When you come across a natural wonder as strange as Wyoming's Devils Tower National Monument, you can't help but wonder about it... and maybe let your imagination run a tiny bit wild. Even scientists aren't 100% certain how the massive stone structure came to exist-- theories range from it being a volcanic plug to being the neck of an extinct volcano. They do know that the tower was formed from an igneous material (aka cooled magma, which is the cause of the hexagonal columns) and erosion has definitely played a role in the creation of the tower we see today.

But enough of the science; the stories, myths and legends surrounding the tower are much more interesting, anyways. Devils Tower has been a sacred site for Native Americans since they happened upon it centuries ago. Different tribes have different stories, but they're all very similar. The Lakota and the Kiowa tell a tale of two young girls who, while out playing, were spotted by seveal enormous bears who began to give chase. The girls, in an attempt to escape, climbed to the top of Devils Tower, and then fell to their knees and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them as the bears began to scale the rocks behind them. The Great Spirit raised the rock to the heavens, and as the cliff grew steeper, the bears fell backwards, their claw marks as they tried to hang on being the ridges on the side of the tower. Once the rock reached the sky, the girls were turned into stars-- the constellation we know today as the Pleiades.

A Sioux version has two boys being chased by a huge bear named Mato-- they climb onto the rock and pray to the creator Wakan Tanka, who raises the rock as the bear falls down the side, leaving the scratch marks. The boys are then rescued by an eagle named Wanblee, and Mato sulks off to Bear Butte, named for him. The Cheyenne version is much darker: in it, there is a large group of girls, most of whom are killed by the bear. Two escape and solicite help from two boys, who have the girls lure the bear to the top of Devil's Tower so they can shoot it on the underside of its foot with an arrow, supposedly the bear's only weak spot. As they boys fire arrows at the bear, it leaves scratch marks on the Tower, and in the end, the bear gives up and leaves.

The strange stories surrounding Devils Tower aren't all Native American legends-- in the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, characters who witness UFOs become oddly obsessed with Devils Tower, and are drawn to the site as aliens land their spaceships near the formation. Seriously, just go watch it-- it's super creepy and awesome.

Visiting Devils Tower is a tradition-- it's the first National Monument, declared in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. The name "Devils Tower" came from an 1875 mistranslation of a Native American name for the site-- it was mistakenly said that the name, in English, meant "Bad God's Tower", which was twisted into Devils Tower. Native American tribes had many different names for the site, which included "Aloft on a Rock", "Grizzly Bear's Lodge", "Bear's Tipi", and "Tree Rock", among others. The Tower is primarily a popular climbing destination, although there are hikes, a visitors center, and culture programs put on by the Parks Service at the site as well. Seriously though... keep an eye out for aliens and enormous bears. Just in case.

Header via Flickr/Bradley Davis