Staring up into the thick, velvet night, with the monolith of Bear Lodge at my back, I realize that the sky isn’t black at all, but a marbled expanse of slate and jet, charcoal and gray, sprinkled with glittering stars. The Black Hills slumber hard and deep.
I know the names of many of the constellations that suddenly seem to burn close and impossibly bright. But I know them in Greek. I have no knowledge of the star stories from the people who have lived here for thousands of years, well before the first astronomy book arrived on the Great Plains. So I recount how Queen Casseopeia’s vanity imprisoned her in the sky. But I have no idea what a sleepless Kiowa mama, a Lakota elder or Arapahoe warrior would have seen when they looked at the stars.
This isn’t an abstract thought exercise. I’m standing in the darkness just outside of a small tipi, on the western edge of what indigenous nations know to be holy land. A short walk away, a sacred butte with many names rises up from the rolling, Wyoming plains. It’s been featured in stories for centuries. But it’s a place where prayers are still offered and offerings made.
A monument with many names
The National Park system calls this strange and stately landform Devils Tower. But native nations have other, older names for the igneous rock formation that towers over northeastern Wyoming. The Kiowa know it as “aloft on a rock” or “tree rock,” the Arapahoe as “Bear’s Tipi.” To the Crow, it’s “Bear’s Lodge.” The Lakota and Cheyenne have many names for this place, including “Bear Lodge,” “Bear Lodge Butte,” “Bear’s Tipi” and “Bear Peak.”
Continuing to call this place Devils Tower is very important for the tourism industry that drives the region and helps preserve and protect the landform. But the name is hotly contested. That’s in part because of the legacy of colonialism and partly because it’s riddled with errors. An uncorrected translation error makes the oldest National Monument in the U.S. seem sinister. (Someone also forgot the apostrophe, so it’s grammatically incorrect as well.) Native American tribes continue to lobby to change the name of Devils Tower to Bear Lodge.
But whatever you call it this place, its energy remains the same. This is both a natural wonder and a peaceful site of active worship and reflection. Indigenous nations place great importance on the sacredness of place, so the prayer flags fluttering in the breeze and offerings left here are as important as relics or holy texts. The grounds are as sanctified as a temple. Even if you’re just here to enjoy the scenery, it’s inappropriate to touch or move religious items.
Hiking and climbing
Hikers, rock climbers and stargazers bring their own sense of reverence to this site. Most will never climb the butte, but a walk around the base of the formation is a must. (If you do climb, please note that a voluntary climbing closure is in effect through the month of June, so that religious ceremonies centered around the summer solstice can continue unimpeded.)
Nearly everyone attempts at least a portion of the 1.3-mile Tower Trail. It’s fully paved and ushers visitors around the base of the monument. The path passes the hulking rocks at the base of the power and offers pretty views of the surrounding countryside. Since the path starts right in the parking lot and there are benches along the way, so it’s the go-to hike for those with limited mobility or time.
If you want to go deeper, there are other trails to try. Rustling cottonwood leaves provide the soundtrack to the steep climbs and pastoral Belle Fourche River valley scenes along the Red Beds Trail. We nod to a couple at the beginning of our trek, but we have most of the 2.8-mile loop to ourselves. Only the prayer flags, which wave like colorful pennants from the dancing tree branches, remind us that others have been here too.
Seduced by the solitude, we push deeper into the wild spaces. My husband hoists our son onto his shoulders and we set off down the Joyner Ridge Trail. We see no other hikers on the 1.5-mile loop, just striking views of the monument, painted with the vivid oranges and pinks of sunset light.
The face of the rock changes with the light, shifting from flaxen gray to rosy amber, then a rich orange at sunset. Purple shadows emerge as the last rays of daylight fade.
Steven Spielberg chose Devils Tower as the site where aliens descended in “Close Encounter of the Third Kind,” and it’s easy to see why. In the dying light, it is an ethereal place. All the informative plaques can’t hide that this rock in the middle of the American west is an otherworldly place.
The stargazers descend in the darkness, their red flashlights bobbing in the distance as their pupils adjust to the same blackness that will soon envelop me at our campsite. It is still hot after sundown, but cool inside our tipi, so I’m sound asleep when the headlights pierce the darkness and my new neighbors loudly clamor for their own tipi around midnight. I curse out loud as I stumble outside, hoping that my presence will remind them to keep their voices down to a dull roar. When I look over their heads, my irritation turns to wonder.
I have grown up under dark skies, spent my formative years on the outskirts of a tiny town where light pollution was minimal. The stars were old friends I could visit anytime by popping out my back door. But I have never seen skies like these.
The shadows are rich and rippling, the Milky Way a sparkling carpet of light. I gasp, right out loud, at the shock seeing something so familiar in a completely new way. It is silent now. I sit down on the bench outside my tipi and stare through a veil of unexpected tears.
There is nothing here but earth and sky. But as the first Great Plains people knew, that is enough. That is everything.
What about you?
What do you love about this monument?
What do you call this place and why?
Do you think we should revert back to indigenous names? Why or why not?
Which are your favorite places to hike?
What are your stargazing or hiking tips?
What’s your favorite national monument?
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