Sure you’ve heard of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Western Wyoming receives much well-deserved love, but every corner of Wyoming truly has something to offer.
Our family of four recently embarked on a road trip out west from our home in Wisconsin. We originally planned to travel only as far as the Black Hills in nearby South Dakota, however, we were intrigued by the beauty of Devils Tower and decided to venture a bit further. The promise of seeing a lesser-known part of Wyoming plus the pursuit of a good watering hole on a hot summer day was all the temptation we needed. And this slice of Wyoming did not disappoint. If you are near Badlands National Park, Yellowstone National Park, or traveling between the two, Devils Tower Country is worth a dedicated stop. Learn where to go, when to visit, and other practical advice for your perfect weekend in this part of the state.
How Devils Tower (Bear Lodge) Got its Name
Our first stop in the area was Devils Tower National Monument, known traditionally as Bear Lodge. It was our nation’s first national monument and was later made famous by Steven Speilberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it had already been sacred for millennia.
The majestic, 600-foot-tall butte is a site of great significance for Native Americans from more than two dozen tribal communities in the Great Plains. Many stories from these communities share a central narrative of the tower rising from the earth to save people from an attacking bear. Other stories describe it as the birthplace of wisdom.
During the Black Hills gold rush, Colonel Richard Irving Dodge led a party to Bear Lodge in 1875 to search for gold. Upon his return, Dodge falsely reported that “The Indians call [it] The Bad God’s Tower, a name adopted with proper modification, by our surveyors.” This follows a long history of settlers applying devilish or demonic names to sites of Indigenous spiritual significance. The inclusion of the word “devil” at a sacred site is highly offensive and appropriately the Oglala community petitioned the federal government for a name change — thus far unsuccessfully. We will however address the national monument by its traditional name, Bear Lodge, in future references.
What to do at Bear Lodge
The most popular activity at the park is to walk along the Tower Trail, which closely circles the tower. The trail is paved with only a gradual incline and through forested areas offering shade, so it is the best hike available for a variety of ages, fitness, and ability levels. If you have more time and the weather is agreeable, consider hiking the 1.5-mile Joyner Ridge Trail. This trail also offers views of the tower, but it’s considerably less crowded and offers more of the beautiful solitude you’ll find throughout northeast Wyoming. If you’re there during the summer months, you may be treated to a wildflower display as well.
The park is also a rock climber’s haven, however, this activity is controversial because it desecrates the sacredness of the tower. If you visit during the month of June, please note there are particularly important ceremonies connected to the summer solstice held near the tower. There is also a voluntary rock-climbing ban during this month, though some argue the most respectful course should be to extend this ban year-round.
The park is home to 40 species of mammals, including deer, prairie dogs and rabbits. Bears, wolves, bison and bighorn sheep also once called this home but are now rare. More than 150 types of birds, plus amphibians, reptiles, and fish can be found in the park as well.
If you are interested in visiting a prairie dog town, there is a community just south of the park entrance near the Belle Fourche River Campground. That’s right, wide open fields full of wild prairie dogs. If you haven’t had the chance to observe these equally curious and panicked creatures, make time to say hello to the dozens of creatures who will pop up across the plains.
The remoteness of the park means it is a prime location for stargazing, especially with the striking silhouette of the tower among millions of twinkling stars, planets, and the Milky Way. After dark, you will witness a new lightness appear from objects that appear in the deepest parts of space. Here you can also witness a number of Lakota constellations, including one that mirrors the shape of the tower.
If you are interested in this nighttime experience, be sure to plan your experience around the weather and lunar calendar as the sky is most impressive on a cloudless night over a new moon. Joyner Ridge and as well as the Circle of Sacred Smoke Sculpture and Picnic Area offer some of the best views in the park.
If you want deeper knowledge of the park, consider joining one of the ranger programs available at the Visitors Center. They are free and you don’t require a reservation. Like many of our national parks, there is one designed for kids too, perfect for 5-12-year-olds. If you are staying overnight, night sky programs are offered as well.
Know Before You Go
Respecting Prayer Cloths
As you explore the park, you will observe pieces of fabric or bundled sacs of fabric tied to trees and other parts of nature that illustrate the sacred nature of this space for many tribes in the area. These bundles or pieces of cloth are referred to by a variety of names such as prayer cloths, prayer bundles, prayer ties, and more depending upon the practices of the person offering them. They represent an offering or a personal connection to that space. Their precise form, meaning, and protocol vary by and within tribes, as well as from additional Indigenous communities who might also visit Bear Lodge, practice similar traditions, and wish to honor being in a community’s sacred space.
If you see prayer cloths or other religious artifacts in the park, please do not touch, disturb, or remove them. Whether or not you subscribe to these traditions, it is no doubt a very special place so please proceed with respect.
A 1-7 day pass to the park costs $25 per vehicle, however, if you are a national park pass holder the monument is included. A national park pass costs $80 per vehicle per year, so if you plan to visit other parks in the general area such as Yellowstone ($35 per vehicle) or Badlands National Parks ($30 per vehicle) you will cover your visit and also have access to several hundred sites across the country for the next year.
How Much Time to Spend at Bear Lodge
You’ll need a half-day to see the area since the park officially recommends 2-4 hours, plus an hour or more drive on either end of your visit. However, if you spend the whole day or stay nearby, you can also catch an epic sunrise or sunset. Depending on the season, the middle part of the day or its ends might be preferable for temperature as well. We traveled in the summer and were happy to arrive as the park opened to beat the heat. By mid-day, we had moved to our next location.
When To Visit
The summer months of June-August are the most popular time to visit both parks, however, the shoulder months of April, May, September and October still offer excellent weather (and in some cases preferable since mid-summer can be scorching) and considerably fewer people (perhaps also preferable as well). Keyhole State Park maintains its beach from Memorial Day to Labor Day, although you are permitted to swim year-round.
Bear Lodge stays open year-round so you are able to visit through the winter as well. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and winter hiking are popular activities during the snowy months. Keyhole State Park is open year-round as well and also offers winter sports including ice fishing, ice skating, snowmobiling and snowshoeing.
WHERE TO STAY
The most popular places to stay in the area are campgrounds, some of which have cabins if you don’t have a tent, camper, or RV. Given the remoteness of the area, we chose to rent an RV from Outdoorsy, the Airbnb of camper and RV rentals. Remember that the rugged and relatively untouched terrain is part of Wyoming’s charm. But this also means you sometimes need to come prepared. For this reason, renting an RV and staying at the nearby campsites was the perfect choice for us.
The closest campgrounds to the monument are the Belle Fourche River Campground and Devil’s Tower KOA, which do have cabins. You can visit Keyhole State Park without changing locations (or vice versa), but if you do choose to stay at Keyhole there are an impressive ten campgrounds within. We stayed at the Tatanka site.
Where to Eat
The town of Devils Tower has several dining options, including the Devils Tower Gulch Restaurant at the base of the tower. Down the road from the Monument is the Devils Tower View Campground for local options such as buffalo burgers and Indian tacos, as well as Cattle Kate’s Cafe and the Longhorn Cafe for American fare.
The nearby town of Hulett offers additional dining options such as the Ponderosa Cafe serving Western dishes, Red Rock Cafe for American dining, as well as R Deli also offers vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options.
Places to Explore Near Bear Lodge
Keyhole State Park
Beyond paying our respects and hiking around the Bear Lodge area, we also made our way 30 minutes south to Keyhole State Park. It’s a quiet park with 14,000 acres of beautiful reservoir water open to swimming and camping within walking distance.
Keyhole has a shallow beach area for those wanting to sunbathe or swim with smaller children, but it also has plenty of deep water areas and some cliff jumping spots for strong swimmers with an adventurous side. The park also has several campgrounds, hiking trails, a horseback riding facility, a boat launch, plus fishing and hunting areas.
If you’re visiting during the summer months and looking for some respite from the heat, this is the very best place in the area to do it. We visited in June and it reached triple digits by late morning each day. After hiking in the hot weather, cooling down at this state park was the perfect balance for our trip. We spent two additional days at the park enjoying the beach, cliff jumping, and our peacefully wooded campsite. If you prefer to stay based in the town of Devils Tower, you can easily drive over to the park for the day.