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.
The Badlands of South Dakota are one of my favorite places for landscape photography, but they are often overlooked by other landscape photographers. Canon R, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/8 second.
NOTE: Continue to the bottom of this article to watch my Badlands Photo Adventure videos!
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 (I've been waiting for years for a decent coffee shop to open up in town). 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. Canon R, Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 4 seconds.
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 most of 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. Canon R, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 400, f/11, 30 seconds.
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 now wear specially designed snake gaiters when hiking in the Badlands, just in case.
I've hiked into this wilderness location in the Badlands several times. I encountered an angry rattlesnake during one visit; it was well hidden, so even though it was rattling and hissing at me non-stop for several minutes, I couldn't find it. It's the snake you can't see that should scare you the most! Canon R, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1 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.
The Door Trail is a very short walk taking you into the heart of some rugged badlands formations. Finding coherent compositions in this chaotic area can be challenging. The views here are best at sunrise. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1.3 seconds.
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.
I look for the most compelling and colorful erosion lines for my foregrounds. These lines were carved into a layer of red clay. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/25 second.
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.
Colorful clay can be found in many places within Badlands National Park. Erosion channels often look best after a hard rain. Canon 1DXII, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/14, 1/5 second.
There's also an incredibly large South Unit (also called the Stronghold Unit) of Badlands National Park, as well as the smaller Palmer Creek Unit, both located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and co-managed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe. These units are completely undeveloped. The South Unit is mostly surrounded by private land, while the Palmer Creek Unit is completely surrounded; permission must be obtained from individual landowners to cross private land to reach these parts of the park. One area within the South Unit, called Sheep Mountain Table, is accessible to the public by a 4WD dirt road that takes intrepid visitors to the top of the table (a "table" is a hill or mountain with a flat top). The views are impressive, although I haven't done any photography here. Red Shirt Table Overlook, located in the very remote southwest corner of the South Unit off of Highway 40, is reportedly one of the most stunning overlooks in the Badlands. While on future trips I hope to explore the South and Palmer Creek Units, for now, the amazing photography potential of the main part of the park is keeping me plenty busy. If you do plan a trip to this area, top off your gas tank and bring some food and water before heading out, as the few local businesses here may be open sporadically.
There's no shortage of amazing photo opportunities to be found in the North Unit of Badlands National Park, so don't feel like you need to head to the remote, undeveloped South and Palmer Creek Units to find interesting or unique compositions. Canon 5DSR, Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/10, 1/20 second.
Winters in the Dakotas are brutally cold, and any snow on the landscape will cover the very features that make the Badlands so photogenic. Fall has comfortable temperatures, but other than that there isn't anything particularly interesting about the Badlands in autumn. During spring and summer, however, the Badlands are at their most photogenic. In May, the prairie grass turns vibrant green, and you can sometimes find flowers dotting the landscape. The best thing about spring and summer, however, is the intense thunderstorms that sweep the plains. Although the prairie grass browns under the brutal summer heat in June, July, and August, and the days are incredibly long, the storms during this time are astonishingly fierce. Don't expect to get much sleep, but your reward will be epic photography opportunities.
Storms regularly build over the Badlands during the summer months, creating dramatic skies perfect for wide-angle landscape photography. I captured this storm at sunrise. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/15 second.
I keep a close eye on the forecast, and if there is a chance of thunderstorms, I'm sure to be out on location hoping to capture amazing color and light. Although much more often than not you'll see storm clouds but not get rained on, when it does rain, it can come down heavy and drenching wet. So, I always bring a rain jacket along with me, and I mentally prepare myself for the possibility that I will have to hike through sloppy and sticky terrain. Storms create dramatic clouds which are great for wide-angle landscape photos, but they can also bring lightning, rainbows, and other photogenic atmospheric events.
I got rained on for twenty minutes, but my perseverance paid off when the rain passed and I was treated with a colorful sunset sky and a graceful rainbow. Canon R, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/13, 0.4 seconds.
The badlands formations extend past the park into the surrounding areas, a patchwork of private and public lands that mostly fall within the sprawling Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. I sometimes photograph these surrounding areas, especially when I want to fly my drone (drone flights are prohibited within Badlands National Park). There are a number of paved and gravel roads that allow you to explore these areas, and most of the gravel roads are well maintained and can be accessed with standard 2WD vehicles. But be cautious, as the grasslands are remote and cell service is intermittent.
I made this photo with my drone while exploring the badlands formations in the grasslands outside of Badlands National Park. The quick mobility offered by the drone allowed me to find a good composition when this incredible stormy sky suddenly materialized at sunset. DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone, ISO 200, f/8, 1/120 second.
I absolutely love the Badlands, and I always find new compositions every time I visit. The possibilities are seemingly endless! If you want to learn more about photography in Badlands National Park, check out my two-part video adventure below. In these exciting episodes, I visit the Badlands with my good friend and colleague, fellow pro photographer Joseph Rossbach. During our trip, we endure violent storms, sleepless nights, and dangerous wildlife encounters in our quest to capture the unique beauty of this epic place.
About the author: Whether hanging over the rim of an active volcano, braving the elements to photograph critically-endangered species, or trekking deep into the wilderness to places most people will never see, world-renowned professional photographer Ian Plant travels the globe seeking out amazing places and subjects in his never-ending quest to capture the beauty of our world with his camera. Known for his inspiring images and single-minded dedication to creating the perfect photo, Ian has reached hundreds of thousands of people around the world in his mission to inspire and educate others in the art of photography. Ian is a frequent contributor to many leading photo magazines, the author of numerous books and instructional videos, and founder of Shuttermonkeys.