Stories in Stone

The origins of Devils Tower may lie somewhere between science and fiction.


By Jeff Rennicke


It is late. The campfire has burned low, just wisps of gray smoke braiding into one another. To the east, the sky rolls out endlessly. To the west, it quickly comes up hard against what seems to be the back wall of the world, a 1,267-foot fist of solid rock black as deep space and blotting out the stars: Devils Tower.

One of the most recognizable landmarks of the American West, Devils Tower has for centuries been a beacon for travelers crossing the plains and, for even longer, a guiding touchstone in the spiritual geography of a land sacred to more than 20 Native cultures. It is a Hollywood icon and the centerpiece of this nation’s first national monument. It is also the subject of a long-debated mystery: How did this dark, brooding monolith of stone come to stand in this corner of Wyoming? The question goes beyond the campfire to touch on the exactness of science, the power of stories, and the role of each in interpreting our national parks.

“There are really four competing versions of the geologic story,” says Hugh Hawthorne, chief of interpretation at the monument. Three of them are variations on a story that began 225 million to 136 million years ago during the Triassic Period when this area was locked in a dance of wind and waves, shallow seas retreating and returning, laying down sedimentary rock—the rich red sandstone and siltstone of the Spearfish Formation, chalky gypsums, the green shales of the Sundance Formation. During Tertiary times 50 to 60 million years ago, enormous tectonic pressures caused uplift, raising the Rocky Mountains and the nearby Black Hills, the intense heat infusing magma—literally melted rock—into the sedimentary layers above. Whether that magma reached the surface or not, and in what way, is a matter of debate and the source of the fourth theory. Some geologists believe Devils Tower began as a laccolith, a buried intrusion of igneous rock; others say it is a volcanic plug, the leftover spout of an extinct volcano. Either way, the magma that formed the tower cooled slowly over thousands of years, crystallizing into what geologists call phonolite porphyry, each crystal contracting to form the hexagonal columns of the Towers sides. Like an artist slowly pulling the veil from her creation, the Belle Fourche River has slowly eroded away the surrounding rock, uncovering the monolith we know today.

“Devils Tower is a special place scientifically,” says Hawthorne, a geologist himself. “There is nothing like it in North America and very little anywhere in the world. Still, if anyone tells you they have all the answers, they are fooling you. Our understanding of its formation and the way we interpret it is still evolving.”

Ask the same question of Gloria Runs Close To Lodge-Goggles, an Oglala Sioux storyteller, and you will get a very different version of events.

“This place has long been sacred to Native people,” she says. “It is the kind of place you come to in reverence.” Stories grew out of that reverence. Once, a long time ago, a group of children were playing, the brother growling and snarling like a bear, the sisters squealing and running as if in fear. Their game turned more dangerous when the brother transformed into a real bear, and chased the sisters up a small knoll. With nowhere to hide and the bear nearly upon them, the sisters cried out to the Great Spirit for help. The knoll began to rise just as the bear reached its base. Angered, the bear raked it with its claws, gouging long, deep furrows, higher and higher, the sisters always just inches ahead of danger raised to safety on a pedestal of rock.

The Crow, the Kiowa, the Arapaho, all have similar stories. “We used to tell our kids ‘don’t play bear’ because of those stories,” says Runs Close To Lodge-Goggles, laughing.

Is there room for both of these stories in interpreting the creation of Devils Tower? Is one more deeply rooted in truth than the other? Does quantifiable fact some- how outweigh the power of the human spirit and imagination? Not for Gloria Runs Close To Lodge-Goggles. “We don’t discount the scientific theories,” she says, “but these stories are a part of who we are as a culture. They reflect a reverence for the land that is important for the public at large and for our own children. It is important that they be told.”

The National Park Service agrees. “Our goal is to tell all the stories,” says Hawthorne. “People come here for both the science and the cultural experience. Both are a part of the story of this place.”

The real truth may well lie in a mixture of science and fiction. “My grandfather used to say,” Runs Close To Lodge-Goggles notes, “that the more ways you have to worship the Creator, the closer you could come to him.” Sitting in the fading light of a campfire with the mystery of Devils Tower hovering above, that seems just about right.

Jeff Rennicke is a teacher at Conserve School in Wisconsin’s North Woods. His last article for National Parks focused on Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley National Park.

This article appears in the Winter 2010 issue.

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