But the Spearfish Formation is a heterogeneous red bed formation (an iron-rich layer of sedimentary rock) and, formed roughly 200 million years ago, is the oldest exposed rock in the area. Alright, that’s enough general geologic jargon – the Red Beds were cool! Deep rust-colored cliffs arced off to the east, encircling the KOA campground where we could make out our tents some hundred feet below. We hiked through a little bit of this ruddy landscape before turning north and plunging back into Great Plains grasslands.

Over the next mile we ascended around the tower and back towards the trailhead. The last mile of this short hike passed pleasantly as we traipsed through more stands of Ponderosa pines bestrewn with boulders. There was no escaping the tower, a tall, grey sentinel observing our hike.

When we returned to our starting point, we headed to the visitor center to stamp our National Park Passports.

The National Park Passport is modeled after the U.S. passport and provides a fun way to log your visits to national parks and monuments. From their website: “Take your Passport to any national park visitor center or park store and get your free ink stamp with the date and location of your visit. Personalize your Passport even more by adding stickers, logging your favorite hiking trails, and mapping your next adventure.” You can purchase one online or at almost any park store.

The Red Beds Trail was three miles of pleasant hiking and spectacular scenery. Devils Tower is a monument that cannot be truly appreciated until one comes face to rock face with it. Most of us have at least seen a picture of this unique formation. Pictures, as they say, don’t do it justice. It’s bigger and more impressive that it looks on film, filled with a solemn majesty that’s hard to quantify. When you see it in person you’ll be so impressed you’ll immediately want to phone home. Sorry, wrong Spielberg movie. ♦

Date: July 10, 2022
Location: Devil’s Tower National Monument, WY
Trailhead: 44.590232, -104.719658
Distance: 2.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 388 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

BIT|Hiker acknowledges the indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research for this post indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Apsáalooke (Crow), Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Tséstho’e (Cheyenne), and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ.

One thought on “Devils Tower and the Red Beds Trail: Close Encounters of the Natural Kind

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s