Highway 24 Devils Tower View -- 3,920'

Devils Tower National Monument - Red Beds Trail & Tower Trail

"Its [the Tower’s] remarkable structure, its symmetry, and its prominence made it an unfailing object of wonder. . . It is a great remarkable obelisk of trachyte, with a columnar structure, giving it a vertically striated appearance, and it rises 625 feet almost perpendicular, from its base. Its summit is so entirely inaccessible that the energetic explorer, to whom the ascent of an ordinarily difficult crag is but a pleasant pastime, standing at its base could only look upward in despair of ever planting his feet on the top. . . "

-- Henry Newton (1875)


The natural world is full of wonders, seemingly infinite in variety be it through earth, water, or sky. Every so often, though, natural processes come together to create something so mind-bendingly bizarre and beautiful that it captures the imaginations of all who see it. Devils Tower, in the Black Hills of northeastern Wyoming, is just such a place. Here, rising above the valley of the Belle Fourche River, is a massive cylindrical monolith of stone rising a sheer 867-feet towards the heavens. Its composition, in addition to its sheer size, only adds to the fascinating presence of the Tower. Hundreds, if not thousands, of huge interlocking stone columns make up its structure and give Devils Tower its unique washboard-like façade. Known as columnar jointing, Devils Tower represents the largest example of this strange geologic formation on the planet. These columns might look to be inherently unstable but, in fact, they are anything but. Likened to a tightly stacked group upright pencils, the structure is incredibly resilient. There have been no major collapses of any columns in modern history…the last is estimated to have occurred nearly 10,000-years ago! The formation of the tower is equally fascinating to scientists. Though there is still discussion over the specifics, the general consensus is that the tower was formed through upwelling of magma beneath the Earth’s surface some 50 million years ago. Originally miles beneath ground, it has only been in the last 5-10 million years that the power of erosion has exposed the now-hardened magma above the surface. The softer rocks which once covered the tower can be seen in the bluffs below the tower, most dramatically in the stunning Red Beds area I’d be passing through on my hike this visit. With the Belle Fourche River still flowing beneath it Devils Tower will continue to ‘grow’ as more and more rock continues to be eroded away.

Needless to say, this is a place that has awed all who have seen it for thousands of years. Native American tribes have long revered the site as profoundly sacred. Native legend has it that the Tower was formed when the Great Spirit heard the prayers of a group of young girls, being pursued by giant bears, and raised the rock beneath them up to the heavens to protect them. The bears, determined to reach the girls, scratched and scrambled up the side of the cliffs in a vain attempt to gain the summit. The vertical scars of their giant claws remain as the huge vertical cracks between the columns seen today. This creation story lent itself to many of the original Native names for the site, including but not exclusive to “Bear’s Tipi”, “Bear Lodge”, “Bear Lodge Butte”, or “Bear Wigwam”. White men didn’t arrive at the Tower until the mid-1800’s. The quote at the top of the page gives you an idea of their first impressions. This is also the time when the name Devils Tower was bestowed upon the rock, likely as a result of an unfortunate translation error from the original Lakota. By the 1890’s land around the Tower had already been set aside for preservation and then, on September 24, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt designated it as the nation’s very first National Monument. Today Devils Tower National Monument protects both the tower itself as well as over 1,300-acres of land surrounding it. A small but appropriate network of trails surrounds it and it is one of the more popular rock climbing destinations in the country. Visitation to the Monument has greatly increased in recent decades, thanks in part to its depiction in Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. There remain some tensions between local tribes and the Park Service regarding both the name of the site as well as how to best respect its cultural and spiritual significance to Native Americans. The best thing visitors to Devils Tower can do is to simply recognize these concerns and do their part to avoid desecrating the site in any way.

On this visit with my family I had pre-determined that I would have to spend some time on the trails surrounding the Tower. Doing the walk of the paved Tower Trail around the base of Devils Tower was a given but I knew I’d want more. A quick glance at the park map and I spotted another loop circling the tower at a slightly greater distance, the Red Beds Trail. This footpath promised still more views of Devils Tower while also passing through the unique bluffs below the tower (along the Belle Fourche River) which give the trail its name. The Tower Trail would come in at about 1.3-miles in length with the Red Beds Trail adding another 2.8-miles. It seemed like a perfect pairing, and it was! The hike would start from the main trailhead located at the visitor center parking lot. I’d be hiking both trails in a clockwise direction. I decided to hike the Tower Trail first, followed by the Red Beds Trail. The Tower Trail is the Monuments most popular, and for good reason. It provides the most up-close and personal views of Devils Tower and is paved its entire length. This means that pretty much anyone can enjoy it. With the exception of a short, moderately steep section at its north end the trail is also relatively flat which makes it even easier. Devils Tower is ever-present on this trail. Even where trees surround the path the cliffs nearly always tower over the canopy. The first portion, heading clockwise, stays primarily among the ponderosa pines though there is a short spur that leads up to the edge of the boulderfield beneath the west face of the tower. The east half of the loop has much more dramatic views of the cliffs as it presses in close below the tower. There are also nice views of the Belle Fourche Valley to be had from this stretch as well. Your neck and camera will both get a good workout on the Tower Trail, believe me.

After the Tower Trail I picked up the Red Beds Trail, heading clockwise again, as it heads into the pines just above the parking area. The Red Beds Trail is a traditional footpath as opposed to the paved Tower Trail. The forest surrounding the first portion of the trail is beautiful, with tall widely-spaced ponderosa pines carpeted below by a thick covering of tall grasses. Where the trees part briefly there are some nice views of the tower as well. The Red Beds Trail now heads out long the crest of a broad ridge extending northeast of Devils Tower. About halfway down this ridge a large meadow allows for perhaps the most incredible views of Devils Tower on the entire trail. Reaching the end of the ridge the trail switches back sharply to the south to seek out the Red Beds themselves. The steep hillside here, combined with a very thin covering of trees, allows for some incredible views of the river valley below. About 1.3-miles from the trailhead (clockwise) the Joyner Ridge Connector Trail is passed and then, a quarter-mile later, the Red Beds themselves are reached. The Red Beds are a series of bluffs comprised of sedimentary rock containing ferric oxide. It’s the ferric oxide which, when exposed to the air, that gives the rock here its striking red coloration. Directly below the Red Beds flows the Belle Fourche River with broad flat floodplains beyond. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves but this is a very, very unique and beautiful stretch of trail. After passing the Red Beds the trail begins the climb back towards the visitor center up the mostly open hillsides below the east side of Devils Tower. Stunning views of the valley continue, and Devils Tower itself becomes a frequent and impressive sight rising above. The grade is moderate but never strenuous…besides, you’ll probably find yourself frequently stopping anyway to take in the scenery. Around a half-mile from the end of the loop the path passes through a series of large yellow-colored ledges and rock formations. Beyond that the trail climbs back into the ponderosa pine forest and soon arrives back at the visitor center trailhead.

I don’t think there’s much more I can say. Whether you embark on the hike I’ve shared here or not a visit to Devils Tower National Monument will be an amazing and memorable experience. There is literally nothing like it in the world. It is not hard to understand how this place has been considered sacred by so many over the millennia. There is something of the supernatural you almost can’t help but feel in the presence of this incredible natural wonder. With that it’s now my pleasure to invite you along on dual loop hikes around Devils Tower via the Tower Trail and Red Beds Trail. Needless to say, I’ve never seen sights the likes of which I enjoyed on this hike. I am immensely grateful I was finally able to visit this spectacular park and am also grateful I can share it with all of you…as always, ENJOY!!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  44.590347, -104.719735

Route Type: Nested Loops         Difficulty:  MODERATE  (Petzoldt Rating:  5.90 )

Hike Length:  4.5 miles                Hike Duration:  2:30

Trailhead Temp:  60'F                 Trail Traffic:  100+ people (Tower Trail), 10-25 people (Red Beds Trail)

Min. Elevation:  3,900'                  Max. Elevation:  4,450'

Total Vertical Gain:  700'             Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  156'

Trails Used (blaze color):  Red Beds (unblazed), Tower (unblazed)


(Gaia GPS login required)


  • No Comments