The Wyoming High Plains and a Stop at Devil’s Tower

When laying out our trip plan, I noticed that our route took us close to Devils Tower and we could include a quick visit by heading west into Wyoming via I90 out of Spearfish. We planned to make our stop at Devils Tower and then spend the night in Sundance Wyoming before heading south to Colorado.

Little did I know that this stop would end up being my favorite of the trip!

My knowledge of Devils Tower was pretty much that it was a big rock formation sticking out of the Wyoming plains that was most significant as the setting for the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Based on the movie, I also knew that it looked kind of cool when modeled out of mashed potatoes, especially when the modeling was done by Richard Dreyfuss.

We cruised into Wyoming through the wide flat plains that separated the northern and southern units of the Black Hills National Forest, and turned off the interstate on to US 14 just past Sundance to head north to Devils Tower. The scenery was pretty but not special – rolling hills, generally grass covered with clusters of pine trees.

As we came over the crest of one of those rolling hills, we caught our first glimpse of the Tower.

I had to admit, the tower looked kind of cool sticking up in the middle of nowhere.  It was especially interesting because I always thought of it as a butte, yet the rocks weren’t typical of buttes – too columnar. We got back in the truck and kept driving closer.

About three miles out from the park, there was a pull off with a state historical marker that had a bit more of the Devils Tower story.

I found the history of Devils Tower fascinating, especially the volcanic origin of the formation and its age, greater than fifty million years old. Most interesting, though, is that the rock was exposed by wind and water erosion only one or two million years ago. Again, the power of water and wind is astonishing when you consider that the rock formation we admire today was once subsurface.

With this new knowledge of Devils Tower, we continued to the National Monument Visitor Center and Store, getting our first up-close view of the Tower.

I must tell you that I’m a bit old fashioned and I happen to think that the word “awesome” is grossly overused in today’s lexicon. Despite that, there was only one word that came to mind as we stood at the base of this magnificent rock – awesome! This iconic monolith, jutting almost 900 feet above the surrounding plains, has captivated and awed ancestral generations; it’s not difficult to understand how Native Americans came to consider the formation sacred. Devils Tower was named a National Monument in 1906, the first National Monument dedicated under the authority of the Antiquities Act.

One thing that I found interesting is that the park is actually open 24 hours a day, which allows a lot of freedom for taking photos of this magnificent formation under a variety of lighting conditions, including night time.

Even though the park is open 24/7, the Visitor Center and Store has limited daily hours, so we went into the visitor center straight away on our arrival since we got to the park late in the day. We did spend a fair amount of time getting a better understanding of the tower and learning more about it and the hiking options in the park.

Even though it was later in the day, one of the hiking options was a walk around the base of the Tower, about one and a half miles in all. One of the Rangers in the Visitor Center suggested that we’d have more than enough time to follow this trail and he advised it would give us some get views of the tower under the late afternoon light. We set off for the trail.

As we started the trail through the Ponderosa Pines on the northwest side of the Tower, we saw many cloths and bundles tied to the trees. Signs explained that many of these were Native American prayer cloths, representing the sacred and spiritual connection that many tribes have with the Tower, and asking visitors to refrain from touching or disturbing the prayer cloths.

Another treat we had by taking the hike was the chance to get some views of climbers on the Tower. Before we left the Visitor Center, the Ranger had suggested we keep our eyes open for climbers on the Tower. He said there were three to four groups climbing that day and we were likely to see some in action, which we did.

The Park Service states that at least six thousand technical climbers visit Devils Tower annually to use their skills to climb the near vertical walls along almost 220 named climbing routes. The Visitor Center also has a great display on the interest in climbing the Tower and some of the tools and techniques used by climbers. This was all very interesting since we now have a technical climber as a son-in-law; I’d find out later when talking to Dave about our visit that he did in fact climb Devils Tower several years ago.

The hike around the base of the Tower was pleasant and afforded us with some great views, not only of the Tower but also the Belle Fourche River valley west and north of the Tower.

We got back to the truck with the sun just setting to the west. Night fell as we drove back to Sundance to spend the night. The lower clouds on the horizon broke up just a bit to allow a look at the full moon that was rising that evening. The glow of the moon light made me think about what Devils Tower would look like with the moon rising behind it. We just may have to get back here sometime for an extended stay to find out!

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

To some extent, Custer State Park could be considered the heart of the Black Hills and, because of the rough topography, there are limited routes in and out of the region. One of the prettiest routes is to the northwest through Spearfish Canyon, our choice for heading on our way to Colorado.

The approximately twenty mile route is designated a scenic byway by both South Dakota and the National Forest Service and it’s a beautiful ride on a road laid out alongside the Spearfish Creek as it flows down from Cheyenne Crossing to Spearfish, dropping nearly 2000 feet in elevation.

The canyon is not extremely narrow, but at generally less than a mile wide the walls are close enough and high enough to give a sense of perspective. The road is curvy (but not at all narrow) and provides ample pull offs to stop and enjoy the scenery.

As we got to the start of the drive down from the Black Hills, I decided I wanted to enjoy the scenery and offered Kathy the chance to drive the route. It didn’t take long before we got to some pretty driving.

Historically, Spearfish Canyon was an important element to the mining history of the Black Hills. In the later 1870’s, gold fever hit the Black Hills, and the canyon became a route for the rush of miners and supplies as well as a major source of hydroelectric power that fostered development of the mines.

Today, the byway provides a scenic introduction to the Black Hills, including a couple of scenic water falls.

The first of the falls was Spearfish Falls at Savoy. We pulled off in the small resort town and found an excellent trail to the base of the canyon that provided a great view of the falls. The falls was only returned to its status as a premier falls in 2003, when the last of the flume diversions for hydroelectric generation were closed to restore full flow of the creek.

After our short hike, we continued down the canyon towards Spearfish, with one more quick stop to take a peek at Bridal Veil Falls.

This route out of the Black Hills was a refreshing change from the more commercial routes around Rapid City and a highly recommended alternative if you have the time.

Day 6 – Breakfast with Betty Boop and On To Wyoming

With our stay in Custer at an end, it was time to get back on the road to visit the kids in Colorado. Under normal “hurry up” conditions, we would have cut down directly to Cheyenne and then picked up the Interstate to Colorado. But we’re retired now – so we planned a bit of a side trip, a more leisurely and scenic drive.

But first things first – we needed a good breakfast for the road.

Because we were camping and a good breakfast makes for a lot of clean up, we opted for a local restaurant conveniently on our route. It had been recommended by the camp ground host when he stopped by our campsite the night before we left.  He said it was a good local diner in Custer that was famous with the locals for their breakfast. He couldn’t exactly remember the name of the place (“It has ‘Place’ in its name”), but he said it was on the main drag through town on the block just past the food store.

The information was sufficient. Just after passing the food store, we saw the small orange and black clapboard sided restaurant just off the corner, the sign out front announcing “Our Place – Good Food, Good Friends”. It was obviously a locally owned establishment and, based on all the cars and trucks parked nearby with South Dakota plates, a favorite in town.

We parked the truck and went on in. Greeting us at the door was a large Betty Boop statue. Little did we know that the statue was setting the tone for the overall decorating theme.

As we stepped inside, it became apparent the place paid homage to anything Betty Boop, Harley, and Dead Head rock.

Even past the morning rush, the restaurant was busy with only a few tables open. A waitress rushing by took a few moments to give us a friendly welcome and point us to a table. She came back shortly with waters and menus, promising to come back shortly for our orders. We ordered our food and Kathy used the wait time to take a tour of the restaurants collection.

Although Betty Boop was the primary decorating theme, things Harley and Dead Head Rock weren’t far behind, and sometimes they all came together in a glorious mix of memories.

Besides the entertaining décor, the food was classic diner fare, very good, with healthy servings. If you get to the Black Hills and find yourself in Custer State Park in need of a good local place for breakfast or lunch, we can definitely recommend Our Place!

With a good hot breakfast in our bellies, we headed out to Wyoming by going north in South Dakota along a scenic byway through the Spearfish Canyon and then cutting west towards Wyoming to make a stop at Devils Tower.