NATIONAL PARKS: Badlands and Wind Cave

Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg

I usually write about just one of our terrific national parks at a time. This month, however, it seems logical to combine two parks that easily fit together into one photo trip. These are Badlands National Park and Wind Cave National Park. Both are near Rapid City, South Dakota.

Burris basin is part of the rugged badlands of the North unit of Badlands National Park, SD.

Burris basin

BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK

Badlands National Park is divided into two separate units: North and South. The more developed North Unit boasts a fairly new visitor center and facilities. The South Unit was acquired in 1976. The Oglala Sioux Nation owns the second-largest American Indian reservation in the United States, which is now preserved within the park.

North Unit

Cedar Pass in the rugged eroded badlands of Badlands National Park, SD.

Cedar Pass

Badlands is a term that has come to symbolize deeply eroded, rough country. A main feature in the North Unit is the prominent Wall, a forbiddingly eroded ridge that stretches for about 100 miles and gives this scenic park its name. Other, more subtle landforms include the colorful Yellow Mounds (found right along the park road), Norbeck Pass, Burris Basin and the Pinnacles. All are worth your time. Stroll the Door and Window trails and the Cedar Pass area. All of these locations are best photographed in subtle early or late light when the sun is near the horizon. Using strong sidelight will help to accentuate the many textures and forms of these badlands. Shade and overcast will not work well here.

Just off the main park road you’ll find an archeological site dubbed The Big Pig Dig (really rolls off the tongue) by locals in honor of the ancient and huge porcine creatures that lived here eons ago.

There is still an abundance of wildlife roaming around. Today’s residents include bison, pronghorn and bighorn sheep. The innumerable little prairie dogs are cute, but their endless barking and chirping can easily become annoying.

South Unit

Sheep Mountain

Sheep Mountain

Before venturing into the park’s rugged South Unit, check with a ranger for the current road conditions, which can vary. If you go, head through the tiny hamlet of Scenic, South Dakota, and into the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Sioux. Here you’ll find scenic Sheep Mountain, Red Shirt Table and the Stronghold, made famous in the movie Thunderheart.

Unlike some of the bigger, better known and more crowded parks, Badlands is lightly visited and accessible in June and the rest of the summer, although temperatures can become uncomfortably hot during July and August. Early fall is also a good time to visit.

WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK

 Moving on to Wind Cave National Park, you’ll find a stay in Hot Springs or perhaps Custer, South Dakota, to be convenient. Most folks visit this park to take the ranger-guided tour of Wind Cave, one of the longest and most complex caves in the world. They then depart without taking the time to really enjoy more of what this park has to offer. The limestone cave tours are just the beginning.

Dramatic sunset in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.

Wind Cave National Park

Herd of American Bison with calves in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.

Bison at Wind Cave

In addition to the beautiful subterranean cavern, the surface of Wind Cave National Park holds many scenic, if somewhat subtle, wonders. Taking the time to appreciate the minimalistic landscape of the wonderful Grass Prairie can yield some artistic images. This is the largest remaining natural mixed-grass prairie in the United States.

There is a good-sized bison herd that roams free on the grassland prairie. Having so many of these big beasts concentrated in a relatively small area greatly improves your chances of obtaining a variety of images. Fleet-footed pronghorn are here as well, so bring a long lens to isolate them against a mostly green background.

RAPID CITY

If flying in, Rapid City should be your airport of choice.

Badlands’ North Unit has the only available lodging inside the park. The small Cedar Pass Lodge is made up of basic, but cozy cabins, and it is located about 70 miles from Rapid City, which itself offers a variety of lodgings.

When renting a vehicle, any standard passenger car will be fine for both the well-traveled smooth roads of the North Unit of Badlands and Wind Cave. However, if you intend to explore Badlands’ more primitive South Unit, having both the higher clearance and increased traction of a real SUV are important.

While you are in this area, try to carve out a few hours to stop at Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. Even after years of seeing this monumental work by sculptor Gutzon Borglum in books, TV and movies, you may not be fully prepared for the thrill of seeing the towering figures of four great American presidents hewn from the rock.


Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer whose images have graced the pages of hundreds of books and magazines. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America with medium-format cameras. Jerry was an artist in residence for 2015 at Petrified Forest National Park. More of his work can be seen at www.JerryGinsberg.com. Email: jerry@jerryginsberg.com.