2019 Guide to Photographing Badlands National Park
“The Badlands”. Foreboding by name, stunningly beautiful by nature. Like most people I had heard of the Badlands and in my mind and I would picture it as a dry, desolate landscape similar to the outskirts of Las Vegas, with which I was very familiar.
The reality I found was a lush landscape teaming with life. I had been looking forward to photographing the Badlands National Park for years after I had moved to Nebraska. In February 2019, I was about 10 miles from the park, but scheduling had other plans for me. So it was in June that I finally got on the road with the goal of reaching the Badlands and seeing what it had to offer.
What to Bring
Selecting gear for any kind of road trip is a fun time for me. I get to start planning the “photo” part of the trip and envisioning the types of photos I’ll be taking. For me, I had two goals: Landscapes and Wildlife. Gear and lens selection should always be based on your goals, so in this case a wide range was needed.
I packed a few lenses and two bodies. I knew that I would want the bodies sitting in the passenger seat next to me, one with a telephoto and one with a wide angle. For a lot of the driving portion, I had my Nikkor 200-500 on my D810 and my Nikkor 24-120 on the D850. Other lenses I brought were a recently purchased Nikkor 24mm 1.8, a Rokinon 14mm, and a Nikkor 70-200 2.8.
I also brought along two tripods, one full size, one lighter travel sized. All of this fit in 2 bags: one was a backpack style, the other a sling bag. Miscellaneous accessories included polarizing filters, ND filter, spare batteries, chargers and about 800mb of card storage. I also brought along a laptop for nightly backups.
With the car loaded, I was ready to get on the road and start photographing the Badlands National Park!
Day 1 – Photographing Badlands National Park
My drive there was about 7-1/2 hours. I drove up through the Nebraska Sandhills, but didn’t stop as my time was limited and I wanted to make the Badlands in time for sunset. The road from the east (Hwy 44) is beautiful and gives a great preview of what you’ll be seeing in the park.
I checked into my hotel (Budget Host in Interior, SD – about 5 minutes from the Visitor Center) – and then headed off to see the sights! I was not disappointed.
The park is laid out beautifully. I’m not one for hiking, so photographing Badlands National Park was pure joy. Trails are short, and the roads wind through the most scenic views of the area with many areas to pull over. Wildlife is visible from the road and they don’t seem bothered by cars.
I had a plan the first evening to find locations for sunrise and sunset photography. I checked in at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to get their advice, and it was suggested to shoot Door Trail for a sunrise and The Pinnacles Overlook for sunset. This is what I my earlier research had told me, but I still wanted to visit each location and plan.
Here is where personal choices and planning come into play. I drove to the Door Trail and it wasn’t what I was looking for in a sunrise shot. The horizon was flat, and although the sky would be lit up, there would be very little foreground or rock formations standing out. I wanted a “Badlands” sunrise, not a “flat horizon” sunrise like one I could shoot back home. As you can see from the view above, it’s great for sky and stunning in full daylight, but I imagined the valley below being fairly dark as the sun rose. The image above is a 5 shot panorama from north to east and the sun would be rising in the northeast.
I walked over to the Window Trail which has a trailhead in the same parking lot. I had used Google Streetview to check out these locations before I left, so I wasn’t expecting much, but I found a great vista with formations rising up from the horizon. Using the Suncalc app to see where the sun should rise, I knew this was my spot!
Next it was a drive to the Pinnacles Overlook for what was my planned sunset shoot. I had a little over 90 minutes and a 22 mile drive (40 minutes). What I found at Pinnacles was what I found at Table – a flat horizon. A beautiful scene below, but not what I personally was looking for – rock formations to frame the sunset.
It was now less than an hour to sunset and I really had no idea where to shoot! I knew if I went further west, I would see less formations, so I retraced my steps back east.
But things are never that simple. Driving along the Loop Road, I spotted a number of Mountain Sheep! I had to stop and get some photos as I couldn’t count on seeing more and I enjoyed every second of this encounter. Sadly no males with their majestic horns were present, but I wasn’t complaining (and sure enough, I didn’t see any the next day!).
I finally found my sunset location at Fossil Exhibit Trailhead. It had hills to the east and west so I could shoot a mix of late sun hitting the hills to east or I could shoot the sun setting over the western hills. Perfect!
I continued shooting until the last bits of color left the sky and headed into town for dinner. I backed up my cards and had an early night – tomorrow was a 4am alarm!
Day 2 – Photographing Badlands National Park
Thankfully I slept well and got up early to head out for a sunrise shoot. I’m not usually a ‘morning person’, but I was pretty excited to see what the next hour would bring.
I was glad to have a short drive from the hotel to the park and was in the trailhead parking lot within 10 minutes of closing the hotel room door. There was one other car in the parking lot but nobody else on the Window Trail. I loaded up my D850, 24mm and a tripod and walked the short trail to the end. There was just enough light to see my way along the boardwalk.
I set up my tripod next to the railing and as my eyes fully adjusted, I could make out the canyon below and had a good idea of where the sun would rise. It didn’t take me very long to compose the scene, and I was glad to see some interesting clouds were in the sky, but not enough to be overcast.
As the sky lightened, I shot a lot of frames. I bracketed with the goal of getting the ideal exposure in this tricky lighting and possibly creating HDR images later. I made subtle changes to composition and continued shooting for the next hour or so.
As the morning colors faded, I packed up and went back to the hotel. I got a little more sleep, did some work and headed back out to continue the second day of photographing Badlands National Park!
This past spring had brought a lot of water to the Midwest – damaging amounts in some places resulted in record flooding. One benefit of the rainfall was the abundance of wildflowers throughout the Badlands. I found one area where they were quite prevalent and shot some with my 14mm lens to get the flower in the foreground and the rocks in the background. In many cases my camera was right on the ground and I used the articulated screen to compose.
For these shots my Rokinon 14mm lens allowed me to focus close – down to 11″ (0.28m). It was still early and I had the rest of the park to explore with the goal to reach Devil’s Tower in Wyoming before sunset (a 2-1/2 to 3 hour drive).
Driving though Badlands National Park is easy (just don’t get TOO captivated by the scenery if you’re behind the wheel). It’s one road with easy exits to get on the Interstate. As you go west, there is a gravel road called Sagecreek Rim Road. This will lead you southwest out of the park with gradually less rock formations, but with more possibilities for wildlife.
I had checked at the Ranger Station and they said my Prius would be fine, so this is the route I opted for. Right after the turnoff, I spotted a large bison waiting for me by the side of the road! I slowly pulled up beside him (giving him plenty of space) and couldn’t fit him in a single frame at 200mm.
I spent some time with this magnificent creature and carried on. It didn’t take long to spot a few more next to a prairie dog town.
There’s something very special about being alone with bison. Trying to picture the once vast herds stampeding through the prairie while seeing a small handful living protected in a national park is the current reality.
From here I continued along the gravel route out of the park and saw minimal wildlife, but it was a pleasant drive and I had plenty of time to reach my destination in Wyoming.
I journeyed from Badlands into Rapid City (for a much needed triple espresso) and then made my way to the Spearfish Canyon Highway. I later stopped to get a room in Sundance and made my to Devil’s Tower with plenty of time before sunset. But that is for another post.
Summary: Photographing Badlands National Park
If you can get to the Park, it is truly worth your time. It can be covered in a day or less. A couple of days will give you a relaxed time with sunrises and sunsets, while a longer trip will allow you to immerse yourself in the rugged beauty of the area.
Depending upon the time of year, you’ll get a great workout of your photography skills with the obvious landscapes and wildlife, but possibly wildflowers, astrophotography and you could even create some stunning portrait work.
You need a range of gear to cover everything from a small wildflower to a wide angle vista to a telephoto for that far off animal majestically posed in a rugged landscape. I liked having two bodies so I wasn’t switching lenses in the sometimes windy, dusty conditions. Bring a tripod and a beanbag for window shooting (I forgot mine!!).
Be flexible and patient. The distances may seem short within the park, but traffic and wildlife can cause delays. Expect to see a car stopped around the next the corner as a mountain sheep crosses the road. Plan on not having cellphone service in many parts of the park.
Respect the land and wildlife. Although all of the animals I saw seemed used to having people around, I needed to remind myself that these are still wild animals and prone to unpredictable behavior. Depending on the time of year you visit, animals could be protecting their young or getting ready to find a mate. Either way, you don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – and bison can be destructive. This month (July 2019) Rangers spotted a cougar in a trail cam.
- Badlands National Park Website | Maps | Safety
- Badlands National Park Facebook Page
- Get your annual National Park pass
- LoadedLandscapes.com Photography Guide to the Badlands
- Hiking the Notch Trail (via Just Go Travel Studios)
- Badlands – what to see and do (via Just Go Travel Studios)
Have fun and explore as much or as little as you like. Plan your trip to hit the golden hours in the morning or evening and you will likely be rewarded with stunning images. Don’t be surprised if you start planning a return visit before you leave.
If you have any questions or comments, please leave a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading!
Here’s a small gallery showing the variety of wildlife I saw in the Park.