James and Belinda Livingston didn't plan to come here as part of their spring vacation. The Chicago couple didn't even know it existed until someone they met on their travels suggested they take the drive to remote, northeast Wyoming to check it out.
As they paused along the Tower Trail and watched three climbers try their luck on the 867-foot rock column, they said they were glad they came.
"This is amazing," Belinda Livingston said. Her husband added: "I think it's one of the wonders of the world."
It's accidental tourists, people within driving distance and the merely curious that state tourism officials want to see at Devils Tower in droves this summer, as America's first national monument marks its 100th anniversary. Diane Shober, director of Wyoming Travel & Tourism, said it's all about seeing people connect to the park.
For some, that might entail seeing Devils Tower for the first time; for others, simply taking in the monument - walking on the seven miles of trails, having a picnic - with their kids or grandkids.
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.
"If you're coming for the first time, we'd say, This is a place you'd want to see," she said. "This isn't manmade; it's not commercialized. It's very, very authentic, and real."
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.
Within the next five to six years, park officials hope to have a replacement visitor center built, or well underway, 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.
"I think the visitor experience is less for the congestion at the base of the tower," she said.
The most popular trail, Tower Trail, winds around the massive boulder field at the tower base. 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 on colorful exhibits.
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.
In the meantime, park managers are preparing for a busy summer, cognizant that weather is always a wildcard. 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 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 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 traverers 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.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Devils Tower National Monument, http://www.nps.gov/deto/, or (307) 467-5283. For information on the centennial events, http://www.devilstowercentennial.com/, or you can call the same number.