Devils Tower gears up for centennial

Sunday, June 11, 2006

DEVILS TOWER NATIONAL MONUMENT, Wyo. -- James and Belinda Livingston had never heard of Devils Tower until someone they met on their travels suggested they take the drive to remote, northeast Wyoming to check it out.

But after watching three climbers try their luck on the 867-foot rock column, the Chicago couple were glad they'd made the trip.

"This is amazing," Belinda Livingston said. Her husband added: "I think it's one of the wonders of the world."

Devils Tower, which was America's first national monument, marks its 100th anniversary this summer, and tourism officials hope that more accidental tourists -- along with area residents and the merely curious -- will come to see it.

"If you're coming for the first time, we'd say, 'This is a place you'd want to see,'" said Diane Shober, director of Wyoming Travel & Tourism. "This isn't manmade; it's not commercialized. It's very, very authentic, and real."

Some visitors may simply want to look at the tower and take it in. Others will walk part of the seven miles of trails, or plan a picnic nearby with family.

The most popular trail, Tower Trail, winds around the massive boulder field at the tower base. American Indians leave prayer cloths in the trees along it; climbers use it as a starting point for the more than 220 routes up Devils Tower. Other tourists use it to stretch their legs, get impressive camera angles or read about the tower's history and significance in colorful exhibits.

Every year, about 400,000 people visit Devils Tower. The visually jarring monolith that rises above the gentle hills, valley farmland and nearby prairie dog town is sacred to many American Indians and is a mecca of sorts to climbers.

That's a fraction of the visitors that tour Yellowstone National Park. But it's still sufficient to create congestion, noise and headaches for park managers, and they expect a busy summer this year -- even though the weather is always a wild card. Chief Ranger Scott Brown said the thunderstorm season could scare some visitors away from the monument, which is a good hour from any city of size and best experienced up close and outdoors.

The state tourism office plans to spend $75,000 advertising the summer-long centennial celebration, using TV, radio, newspapers, magazines and a billboard along Interstate 90 to catch travelers' attention. Devils Tower also figures prominently into the agency's overall, $3 million summer ad campaign and is featured on the new state highway map, Shober said.

Within the next five to six years, park officials hope to have a replacement visitor center built, or well under way, near the monument entrance station -- about three miles below the tower and the current visitor center, which was built in the 1930s to accommodate about 20,000 visitors a year, acting monument Superintendent Jeannine McElveen said.

A goal is limiting traffic and noise near the tower, spreading visitors between the new learning center and trails that wind around or near the tower, she said.

Officials envision a natural plaza eventually replacing the asphalt parking area just below the tower, and a mass-transit system shuttling tourists between the tower, visitor center and existing shops near the park entrance. But any such changes are still years off, McElveen said.

The weather was nearly perfect on a recent spring day when Horacio Rosario, of Atlanta, hung out on a bench, mesmerized by the climbers. He, too, did not anticipate being here. But since he and his traveling companions were in nearby South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore and other sites, they figured, why not?

"I have never been so far West," he said. "Wow. It's a completely different world."


If you go

Devils Tower National Monument: The monument is open year-round. The entrance fee is $10 for a car and $5 for a motorcycle, good for seven days. Entrance fees will be waived during summer centennial events -- an Old Settlers' Picnic, June 18; Independence Day celebration, July 4; Cowboy Festival, July 22-23; American Indian Heritage Weekend, Aug. 25-27; and formal anniversary celebration, Sept. 22-24.

* Getting there: Devils Tower is located in northeast Wyoming. From Interstate 90, westbound travelers can exit at Sundance and travel 27 miles northwest on U.S. 14; eastbound travelers exit at Moorcroft, also on U.S. 14, and travel 32 miles. From the north, Devils Tower can be reached on Wyoming 112, 10 miles south of Hulett. Gillette and Rapid City, S.D., have air service. The monument is 61 miles from Gillette and 107 miles from Rapid City.

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