Editor’s note: WOODALLSCM.com will be highlighting KOA’s 40- and 50-Year partners that were honored at this year’s Virtual Convention. This is the first part in the four-part series.
If it wasn’t for famed movie director Steven Spielberg, there likely wouldn’t be a Devil’s Tower/Black Hills KOA Journey.
In 1976, the area around the then-not-so-famous Devils Tower National Monument was essentially empty except for a small store close to the monument’s front gate. The rest of the area consisted of vast Wyoming ranch land, much of it owned by the Driskill family.
“Spielberg had a script for a movie and was looking for locations to shoot,” said current KOA owner
. “He sent a location manager our way. The story goes that as he pulled up in his rental car, he found a phone (no cell phones back then) and called Spielberg and said, “I found the perfect spot.”
The movie was, of course, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was filmed in 1976 and featured the iconic Devils Tower as a central character. The movie swept the Academy Awards that year and cemented Spielberg as a leading big production director.
The Driskill family watched all of the activity around the monument and figured it was time for campers to have something other than the primitive sites available on the federal land.
Family matriarch Ellen Driskill opened the park at the end of the 1979 camping season, and in 1980 joined the KOA system.
“I went to work for her in 1981,” said Zannie, who now owns and operates the park with husband, Ogden. When Ellen decided to retire in 2002, their son Matt returned from the military and ran the park until a tragic accident at the park took his life in 2011.
After the accident, Ogden, Zannie and their children stepped back in and took over the KOA.
The campground has grown to include 130 RV sites, 12 cabins, 5 tipis and 70 tent sites. It also has a full-service restaurant and an expanded store. Zannie was the local postmaster for 30 years, and the U.S. Post Office still sits on campground property. The campground is a family affair, with four generations now involved.
The post-film popularity of Devils Tower also led the State of Wyoming to beef up its Department of Tourism, which prior to the movie had consisted mostly of an annual printed map. Since then, the Devils Tower Monument has always been featured on the state’s tourism promotions, and the campground plays a central role.
The KOA has transformed over the years, adding more sites, adjusting land use to bring in a new 18-hole mini-golf course and expanded playground. But while Zannie says they love providing activities such as their popular hayride, she shies away from adding activities that will distract from the natural outdoor activities the site offers.
“We want them to put down the gadgets, get away from the TV and get outside,” she said.
The camper base at Devils Tower/Black Hills KOA Journey has also evolved. The park once held the distinction of having the lower average camper night – one night flat – in the KOA system. “We were just a stopover between the Black Hills and Yellowstone,” she said. “Now, people are staying longer, and the RVs have gotten bigger.”
One thing hasn’t changed since 1980. Every night during the summer camping season, you can bring your lawn chair, pull up close to the outdoor movie screen and watch Spielberg’s classic movie, while the real Devils Tower looms over your shoulder.