Most people are familiar with Devils Tower thanks to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the cult classic movie from the late 1970s. If it’s not ringing any bells, the landmark is a monolithic geological feature which rises up from a relatively flat landscape in eastern Wyoming and was the nation’s very first National Monument. It is sacred to over 20 tribal groups and is also referred to as Bear Lodge to some. The oral histories of the giant formation are what are so intriguing. It is a unique landform and it certainly piques one's curiosity. My family and I have been there twice in the last two years – we love the unassuming park and the accessibility it provides to families with children (like mine) and those who are recovering from injury and are not up for gnarly backcountry hikes (again yet like me.)
Gear Needs: Ponderosa Pants, sturdy hiking boots or comfortable sneakers, water, phone/camera, small daypack, snacks.
Devils Tower National Monument Planning
If you listen to one tip I have it is this: arrive early in the day. The parking for this lovely site is limited. I’m talking RVs up the side of the entry, making it hard for everyone by noon. In addition to being full a lot of summer days, pay particular attention to the time surrounding the Sturgis Motorcycle rally (or avoid it entirely, because it’s super busy during that time!)
Make sure to hit the Visitors Center before you start hiking. The kids can partake in the Junior Ranger program along the way. That’s also where you’ll find vault toilets, permit stations for climbers, and a small gift shop inside the building.
June in the park means the observation of a voluntary climbing closure. This is a longtime understanding between climbers and area tribal leaders and is a best practice to respect if you are planning time on the ropes while at the monument. Let's be real: Wyoming is vast and the Black Hills of South Dakota are a short drive away, so there is ample climbing country!
The golden rule applies here as it does any hike ensemble: wear layers! The weather is lovely around the base of the formation but I really recommend covering arms and legs if you plan to scramble or climb, or do more than walk the paved trail. That’s where your Pondo Pants come into play!
Hiking In and Around Devils Tower
This popular trail starts at the Visitor’s Center in the parking lot area and is paved (at least it’s paved as far as we were able to go.) The route was under construction, so it was one way in and out when we were at the park. Along the way, a vista offers cool breezes and the delight of watching birds surfing thermals.
This short trail is by far the most popular with guests and is a widely used access point for climbers. Since it’s paved and an easy grade, with just a modest incline, families, wheelchairs, and just about every kind of hiker is able to easily access this part of the park. Afternoons can mean sudden thunderstorms, so pay attention to the weather if you’re setting out on a mid-day hike.
Benches are placed in a few spots along the trail. As you move from the switchbacks of the lower portion, you may spot a Ranger presentation about the geology of the park. Tethered to the trees are brightly colored swatches of fabric, left by people during the many spiritual ceremonies and tribal observations within these lands. The colors are beautiful, reminiscent of prayer flags in the Himalayas.
We were lucky enough to be walking by during a drum ceremony. We didn’t linger, as to not be disrespectful or disruptive. But it was a really neat experience to see another of the multiple uses at this special site.
The boulder field is only a short distance – maybe .25 miles up the Tower Loop trail. It’s considered part of the June climbing closure, so we planned an August visit, since the kids wanted nothing more than to scuttle and scramble around the rocks for hours. I would only recommend allowing this if you’ve prepared with good shoes and long pants. My ponderosa pants were lifesavers in protecting my skin from the rough rocks.
Even though it seems much more benign than taking ropes and carabiners up the tower faces, it’s still not without risk to climb around in the boulder field and should be done with caution and care. I always hike and climb in my Chacos, but closed toe hiking boots would have been better for this landscape. I expected my beloved Ponderosa Pants to come out of the experience scuffed and tattered, but they held up to the scraping and scooting really well!
This 1.5 mile trail is down a short dirt road. The parking lot is small and is in the middle of a prairie flat. We didn’t end up taking this hike due to lack of time, but, it’s worth a stop on the way out of the park even if you’re not going to hike it, since it offers lovely, unobstructed views of the Tower formation (and there were only two other people there when we pulled in!) It was so nice in fact, it ended up being our photo for our holiday card for the year.
Though this is NOT a backcountry experience, it can easily fill a day and is full of adventure. I love this little day trip for getting the kids into the outdoors in a manageable atmosphere that also allows me to enjoy my time! (Sometimes, super technical trails and more lengthy hikes mean more stress for me as I keep our little trio safe and supplied!)
We have spotted lots of birds and small mammals, as well as a very young fawn while hiking here. The crowds tend to gather around lunch time, so being an early bird is key if you are like us and avoid hoards of visitors when possible.
Make sure to dress appropriately if you’re going off trail. Long pants, like the durable Ponderosa Pants will save your skin. Sturdy shoes and lots of water and sunscreen are also recommended.
Devils Tower National Monument is part of the National Park System and requires an entry fee to access the trails and Visitor’s Center. The permit station is adjacent to a KOA campground and gets pretty congested at times. (We waited 45 minutes in a traffic queue to get through the signal lights to the permit station.) It’s worth the wait.
Amanda Jones, Alpine Parrot Trail Team Member
I’m an exceptionally average adventurer living in the Midwest, with a penchant for scuba diving and sushi. I really should think about migrating toward the ocean with those interests! I love slow travel through state and National Parks. I work in the natural resource industry and love sharing stories about travel and exploring in nature. My formal education is wildlife management and I love to incorporate birding and wildlife viewing into my family adventures.