Devil's Tower National Monument

Roadtrip Day 9: Devil’s Tower, Buffalo, Bighorn, Cody

Saturday, September 23, 2023
Morning in Hulett
Devil’s Tower National Monument, Wyoming
Buffalo, Wyoming
Bighorn National Forest
Tensleep Canyon
Northwest Wyoming
Cody, Wyoming

My alarm went off at 7:30 and, miraculously, I woke up feeling relatively good. By which I mean I was more sore from “sleeping” scrunched up in my back seat than I was hungover or tired. Camping (even in cars) and being close to nature really does unlock something deeper in human nature, I believe, that allows us to tap into sources of energy and release stresses of life much more easily than in other environments.

It had rained quite hard for most of the night, further driven by gusty wind, which forced me to choose between keeping the windows slightly cracked with towels underneath them but having fresher air, or letting the car get nicely moist and stale with foggy windows but staying slightly drier. Complicating things even more was the gas station directly across the road from the campsite, with its nice and bright halogen lights shining all night—and I’m a sleeper who prefers darkness.

Ultimately I took the middle road and kept changing things, rolling the windows up and down and shifting various blankets, towels, and dirty clothes around the car each time I groggily woke up throughout the night to try to maximize darkness, dryness, and comfort. Comfort of course being relative. I don’t think I would have gotten any sleep at all had I not been drunk. So, lesson learned: no more sleeping in my car unless I traded it in for a van (or Honda Fit; but no RVs for me!).

But all’s well that ends well, and the rain had stopped and my excitement for the day ahead was only mildly muted by my physical state. The campsite had showers that still had a bit of hot water (there were several other tents, vans, and RVs at the site, so it was pretty full), but I frankly didn’t mind the wakeup rush a cold morning shower can give, especially this morning.

The previous night at the bar, Kelly had suggested I check out two other places in town before I left, the first of which simply being the gas station across the street. Supposedly they had amazing breakfast burritos that were worth checking out. I’ll admit the station shop was quite well-stocked with various and sundry snacks and gear (I spent some time admiring the knives before reminding myself that I already had a trusty pocketknife and didn’t need anything new). I did get a couple cool holographic “Wyoming” postcards and other small trinket souvenirs, then ordered a burrito and large coffee to go. Turns out the breakfast burritos were really just toaster-oven-heated frozen prepackaged deals, but when you’re hungry and hungover that is plenty delicious and amazing indeed!

Photo of the view of Hulett, WY from an overlook.
Main St with the bar and restaurant is in the lower right foreground, the campground and gas station are behind trees at the far right midground, and Devil’s Tower is visible in the center distance.

The next stop was an overlook of Hulett that offered a view of Devil’s Tower in the distance, less than a mile up the road at the entrance of a new golf course and country club. The view was nice indeed, and the amount of fancy new construction was also revealing of how popular the area (and it turns out, Wyoming in general) was becoming. I didn’t spend much time up there though since I had read that Devil’s Tower got pretty crowded most days, and I didn’t feel like waiting in a line of cars.

Devil’s Tower National Monument is just under 19 km Southeast of Hulett, so despite my groggy start I got there right around 9am. The parking lots were starting to fill up, but apparently late September is a relatively slow season since I managed to snag a prime parking spot next to the Visitor Center—although behind me I could already see the line of cars growing and lower backup lots starting to fill, so it seems I was just in time.

By this point on my trip I’d already developed a routine when hitting a new National site with a visitor center, so I was quite efficient as soon as I parked:

  1. Locate the stamp station to “cancel” my passport book and officially log my visit.
  2. Buy a couple stickers and/or fridge magnets from the gift shop.
  3. Find the park rangers to get a map and hiking/trailrunning recommendations for the day, preferably on the more strenuous and less touristy side.
  4. At least briefly explore and read through any museum exhibits or displays if there were any.
  5. Restroom time.
  6. Fill up my water bottles.
  7. Stop back at my car to exchange and rearrange gear and switch clothes if necessary.
  8. Head out to explore and revel in our nation’s great outdoors!

Devil’s Tower is a fairly compact site compared to most other national parks and monuments, and there are really only two main loop trails—the fully paved, 2.9km “Tower Trail” that most tourists slowly meander, and the more scenic 4.5km single-track “Red Beds Trail”. The morning was fairly cool and drizzly, so I decided to jog Red Beds first, both to warm up and avoid other people as I eased into the day (#introvertthings).

Almost as soon as I began the trail I met my Squirrel Quota for the day as a fiery little red squirrel carrying a pinecone bigger than its head ran across my path. It felt like a wonderful omen for what the rest of the day would hold. The birdlife was also abundant and lively—this trip was making me appreciate Birding for the first time in my life.

The landscape itself was also quite varied along the trail, ranging from aromatic pine forests to arid, yellow and red sedimentary outcrops to rolling meadows. I also stopped quite often to stare off in both directions—uphill to my left at all the unique angles of the Tower itself, and downhill to my right at the Belle Fourche river valley and surrounding hills and eponymous “red beds” and cliffs. It’s a spectacularly beautiful area, even with the state road and local developments being visible most of the time.

Photo of the author on a boulder at the base of the scree pile at Devil's Tower.
I’ll take any excuse to scramble some boulders.

My excitement built and my hangover diminished over time as I kept hydrating and jogging, so I finished the loop in about an hour and decided to continue straight onto the inner Tower Trail loop. It was much more crowded with families and retirees, but the paved trail was wide enough for me to continue jogging when I felt like it. Other people also provided the nice benefit of taking the occasional picture of me, as selfies never give a proper sense of scale. Hell, even wide-shot photos don’t do the scene justice.

From a distance the scree pile at the base of Devil’s Tower looks like a simple pile of gravel. In reality, the “gravel” consists of chunks of igneous rock ranging in size from mere ‘small car’ all the way to ‘school bus’-sized behemoth boulders. All along the Tower Trail, which traces the outer edge of the scree pile, I was sorely tempted to scramble up off the trail and traverse the boulders, but alas, I’m a goody-two-shoes at heart (most of the time) and was scared off by frequent signs warning that permits are required to head up the Tower.

Photo of Devil's Tower from the base of its scree pile.
The striking columnar formations lit by morning sunlight.

The closer Tower Trail definitely also helps visitors to appreciate the fantastic geology of the Devil’s Tower up close. The igneous columnar formations are certainly not unique to Devil’s Tower—they can be seen in other parks in the US, and Ireland’s “Giant’s Causeway” is quite famous for them as well—but Devil’s Tower’s columns are far and away the largest in the world. The thought of so many megatons of massive stone in some cases just hanging over your head is enough to make a lot of visitors nervous—I’ll admit I kept thinking how cool it would be if I was there to witness a column falling, and if I could sprint fast enough to avoid death and destruction…. In reality, though, never in recorded human history (including Native American history going back many millennia) has a column been witnessed to fall (nor have there been noticeable changes to the scree pile over time either). Rock is tough stuff.

As I completed the Tower Trail circuit and contemplated leaving this mindblowing site of natural wonder, I kept itching more and more to get up onto the scree pile. Finally, I stopped to actually read the warning signs in detail, and noticed the important detail that permits were actually only needed to go beyond the scree pile, up to the base of the Tower or to climb the Tower itself. The scree pile was fair game. It was time to channel my spirit animal and squirrel myself up there!

The short period of time it took me to scramble and hop myself up and over the boulder field and (reluctantly) back down to the trail and parking lot beyond was one of the most ecstatic times of my trip so far [and after the fact, actually one of my favorite moments of the entire trip!]. Not only is hopping rocks a stimulating agility challenge, but a great strength and endurance workout itself, not to mention a mental exercise to identify useful routes from point to point—especially when the field of play consists of gigantic, sharp rocks haphazardly strewn about with all manner of crevasses and holes and obstacles in between.

I was in heaven up on the boulders and absolutely loathed leaving, but the open road ever beckoned me onward, so I sadly left Devil’s Tower behind and began to cross the rest of Wyoming.

Photo of the open road in mist-shrouded Wyoming.
The beautiful, empty, misty open roads in Wyoming.

The thing is—I very quickly left my sadness behind. Joy might be fleeting, but as I was reminded over and over again on this roadtrip, there are always brand new joys ahead, just over the horizon. And it turns out that simply driving the highways of Wyoming was enough to make me fall in love over and over again with the land I traversed. Through misty stretches of prairie, past miles-long freight trains, under ever-shifting clouds and bursts of sunlight, and over rolling hills and into sylvan forests and wild mountains, I was put in awe. If this is what “Out West” had to offer, I was more excited than ever to see what other joys my coming days and weeks would bring.

After about 2 ½ hours of driving, I was in need of a pee, coffee, and gasoline (in that order), and based on the maps, it looked like the town of Buffalo, Wyoming would be my best bet to find options for all three.

Buffalo is a very pleasant little crossroads town halfway between Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone that seems to have a vibrant civic life. The very fact that there were open, free public restrooms in the town square (“Crazy Woman Square”, named after a prominent Wyoming river) was a pleasant surprise to my East Coast urban sensibilities (although that brings up the entirely different topic of how more municipalities around the world really need to provide better public restroom options). There were also several excellent coffee shops to sample (as there pretty much are everywhere in the country these days), and some nice shopping for that matter—I ended up getting a new pair of hiking shorts at an outdoors shop next to where I parked.

Back on the road, I began climbing Rt-16 into the Southern end of Bighorn National Forest. Here, the next level of Wyoming’s raw and untamed beauty was revealed. This was despite there being wooden fences, small private properties, and frequent scenic pullovers with informational plaques. If anything, the contrast of the slightest bit of manmade edifice with a deep backdrop of truly gorgeous wilderness only served to highlight nature even more. So I pulled over frequently to savor the scenery, read the signs, and soak in the experience.

The experience of driving up and over a mountain range was also fairly new to me. I know it’s probably something taken for granted by a good portion of the world’s population, including most people living in the Western half of the US, but having spent my entire life in the ancient, eroded foothills of the Appalachians on the East Coast, I just never thought about significant elevation changes and the microclimate shifts that come with that. Here, I was beginning to experience the slightly thinner air when climbing above a mile; the drastic swings in temperature and precipitation that can occur within just a few miles of roadway when cresting a peak. This wasn’t noticeable in the Black Hills—the changes were still pretty gradual there.

As a case in point, Powder River Pass marked the highest point of Rt-16 through Bighorn, and it was substantially chillier and windier than any other point on the drive. It made me ponder what it must have been like for Native tribes and early European explorers and settlers—what a daunting adventure to explore, survive, and thrive in this enormous continent!

Continuing Southwest from the pass for a few more kilometers technically takes you out of Bighorn National Forest, but the wonders aren’t confined to our arbitrary borders: the road takes you into the awe-inspiring Tensleep Canyon. I felt literally stunned when I first glanced the fractal crags of limestone to my left when I first entered the canyon, and I ended up pulling over multiple times down the 25 km long canyon to just stare and imagine.

To me, the ancient canyon’s face was a playground for flights of fancy. I saw fortresses of heroes and villains, secret nooks and crannies that held mysteries of the ages, quiet retreats from worldly concerns, …and cool scrambling sites as far as the eye can see. I would love to come back to Bighorn and Tensleep just to explore the area in much more depth, including doing some backcountry hiking. I just wish I was also a climber, since it seems that Tensleep is a dream destination for many climbers.

There were a decent number of other sightseers, climbers, and hikers out that day in the Canyon, even though I’d barely seen or passed anyone further up in Bighorn—much warmer and sunnier down here. At one “Vista Point” pullover, some local photographers were taking prom pictures for some local students with the Canyon as a backdrop, and they were kind enough to snap a similar picture of me (I’ll always opt for asking strangers for pictures over yet-another-selfie).

Photo of the view Northeast of Tensleep Canyon from the Leigh Creek Interpretive Site.
Spectacular views from the Leigh Creek/Bighorn Interpretive Site viewpoint.

The interesting pullovers with informational plaques (called “Interpretive Sites”) about the history and geology of the area continued to pop up every couple kilometers along Rt-16 through both Bighorn National Forest and Tensleep Canyon. One of the last stops before reaching the town of Ten Sleep is the “Leigh Creek/Bighorn Interpretive Site”, and it offers a doozy of a view. The Canyon stretches Northeast in two directions as two parallel creeks meet, and the layered variety of limestone formations could keep you occupied for ages. Do recommend!

Finally exiting the Canyon takes into Ten Sleep town (named since the location was “ten sleeps” of travel between two significant Sioux camps long ago), which is quite small indeed, and from there the Northwestern corner of Wyoming is revealed.

I’ve flown over the continental US many times, almost always (thankfully) in a window seat, and I’ve always been fascinated by what the various landforms and farmlands down below might look like from the ground. What might appear as just textured browns and greys from the troposphere turn out to be golden rolling hills, patchworks of farmland, sleepy communities, rippling prairies, endless ranchland, and arid scrubland—each with their own type beauty when viewed from the ground.

Northwest Wyoming exhibited all of the above, all within the two hour drive between Ten Sleep and my final destination for the day, Cody. It was entertaining to imagine what it might be like to have grown up in these environments, and I contemplated how my own environment growing up might have shaped me. The simple yet thought-provoking grandeur that I’d been immersed in all day finally saturated me, and I turned my music off, opened my windows, and just took it all in as I drove the last 200km of the day.

Simply put, Wyoming in general is stunning. The combination of scattered forest, rolling grasslands, and weather-worn rock exhibit a rawness that is even more apparent than in the Badlands of South Dakota. The naked geology I passed made it clear that almost everything we see and experience occurs on but a thin layer of our massive world—we are mere bacterium on the thin skin of the world. This feeling really sunk in here in Wyoming because the entire huge state feels this way, being so sparsely populated and less frequently visited.

I was on beauty overload in Wyoming, and I hadn’t even reached Yellowstone yet.

Photo of Sheridan Avenue in Cody, Wyoming.
The main drag of Sheridan Avenue in Cody.

I finally reached Cody around dusk—7:20ish in the evening. It’s the largest and last city before Yellowstone and the Rockies, and has long been a trading post, crossroads, and tourist destination. It’s friendly enough and has some of its own historical sights to see, but I was quite tired after yet another long day, so I didn’t feel like doing much other than getting a hearty dinner.

After checking into my roadside motel I went to Cody Steakhouse since the front desk people recommended it, and proceeded to wolf down a large plate of their meatloaf special (when in Rome) with broccoli, potatoes, and cabbage, washed down with an obligatory local brew. It was good, but I barely remember it as I was nearly passing out from exhaustion by the time I was done. Thinking about exploring Yellowstone the next day only added to my drowsiness. So it was straight back to the motel and to sleep to let my brain finish processing all I’d seen that day.

Day 9 Distance: 329 mi (529 km)
Total Trip Distance: 2,469 mi (3,973 km)

Next Up: Yellowstone National Park from East to West, and a visit with friends in Driggs, Idaho.