Wyoming: Devil’s Tower and Shoshone

This post is really about Devil’s Tower National Monument, but since the scenery along the drive by Shoshone National Forest was so breathtaking…

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View driving east on highway 26

September 10 (Tuesday) – We packed up camp at Colter Bay and stopped briefly for another glimpse of Oxbow Bend before a long day of driving to Devil’s Tower National Monument in northeast Wyoming.  On route 26 we passed the Togwotee Mountain Lodge, a place we had considered staying for our time in Jackson.  I am glad we did not, as it is much further from the action.

With very few cars on our route, we crossed a pass over 9,500 feet and saw beautiful mountain cliffs and formations more reminiscent to me of Bryce or Zion or New Mexico than northern Wyoming.  There was a silver structure atop one of these mountains and I cannot figure out what it is…so if you know, please do tell!

There were great views from the area by Brooks Lake.  We passed Triangle Ranch and Lava Creek Ranch.  There are so many ranches in this part of the country.  I would imagine some are private while others offer the great western outdoor experience to those willing to pay.

My notes are a little spotty but I think there was a big vista where the road crosses the Wind River.  We stopped for gas in Dubois which backs against red and beige hills that reminded me of Sedona.  Here there are several gas stations, a food store, the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center, and the obligatory large “D” on the hillside.  Making its way onto the list of signs I rarely see where I live was a motel touting “Bikers Welcome, Gun Shop, Lots of Ammo.”

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The drive continued to be very scenic east of Dubois.  I noticed that most trucks here have imposing metal bars on the front, perhaps to minimize damage to the vehicle when colliding with wildlife?  About 40 miles west of Casper we stopped at Hell’s Half Acre, an area composed of deep ravines, caves, rock formations and hard-packed eroded earth (thanks wikipedia).  Native Americans drove herds of bison into this area for slaughter during hunts.

Salt Creek Days appears to be an event in mid-August celebrating central Wyoming’s history and frontier spirit.  We missed it, and also skirted most of Casper which seems to be an industrial and oil and gas city.  Probably not the kind of place where you want to be at the bar for last call.

Some general thoughts: we invented a new road game here, where the goal is to find a vehicle that is not a Ford pick up truck; people quickly and unabashedly express their dislike for Los Angeles; there are a lot of towns around here where the elevation in feet greatly exceeds the population; a lot of two lane roads with speed limits of 65+; a lot of Caterpillar and Deere and Case equipment.

The idyllic picnic spot we sought never materialized, so instead we pulled over across from a broken down truck.  It was in this very spot that I invented the Central Wyoming Bahn Mi.  It consists of wheat bread, sliced left over teriyaki pork tenderloin, carrots, mustard and green Tabasco sauce.

As we continued on our way, we saw tons of bison, some pronghorn, not as much cattle as I would have thought, and the (self-ordained?) energy capital of the US: Gillette, Wyoming.

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In the late afternoon we arrived at Devil’s Tower.  Per wikipedia, it is an igneous intrusion or laccolith in the Black Hills of northeastern Wyoming, above the Belle Fourche River. It rises 1,267 feet above the surrounding terrain and the summit is 5,114 feet above sea level.  Devils Tower was the first declared United States National Monument, established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt.  The surrounding area is attractively composed of hills strewn with pine and reddish rocks.

We camped in our first KOA of the trip (vs. state or national parks) which had an unbeatable location directly beneath the Tower and about 100 yards from the road entrance.  This campground seems more popular with RVs but there is a big grass field for pitching tents with scattered fire rings, picnic tables and potable water pumps.  A handful of cabins are available for rent.  There is wifi and free hot showers.  The mosquitoes were relentless but worth tolerating to be so close to this magical monument.

The RV pitch was made to us by a couple from Louisiana on their way back after a trip to Alaska that began in May!  I am not ready for that step, but I did consider the appeal more than I had before.  This is our first night outside bear country in a while so we can be more relaxed about our spread.  The tent field was practically empty so I got my first Frisbee sesh of the trip with Jenni, my reluctant yet talented partner.  We cooked up some three cheese tortellini with pesto and enjoyed an epic sunset with a Tuscan red blend.

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The iPod portable speakers finally came out and we got along famously with Norah Jones.

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We had driven 440 miles from Jackson yet the area code remained the same.  Still in Wyoming, it felt like South Dakota to my mind’s imagination.

September 11, 2013 (Wednesday) – The morning was surprisingly wet but we had a busy day ahead, so after a feeble attempt to dry our tent we entered the Monument at 8 am.  It would cost $10 without the annual pass.  Black-tailed prairie dogs are everywhere as one ascends the road to park near the base of the Tower.  We did a 1.3 mile paved loop around the Tower, and flip-flops were fine.

Geologists agree that Devil’s Tower was formed by the intrusion of igneous material, but they cannot agree on exactly how that process took place.  The Tower is sacred to many Native Americans, and there are numerous, less scientific legends of its formation.  One tells that some girls went out to play and were spotted by several giant bears, who began to chase them.  In an effort to escape the bears, the girls climbed atop a rock, fell to their knees, and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them.  Hearing their prayers, the Great Spirit made the rock rise from the ground towards the heavens so that the bears could not reach the girls.  The bears, in an effort to climb the rock, left deep claw marks in the sides, which are what we see today on the sides of the Tower.  When the girls reached the sky, they were turned into the star constellation the Pleiades.

The Tower is a climbing mecca and it is estimated that about 1% of the Monument’s 400,000 annual visitors break out the ropes.  We were fortunate to spot a pair high up the east side, which was impressive and offered some scale.

Can you find the climbers?
Can you find the climbers?

The loop affords soothing views over the river and plains.  I do not consider myself a very spiritual person, but there is something special about this place beyond its sheer beauty.

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