I’ve been obsessed with the Devil’s Tower ever since I was a kid. Naturally, my fascination with the ancient monolith rising 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River came from Steven Spielberg’s space drop wonderama, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My parents took me to see the film in 1978, on the verge of imminent divorce. Unbeknownst to me as an 8-year-old child then, the outing to the film was destined to become our swan song as a family. Appropriate that it came upon the imprinted canon of five notes. No matter your generation, you know the familiar lace of bum bum bum baaaaa bommmmmm….
I fell asleep in the theater back then, sometime after Richard Dreyfuss was sculpting the Devil’s Tower formation into his mashed potatoes. The scene leaves an air of irony upon me now, since Dreyfuss was on the verge of cinematically losing his family. Perhaps my young mind was shutting me down on purpose to block the acted dysfunction, since Dreyfuss and Teri Garr’s onscreen combativeness rang too close to home in what I dealt with between two feuding parents.
All I know is what I saw when I woke back up changed everything for me, and I thought that had already been achieved the year prior seeing the original Star Wars in ’77. I was awestruck by Spielberg’s glow show upon a grandiose, scraped-up mountain that became a near-lifelong obsession for me. I swore back then to myself I was going to see this Devil’s Tower firsthand before checking out of this life.
It took me all the way to last year, in celebration of my 50th birthday, to venture out west to South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana and fulfill my own pledge. Checked only by a tiny burg called Hulett a few miles away (which has the bare basics but is impressively self-sustained by a Best Western hotel, a hidden Native American museum in the guise of an antique shop and the best bowl of beef tips I’ve ever had), Devil’s Tower lived up to the hype I set inside my head more than four decades ago. A sacred place to the Lakota, Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa and Shoshone tribes, Devil’s Tower carries that ambience as the “Bear’s Lodge,” one of its many colorful nicknames. Look up the varying indigenous mythologies behind the Tower. In particular, the Kiowa’s legend to the monolith’s formation.
The main path circumventing Devil’s Tower is a mile long, manmade concrete walkway, and naturally it comes recommended to traverse the scores of igneous rock and boulders stockpiled at the base. The park does a wonderful job skirting the butte with advantageous views, tempting even the most casual and fastidious of visitors to pause and gape at a natural icon. If you don’t feel dwarfed and humbled by the enormity of Devil’s Tower, you’re in too much of a hurry.
The discerning eye will spot the random deer, which seem perfectly at ease around the scores of humans within their protected environment. The leaping chipmunks quickly become as commonplace as the tied prayer bundles around tree limbs, left as ceremonial offerings or remembrances to ancestors. If you give yourself to Devil’s Tower and let it guide you instead of blitzing your way around the base as I saw many people sadly doing, you will feel engulfed by something larger than yourself.
I got all I could’ve hoped for on the Tower Trail, as the main route is commonly known. However, I’d set aside an extra day on the traveling itinerary to take more round at Devil’s Tower. I’d done my research and spotted other trails I wanted in on, and man, was that the right call. Namely the 1.5 mile Joyner Ridge Trail and the 2.8 mile Red Beds Trail.
I got up at sunrise to run these trails, beginning right below the Tower Trail. I had them all to myself for my full run. It was heavily forested for a bit, which served up a special treat not even a few tenths of a mile into my run. I was greeted by a pack of does, who calmly spied me before walking across the path in single file. They processed without worry or apprehension to my charging approach. I stopped to let them go and snapped a picture once they’d gotten across. The trust they showed me was as spellbinding as the Tower itself.
Coming through the clearing as I resumed my run, the trail became craggier as the elevation dipped. I kept my eyes peeled with the mount to my back, because something in my sixth sense made me aware I’d come into a place of significance, something you wouldn’t know unless you’d taken the time to hit this trail drifting from the tower. I paused my running app again and spun around, feeling the height of excitement jack my heartbeat even higher. I remember the thud in my chest once I put it all together. I was on the exact path which Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon and Josef Sommer took in their ascension of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind right before the crop-duster ‘copter rolled in.
I was perhaps too giddy at this point as my pace spiked and I lightly twisted my ankle a couple times on the tougher terrain between Joyner Ridge and Red Beds. I was able to shake things off while I had a momentary flat section to trot through until I was ready to go back at regular speed. The trails interconnect with the Devil’s Tower in the distance, and the pickup to Red Beds changed the dynamic entirely.
You’ll get close to the main entrance through Red Beds, and it’s worth your time, hiking or running, to scooch through the crimson bedrock. Unfortunately, I did more than scooch, taking a hard tumble into the dirt as exuberance stymied my pivot. Gashed upon the knee with a not-too-bloody souvenir from the Tower, I laughed at myself and got back in gear.
Coming around the Red Beds Trail, I got a peek overtop the South Side Trail, which serves as the primary habitat for Devil’s Tower’s “Prairie Dog Town.” You can stop at a turnout on the main drive into the park and take pictures of a bunch of these little critters, but I was delighted to have a prairie dog away from the main dog drag peek out and give me a quick howdy on my way by. Yeah, they are stinkin’ cute.
The Red Beds Trail will kick your butt, intensity level ranging upon your endurance. It ascends right back up to Devil’s Tower on the opposite side of where climbers prefer to roll the bones up the hexagonal columns. I have a very good command of my cardio, yet even I needed to slow down to a trot again and regulate my breathing with the uptick in altitude and the rising temperature of the morning sun.
As you can see below, however, the upland cliffs on the final leg of the Red Beds Trail does offer a spectacular incentive to push yourself through them.
There’s another trail you can drive down from the main parking lot which is also worth your effort to grab a more distant view of Devil’s Tower. All told, I’d put in 4.8 miles on these side trails before taking a hypothetical victory lap mile around the Tower Trail again. I felt so cleansed afterwards, even with the dirt, sweat and dried blood upon me.
I’d spent two days at Devil’s Tower and for my own personal reward, grabbed one of my many accumulated six packs of Moose Drool beer (one of my absolute favorite brews in the entire universe) from the gift shop and more magnets than I probably needed.
They don’t have much in that dinky town of Hulett and you can’t imagine how the Sturgis bikers manage to cram themselves in there each year, but it has a lot to offer in its miniscule stage. They embrace the Close Encounters emanations as a profitable marketing tool, Devil’s Tower being whimsically called “Area 18.” All I know is that the Tower and its prairie dogs will see me again in the not-too-distant future. Bum bum bum baaaaa bommmmmm….
–Ray Van Horn, Jr.