Parenting: A Close Encounter for Families

It was the geological star of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. David Murphy says, for families, it's a weird hunk of rock.
August 19, 2011

One spot along the way that's worth considering is Devils Tower National Monument in southeastern Wyoming, especially if you and your kids have enjoyed Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind together. Devils Tower, administered by the National Park Service whose extensive website is loaded with information including directions on how to get there, is a geological oddity springing from the rocky Ponderosa Pine forest like a giant, unworldly thumb struck heavenward, hoping to hitch a ride aboard a passing UFO. It was the nation's first National Monument (designated so by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 during his mad dash to preserve as much open space as possible).

Alien Rock Formation

Scientists have argued for decades over how exactly this unique landform formed. In general, it appears magma forced it's way to near the surface some 50 or 60 million years ago, and a couple of ocean invasions later, the weaker exterior rocks were washed away, leaving the tower we see today. One thing's for sure: it's been drawing lots of attention ever since people first laid eyes on it. Ancient Plains Indian tribes considered the site sacred, and Native Americans still scale its sides to place feathers and other offerings high on its face. In fact, sporting climbs are discouraged during June when the Native Americans make their spiritual ascents. In other months, climbing is limited.

The first recorded climb was made in 1893 by two ranchers who fashioned a 350-foot wooden ladder that was hammered into a crevice running up the monolith's side. Technical climbers have been making the ascent since 1937. In 1941, a man named George Hopkins parachuted onto the summit as a publicity stunt. The stunt gained even more publicity when Hopkins was unable to get himself down. It took six days to find climbers skilled and able enough to rescue him.

Assuming you and your kids are not armed with ropes and pick axes when you arrive, here's what a family can do at Devils Tower. There are trails around the monument's base that wind through the forest, snaking past ancient boulders fallen from the tower's face. This makes for a good, family-friendly hike. Bring your binoculars, as you may be able to spot climbers on the tower's sheer face. Also, look out for wildlife along the trail. Chipmunks are plentiful, and nearby, prairie dogs can be spotted. Pronghorn deer and coyote inhabit the area around the monument. Porcupines and raccoons are also common, along with many bird species.


Movie fans will be sorry to learn that no clearing exists for alien space landings, as depicted in Close Encounters... but much of the countryside and the monument itself bring back vivid images from the film, as a lot of the action was shot in and around the Devils Tower parkland.

It's a great stop on the way to Yellowstone National Park from Colorado, a little out of the way perhaps, but worth seeing for a couple of hours. Plus, it's fun trying to spot the tower as you approach, and it's oh-so-weird-looking once you do. There's nothing else like Devils Tower anywhere in the area, or anywhere period, for that matter, and it presents a stark contrast to the many other geological features a family encounters when traveling through the west.

---David Murphy

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