Badlands National Park protects a fantastical landscape of ragged peaks and deeply eroded ridges. Because there are no real landmarks there, I find it easier to make my own discoveries. Almost all visits to his uncrowded park take place along the 30-mile long Badlands Loop Road, although there is more than that to the park: the unpaved Sage Creek Rim road, and the mostly undeveloped South Unit. Most points of interest are roadside, or a short hike from the road, that I am describing from east to west.
When To Go
The best time of the year to visit is early summer, in June and early July. The prairies are lush and adorned with wildflowers. Most precipitations occur during this time. Thunderstorm clouds energize the skies, while rains intensify the colors. September and early October offer pleasant temperatures. Winters can be very cold, although due to the dry climate, snow is rarely a problem.
For close views of the badlands, Cedar Pass is one of my favorite spots. I wandered in the area next to the Door trail looking for interesting foregrounds. Situated in the eastern park of the park, the peaks catch the first light of the rising sun. As the light of dawn painted the sky a delicate pastel, I found patterns of cracked mud.
Starting from the visitor center, the Badlands Loop road first follows the bottom of the Wall, then climbs to its top, at Norbeck Pass. On the north-east side, there is a large, unmarked, balanced rock which can be glimpsed from the road above. To get to its base, park at a pullout at the bottom of the hill, cross the road, then walk up the wash. The south-west of the road side offers some of the most impressive views of the jaded erosion formations. You can vary the perspective by walking up or down along the road.
The absence of high vegetation makes the Badlands landscape stark, revealing the effects of erosion on a large scale. Standing on the overlooks reminded me of the landscapes of the Colorado Plateau where canyons and ridges seemed to stretch as far as the eye can see. The same forces of water were at play here, although on a shorter geological time scale, as the sediments and mud that makes up the Badlands is much softer. Of the several overlooks, my favorite is Panorama Point, because of the subtle colors of the badlands seen there. The soft light of dawn and sunrise help reveals those colors that are lost in the harsh mid-day light.
Once exposed to air, the black ocean mud laying at the bottom of the ocean floor weathered into a yellow soil to form the most colorful section of the park – featuring more colors than just yellows. The best views are from the bottom, on the section of the road east of the Yellow Mounds Overlook, where you’ll find a large pullout. Direct afternoon light works well there, although the softer light of dusk would bring out the pastel nuances of color on those painted hills. After a rain, the colors are more intense.
Situated at the highest point along the Badlands Loop Road, near the Pinnacles Entrance, the Pinnacles Overlook provides one of the most spectacular high views in the park, stretching as far as the grassy Badlands Wilderness. A short 0.2-mile trail offers a variety of viewpoints. The light is good both in the early morning and late afternoon. The eroded cliffs are less colorful than in the two previously mentioned spots, to they are best photographed in strong light rather than dawn or dusk.
Sage Creek Rim
The Sage Creek Rim road, in the western side of the park, is a well graded gravel road accessible to any vehicle. It offers overlook views of the Badlands Wilderness, the largest prairie wilderness in the US. More grassy than the rest of the park, forming undulating hills, the area is the best place to see wildlife in the park. During a summer visit, I found lots of wildflowers there, as well as a bison herd. Robert’s Prairie Dog Town is a reliable site for photographing prairie dogs. Habituated to visitors, they are not difficult to approach if you move slowly, unlike at other prairie dogs community where they promptly burrow as they spot you from a distance.
Sheep Mountain Table
The Stronghold Unit, one of the southern sections of Badlands National Park, is situated within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Comprised of large tracts of private lands, it is undeveloped and accessed by only a few rough 4WD roads. Less than 1% of the visitors to the park see it. If you want to check out the interior of the Stronghold Unit, your best bet is to drive to the edge of Sheep Mountain Table, the only road within the Stronghold Unit marked on the National Park Service map. The 7-mile unpaved road starts from BIA Highway 27 about 4 miles south of the ghost town of Scenic, which has interesting abandoned buildings, including a saloon with a sign saying “Indians Allowed”. The first 5 miles are flat and passable by any car. At the Gunnery Range Overlook (a name that reminds that this a site, appropriated in 1942 from Indian Reservation lands for weapons testing may still conceal unexploded shells), a sign warned that that high-clearance is required for the rest of the road. I found out the hard way that the sign is not kidding. Although conditions were dry, I scratched my passenger vehicle navigating the deep two-track ruts, barely avoiding getting stuck. In wet conditions, this section might be impassable even for 4WD vehicles. The reward for getting there are great views over the White River Badlands Valley, best in the late afternoon through dusk. At the end of the road, walk to a spot surrounded by pinnacles reminiscent of Bryce Canyon, and enjoy one of the best views in the park, that you will likely have to yourself.
Red Shirt Table Overlook
With the exception of Sheep Mountain Table, much of the Stronghold Unit is not accessible. There is, however, a fantastic viewpoint situated at its edge that you can drive to with any vehicle. It is located along BIA Highway 41 which skirts the western boundary of the Stronghold Unit, about 5 miles south of Red Shirt. The Red Shirt Table Overlook is clearly marked on the map provided by the National Park Service, but not so easy to locate on the terrain in the pre-dawn dark. After a few hesitations, I left the main road and drove through an open gate to the overlook, a few hundred yards right to the edge of the plateau. There was nothing there except for a few portable toilets.
An immense basin, filled with innumerable spires stretched before me, filling up the whole eastern view. I could see in the distance the Stronghold Table, where Indians performed the last Ghost Dance. The darkness gradually gave way to a dim light, revealing receding ridges. Since I would be shooting towards the East, I expected the best light to be in the quarter-hour at dawn starting half an hour before sunrise. The flat horizon made it easy to use a graduated neutral density filter that preserved some of the subtle color in the sky while I exposed for badlands, which were illuminated by a dim, but directional light. After the sun rose, the contrast increased quickly. I tried another composition, then just sat there to enjoy the place and try to feel the native spirits. I did not see a another soul until I departed.
See more At QT Luong’s website