Badlands National Park in South Dakota is one of my favorite landscapes to photograph in the world (and since I've been to a lot of places around the globe, this really means something). With eroded features typically rising at most only a few hundred feet above the surrounding prairie (and usually much less), at first glance Badlands might not seem the most obvious place for landscape photography. But personally, I find this twisted and colorful landscape to be an amazing place for finding unique and compelling landscape photo compositions. In this exciting video, I am joined by my good friend and colleague Joseph Rossbach in the Badlands. Watch as we overcome challenging terrain, epic thunderstorms, and venomous snakes, all in our quest to tell the story of this colorful landscape.
If you want to learn more about photography in Badlands National Park, then keep reading! I've included plenty of helpful information for you to plan your own Badlands photo adventure. Or, you can join me on one of my Badlands Photo Workshops which I host every summer.
The Badlands of South Dakota are one of my favorite places for landscape photography, but they are often overlooked by other photographers. Canon R, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/25 second.
The Badlands are made up of layers of sandstone, siltstone, mudstone, claystone, limestone, volcanic ash, and shale. Over the course of millions of years these layers were deposited, but for the past 500,00 years they have been eroding away. The result is a twisted and colorful landscape of narrow channels, canyons, and rugged peaks.
Erosion has revealed an escarpment made up of multiple colorful layers of rock. The formations extend for many miles outside of Badlands National Park; I made this drone photo while exploring formations ten miles east of the park boundary (more information on photo opportunities outside the park can be found below). DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone, ISO 100, f/3.2, 1/40 second.
Badlands National Park is located just outside the small tourist town of Wall, South Dakota. Wall is just ten minutes away from the Pinnacles entrance to the park, making it a convenient base of operations. There are a number of dining and lodging options available in Wall, but don't expect much in the way of upscale accommodations. Wall sits near one end of the Badlands Loop Road, which takes visitors past the most scenic parts of the North Unit of the park. The other end of the loop can be reached by traveling east on Interstate 90 for twenty miles.
The Badlands are a place for creative, unfettered exploration of the abstract interaction of shape and color. Sony a7R IV, Sony 12-24mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/50 second.
There's no end of gorgeous scenery along the Badlands Loop Road, and there are plenty of overlooks where you can park and look down at the impressive formations. Most photographers who travel to the park do their shooting from these overlooks, using telephoto lenses to zoom in on repeating patterns formed by the eroded landscape.
From the Park's many overlooks, one can look down and photograph the formations as they stretch into the distance. Telephoto zooms are particularly useful for these scenes. Canon R, Tamron 35-150mm f/2.8-4 lens, ISO 800, f/8, 1/60 second.
My preference, however, is to get away from the road and hike into the badlands formations, looking for compelling wide-angle compositions. There are few trails within the park, but the wilderness is open for free-range exploration on foot. I usually don't have to hike far to find interesting places to photograph; the road follows the escarpment where the formations are mostly concentrated, so I'm often within sight of the road.
Sometimes, I hike several miles to reach favorite compositions in the Badlands, although I found this beautiful location less than a quarter mile from the road. Sony a7R IV, Sony 12-24mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/30 second.
There are several things you need to keep in mind when hiking in Badlands National Park. One, the formations can be very steep and rugged in places, and the soft clay can be crumbly and unstable when dry. When it rains, it can be like walking through wet cement. Two, all of this steep ruggedness can make navigation tricky, especially if you are hiking in the dark before sunrise or after sunset. A GPS will come in handy. Three, it can be very hot in the Badlands in the summer, with temperatures often topping out over 90 or even 100 degrees Fahrenheit; so, bring sun protection and plenty of water. Four, potentially dangerous wildlife species inhabit the Badlands, including bison and prairie rattlesnakes. In all the years I've been exploring the Badlands, I've rarely encountered rattlesnakes, but even just one close encounter can scare the pants off of you. Snakes just want to be left alone, so when they become aware of your presence, they will rattle and hiss to let you know where they are (slowly back away when this happens, and give the snake plenty of space). Nonetheless, I always wear specially designed snake gaiters when hiking in the Badlands, just in case.
Summer storms transform the landscape of the Badlands. Sony a7R IV, Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/320 second.
There are boundless opportunities for exploration in the Badlands, so I hesitate to recommend any particular area. Some very popular locations include the Door/Window/Notch area, Cedar Pass, the Castle Trail, White River Valley Overlook, and Yellow Mounds, as well as the various park overlooks. The scenery is subtly different in each area, depending on the type of rock that is most common there. Some places are dominated by white and gray formations, while others have multi-colored layers and sweeping lines revealed by erosion. The best thing to do is to drive the Loop Road until something catches your eye, and then find the nearest parking area and get out and explore on foot.
You can find amazing scenes to photograph just about anywhere in Badlands National Park, even just off the main park road. Canon 1DXII, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/14, 1/4 second.
I start by finding dramatic formations that I will use as my background, and then search for a compelling foreground to lead the viewer's eye into the composition. There are erosion patterns all over the Badlands, as the soft clay is easily washed away by rain. I often use these channels as leading lines for my wide-angle compositions, especially the ones I find in the most colorful clay.
In summer, wicked thunderstorms pummel the Badlands, creating extremely photogenic skies. Sony a7R IV, Venus Optics 12mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/4, 20 seconds.
Sage Creek Rim Road is a dirt road that diverges west from the paved Badlands Loop Road near the Pinnacles Entrance. There are scenic formations along the road for a few miles, but soon the scenery gets less interesting. Most people who travel on this road are heading to the Sage Creek primitive campground, which has 22 sites with pit toilets and covered picnic tables, but no water. There is also a developed camping area, Cedar Pass Campground, which is located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center on the eastern side of the park.