Devil’s Slide on Cinnabar Mountain
History | Places | Sacred Wonderland

Devil’s Slide or Angel’s Ascent?

An odd geological feature protruding down the side of Cinnabar Mountain along the Yellowstone River just north of the national park has unsettled the religious imaginations of visitors since the nineteenth century. Created over millions of years of sedimentation, tectonic collisions, and the unrelenting forces of erosion, a set of roughly parallel stone walls descend the side of the mountain toward the river. Adjacent to the northernmost of the protrusions a bright band of red and white stands out like a dyed streak parting a carefully coiffed head of hair. From the river it looks much like a giant child’s playground slide.

Devil’s Slide
Devil’s Slide sweeps down the side of Cinnabar Mountain in Park County, Montana, north of Yellowstone National Park (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2016)

An infernal chute

It’s uncertain what association that early western travelers made between the devil and slides, especially since America had no playground slides in the nineteenth century. In fact, playgrounds did not appear in American cities until the first “sand gardens” came from Germany in the 1880s. But at least one explorer-tourist with the Washburn-Doane expedition that passed the site in 1870 recognized the strange geological configuration sweeping down the side of Cinnabar Mountain as the sort of trough that Satan might find useful. He named it Devil’s Slide.

Apparently not everyone was pleased with the Satanic appellation and its infernal associations. Nathaniel P. Langford, also a member of the Washburn-Doane expedition who would later serve as the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, wrote in a rather apologetic tone that the diabolic inference “was unfortunate.” He explained in his account of the 1870 expedition to Yellowstone that appeared in the popular magazine Scribner’s Monthly that this unfortunate use of demonic imagery likely came from the precedent of “the old mountaineers and trappers” who “had been peculiarly lavish in the use of the infernal vocabulary.”1 Ironically, it may have been Langford’s publication that contributed most to making the name stick. His Scribner’s Monthly article even included an imaginative woodcut image of the Devil’s Slide from the artist Thomas Moran, who had yet to visit the site himself. The label “Devil’s Slide” would be the reading public’s first and only name associated with this unusual piece of geology.

Thomas Moran’s woodcut of Devil’s Slide
Thomas Moran’s woodcut of Devil’s Slide based on Nathaniel Langford’s description, which appeared as an illustration for Langford’s Scribner’s Monthly article (May, 1871)

The artist Moran soon enough had an opportunity to see the Devil’s Slide for himself not long after Langford’s article in Scribner’s Monthly hit the newsstands. By July of 1871 Moran was one of two artists to accompany geologist Ferdinand Hayden on his government-sponsored survey of the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. Moran and survey photographer William Henry Jackson spent time apart from the rest of their company drawing and photographing the Devil’s Slide. Surprisingly, Moran’s field watercolor of the site focuses attention on the foreground, where at least one observer questions whether Moran purposely portrayed in profile the Devil himself as a silhouette in the stones.2 The main feature, the chutes sweeping down the side of Cinnabar Mountain, appear as relatively insignificant background in Moran’s painting.

Devil’s Slide by Thomas Moran, 1871
Devil’s Slide by Thomas Moran, 1871 (Image courtesy Yellowstone National Park via Wikimedia Commons)
Devil’s Slide photograph by William Henry Jackson, 1871
Devil’s Slide photograph by William Henry Jackson, 1871. Two figures, perhaps the photographer watching the artist Thomas Moran sketching, can be seen toward the center of the scene. (Image courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons)

An angelic reversal

The Cinnabar Mountain property is now part of the Church Universal and Triumphant’s Royal Teton Ranch.3 Their charismatic leader, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, who moved the church headquarters from California to Montana in the 1980s, was not enchanted with the demonic reference of Devil’s Slide. It did not fit at all with the sacredness of their ranch property that the Ascended Masters, whom she regularly channeled for her devout followers, had promised them. A playground of the devil had no place anywhere near the holy ground where the “Lord of the World” had established the “Western Shamballa” on the church’s Royal Teton Ranch.

When Elizabeth Clare Prophet saw the odd geological feature on her newly acquired property, she did not see a diabolic chute carrying lost souls to the underworld, but instead she envisioned a gleaming pathway to the heavens. This was a trail of angels pointing heavenward. She instructed her people to call it Angel’s Ascent.4

Appealing as it is, probably preferable for most people over Devil’s Slide, the name Angel’s Ascent never caught on, at least not outside of the Church Universal and Triumphant. We still know this beautifully strange work of geology as the Devil’s Slide. Perhaps someday the devil will get his due and his slide will fall into angelic hands. But probably not before a few more lost souls earn their wings to make the ascent up Cinnabar Mountain into the ethereal heights above.

Devil’s Slide / Angel’s Ascent
Side view of Devil’s Slide / Angel’s Ascent, Park County, Montana (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2016)

Notes

[1] N. P. Langford, “The Wonders of the Yellowstone,” Scribner’s Monthly, an illustrated magazine for the people, May 1871, 6-7.

[2] Michael Barton’s caption to the Moran painting asks, “Did Thomas Moran paint a devil’s profile into the rocks in this 1872 watercolor of Devil’s Slide?” — in “‘Between Heaven and Hell’: Religious Language in Early Descriptions of Yellowstone,” Yellowstone Science 16, no. 3 (2008): 19.

[3]  I was told that Devil’s Slide is on C.U.T. property when I visited there in 2016, but I have not confirmed this, and I am unsure whether it was included as part of the Malcolm Forbes ranch that they bought in the 1980s or came to them in subsequent property dealings that they were involved with. Wikipedia says it is located in Gallatin National Forest.

[4] Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s daughter Erin Prophet recalls in her memoir, “Mother gave the landmark the unofficial name ‘Angel’s Ascent,’ attempting to deflect the staff from using the word ‘Devil’ in everday conversation, but the new name never quite stuck” — Erin L. Prophet, Prophet’s Daughter: My Life with Elizabeth Clare Prophet inside the Church Universal and Triumphant (Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press, 2009), 103.

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