Aliens and Bears. That’s what Brian and I think of when someone mentions Bear’s Lodge – better known to most as Devil’s Tower – made famous in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I’m going to refer to it as Bear’s Lodge throughout this article. I’ll explain why later.
Coming down Highway 24 from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you could see it peeking through the hills from several miles away. The excitement started building at our first sighting! We pulled into a KOA right next to the Lodge. It was very cool seeing the it right outside of our RV’s windows – its presence a bit surreal.
We were only there for one night, so we got the RV settled and took off straight to the visitors’ center each of us more and more excited as we wound round the hill. A lot of people say it’s shorter than they expected. I think the width creates a perception of it not being so tall. It’s about 867 feet from base to top. What we both felt was its presence. Whatever reason you put to it – massive, solid rock or energetic space or spiritual ‘beingness’ – it’s impressive.
Walking through the visitors’ center, you get a lot of the science behind the formation itself and the history of the area. I highly recommend going inside when you get there. They also gave us tips on the best hikes. Since we only had the day, and it was already late afternoon, we decided to do the circular Tower Trail hike, which takes you around the base of the formation through a lovely ponderosa pine forest.
What they say about there being many faces to Bear’s Lodge is true. Each “side” is different as are the views surrounding it. You start with sparse trees leading to a large boulder field caused by rocks breaking off from the Lodge and rolling down. The field covers about 13 acres surrounding about half of the formation and has boulders that can be as large as buses!
Besides faces of the rock, there are faces in the rock!
Walking further (to the right) around the Lodge, you move into an area with more trees. Birds sing and squirrels scamper through the brush. Turkey vultures circle and soar above the Lodge, catching the late afternoon updrafts. There are still some boulders here, but they’re thinning out in favor of grasses, shrubs, and trees. Further still and the view ahead shows you a gorgeous, expansive valley. There are benches off the trail there; so we sat, enjoying the view and gentle warmth of the setting sun.
Circling farther around, we see a group gathered watching some climbers descend the Lodge. When you see people standing on a ledge high up the formation, you realize just how big it really is. With my bare eyes, they were just a small splash of color amidst the stone. They are doing what’s called “crack climbing” where you insert anchors into the cracks and move them with you – no permanent bolts. However, there are bolts in some areas that were put in back in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Personally, I’m not fond of people rock climbing on sacred places – period. I’ll allow that crack climbing is better than permanent bolts though. Maybe crack climbers will someday climb up and remove the bolts as a way to give back to the Lodge.
We left climber support to their cheering and meandered on our way. At this point, the sun was in its golden hour, sending warm light through the trees and onto the ‘back’ side of the Lodge. It was quiet, with very few people, and we even saw a deer. It was lovely, peaceful.
We wound our way back to the parking lot, thoroughly happy and relaxed. What an amazing experience! Everyone we came across was smiling and serene. It was as if walking the circle around the Lodge was a meditative maze given to us by Mother Nature. It left me feeling…something I can’t quite explain. Peaceful. Relaxed. Awed. Yes, yes, and yes…and something more.
Science Snippet: The Geology
The stone itself is igneous – coming from a lava intrusion into the surrounding sedimentary layers. This wasn’t really a volcano as it was all happening beneath the surface. As the wind, rain, and Belle Fourche River eroded the area, the softer layers were carried away leaving the harder hexagonal columns that are now Bear’s Lodge. Erosion is still happening, of course, as evidenced by the boulder field I mentioned above.
Why Bear’s Lodge
I call it Bear’s Lodge out of respect for the names given it by local Native tribes long before Europeans came to the area. Some call it Bear’s Lodge, Bear’s Tipi, or Mato Tipila in Lakota – essentially because so many bears used to live in the area. It’s been explained that the tall rock was obviously special because it is so different from the surrounding area, so it was sacred and many ceremonies were held there – still are, in fact.
There are prayer ties all around the trees surrounding Bear’s Lodge with signs asking not to disturb them. Prayer ties are just that – strips of cotton in various colors, depending on your prayer, that are tied to tree branches. You put your prayers into the tie and the elements – as they wear away the cloth – help carry those prayers to Great Spirit. The intention is similar to Tibetan prayer flags or Irish rag trees.
The tribes’ stories about Bear’s Lodge are different in the details, but the gist of it is someone was being chased by a big bear. The person or people made it to the top of the rock, which was either already high or grew to help them escape the bear, and the big bear made the claw marks on the rock trying to get to them. I can totally see how people would come up with that. Some of the stories include seven people to incorporate the constellation known as the Pleides or Seven Sisters since it is in the sky above the lodge. You can search the Internet for these stories, though the monument’s site has a great collection of them.
Even though we had only a short couple of hours to discover Bear’s Lodge, it was well worth the stop. For Brian, visiting Devil’s Tower was a childhood dream come true! For me, exploring Bear’s Lodge started out as something I did for Brian, and ended as a beautiful experience on sacred land.
Thanks for joining us as we live the journey…