Thursday, November 29, 2012

Devil's Tower to Yellowstone: From America's first National Monument to its first National Park

by James Walker

Day 7 - Monday, June 25th, 2012

Waking up with Devil's Tower in your face is a unique experience. Opening the flap to my tent I was reminded how very close our campsite was to the monolith. So after packing up our car, the drive to the base of the rock was a very short one. From the KOA we were camping at there's a road that takes a short loop around and up the tower, leading to a small parking lot and a visitor's center for the national monument. We made a quick stop in the visitor's center to read about the monument's history. The myth of the tower's creation goes like this:

     According to the Native American tribes of the Kiowa and Lakota Sioux, 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 had become too steep to climb. (Those are the marks which appear today on
     the sides of Devils Tower.) When the girls reached the sky, they were turned into the
     star constellation the Pleiades.

A popular geological explanation is that the Devil's Tower formation is all that is left of a massive volcano. The neck of the volcano filled with liquid hot magma which cooled and formed into rock. Then, over time, the surrounding layers of earth eroded away, leaving just the hard igneous rock we call Devil's Tower.

Whatever the case, it's an impressive sight. While we were walking around the base, we spotted two people climbing the tower itself! The formation is made up of these gigantic squarish columns, some of which have spaces in between them. We saw one climber on the top of these massive columns while another was climbing between two columns to join the person on top. It was pretty amazing.

Just below the visitor's center, on the road out of/into the monument, there is a large field that is overrun by prairie dogs. This field is a protected area for the animals, but there are many trails through the field and the prairie dogs themselves seem to invite you to walk around with them. There were so many of them running around, poking their heads up, and barking at each other. We took a bunch of pictures of the prairie dogs and just a few more of Devil's Tower, and then headed west to Yellowstone.

Slowly the black hills of eastern Wyoming gave way to the massive mountains of Bighorn National Forest. Highway 14, just outside of Sheridan, WY took us quickly up the mountains through a series of switchbacks and gave us some amazing views of the valley below. I always viewed our trip as a long scenic drive and this route through the mountains of Wyoming was a perfect example of that. Our day wasn't going to be packed with gondola rides or walks through farmer's markets as with previous days, but it was full of beautiful views all seen from the comfort of our car. If I had known ahead of time how pretty this area was, I might have wanted to camp in Bighorn National Forest, or plan time for a hike, but I enjoyed at least being able to drive through it. We stopped once to make tuna and ate it with chips while we drove. We still had many miles ahead of us!

As we made our way down the western slope of the Big Horn Mountains, the trees become more scarce, the rock takes on a reddish color, and the creek running beside the road looks muddy and quick. The scenery on the west is dramatically different from the east. I loved seeing these changes as we drove hundreds of miles in a single day. The landscape levels out quickly after this and we didn't see much of mountains until we got closer to Cody, WY, the land of Buffalo Bill. But the skies were blue and the fields were golden. As we passed Cody, we came through the eastern entrance of Yellowstone National Park. We passed Buffalo Bill Reservoir, barns and hillsides, this strange mansion, and we followed the big, strong river into Yellowstone.

I must admit, Yellowstone was not what I expected. Perhaps all my experiences with National Parks in California have left me a bit biased, but I went in expecting some huge mountains and towering trees and I was a bit let down. That's all ridiculous, of course, because Yellowstone is covered in amazing features just a bit different than I had anticipated. First, Yellowstone has mountains, but its biggest feature is the massive lake. Our campsite was on the west side of the lake, so we had to drive all the way around the lake to reach it and it took ages. Secondly, Yellowstone is littered with odd, sometimes smelly, but beautiful geothermal features unlike any I had seen before. And lastly, there are animals everywhere!

At first, entering the park we saw only a few bison next to a pond and we jumped out of our car and got as close as we dared, which wasn't close at all. We took a few pictures from a few hundred feet away and ran back to our car, excited about the bison, but eager to get to our campsite. However, not long after, we came across more bison, and more, and more! Eventually we got bored of bison and almost ignored them.

For this first day in Yellowstone, we were already pooped and decided to just set up camp and see everything the next day. So we had a quick dinner of squash and sausage and we hit the sleeping bags early.