Returning to Badlands National Park

Yellow Mounds area in Badlands National Park, SD.

Yellow Mounds area in Badlands National Park, SD.

Story and Photos by Jerry Ginsberg

In my many columns for NANPA, I have never repeated a particular location. Until now. As a result of events described below, it seems fitting to add a new insight on a familiar location.

Being a National Park Artist in Residence

Last year, I had the privilege of being chosen by Badlands National Park in South Dakota as their Artist in Residence for the fall season. Many units of the National Park Service offer these opportunities, which appear on https://www.nps.gov/subjects/arts/air.htm. In addition to National Parks, many other units (National Monuments, Scenic Trails, Historical Parks, Battlefields and more) in the system offer such opportunities. The process is very competitive with many artists across a wide spectrum of disciplines—visual, writing, performance, etc.—submitting applications. And the actual judging criteria remains unknowable.

Requirements can vary quite a bit from park to park, so, if you decide to apply, make sure to study the posted specifics of the process very carefully. Submit exactly what is required; no less and no more.

While a residency such as this can offer a few nice perks, the real benefit is time; the time to tune out the day-to-day issues and concentrate on your art and its craft. With this bonus, you can slow down, become more contemplative and focused, experiment and progress as both an artist and a photographer. In addition, you can get past the grand scenic highlights and really delve into the many nuances that make so many national treasures, such as Badlands National Park, so special. This will enable you to appreciate them and the very essence of place on a much deeper level than is possible with most short photo trips.

With the luxury of this extra time, once you find a particularly attractive spot, but the weather and/or the light are not just right, no matter. You now have the ability to return again and again until conditions are just right to make that showpiece image. Without the pressure of just three or four short days to explore a new location, you are now free to linger over a small detail that you would otherwise need to rush past. This, too, can yield some really great photographs.

The famed Wall, calling card of Badlands National Park, SD.

The famed Wall, calling card of Badlands National Park, SD.

Features of the Badlands

Badlands National Park features three great elements:

  • A singular landscape of a miles-long, sharply-eroded rock wall and an expansive mixed grass prairie,
  • Diverse wildlife – including megafauna and
  • Millions upon millions of years of fascinating fossils.

While the rock wall extends well beyond park boundaries, within the park Route 240 runs right along its edge for twenty-seven miles and the unpaved, but well-graded and maintained Sage Basin Rim Road for another fourteen.

The fantastic forms of the Badlands have been shaped and molded by eons of erosion. The usual culprits, wind and water, have sculpted the many and varied sharp edges, towering spires, and multi-dimensional forms.

But an even more powerful force is also at work in these Badlands – gravity!! As a result, huge portions of this seemingly endless formation have “slumped” in much the same way as we might after a long and tedious day. Or, as those of us of a certain age might have noticed, gravity is a force that is impossible to resist.

The many strata of claystone, mudstone and siltstone lie in very visible layers. Like the layers of a crazily assembled cake, made by a baker with a penchant for the psychedelic.

The mixed long and short grass prairie may not be as dramatic as the geysers of Yellowstone, but its subtle beauty—as conveyed by its pale golden autumn color contrasting against a clear and vibrant blue sky, graceful motion in the prevalent winds and enduring will to survive—make it a subject worthy of our study and our time.

Norbeck Pass in the North Unit of Badlands National Park, SD.

Norbeck Pass in the North Unit of Badlands National Park, SD.

In many parks, the Visitor Center is usually not located at a prime photo area. This, however, is not the case in these Badlands. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center has been strategically situated in the center of what may be the best ten-mile stretch of landscapes anywhere in this four hundred square mile park. As a matter of fact, the entire 25-mile park road (Rt. 240) goes right through the very best of the landscape.

Perhaps the two locations that will prove to be the most productive for photographers are the Cedar Pass and Norbeck Pass areas. This is largely because the many dramatically-shaped rock formations in those spots face in every direction, giving us multiple options for compositions, no matter where the light is falling and at almost any time of day.

Red Shirt Table in Badlands National Park, SD.

Red Shirt Table in Badlands National Park, SD.

The Light and Black & White

This is a great place to shoot classic black and white images and infrared, too. Absent the distractions of color and boiled down to shades of gray and contrast, the graphic elements of line, form and texture in the Badlands will provide an unending variety of compositions and juxtapositions. And that can make the otherwise non-productive mid-day hours a prime time in which to capture some great minimalistic graphic images.

Seen in just the right light, the shapes and forms of the Badlands are fascinating. South Dakota skies can get pretty cloudy, but you will need lots of low angle sunlight in order to really show off these subjects at their best. Broken clouds are fine and will likely work in your favor, but serious overcast will leave you reading that paperback book you brought with you.

Now, I must contradict the preceding paragraph. The post-sunset afterglow on the west-facing rocks can create a red glow that is nothing short of ethereal. To be sure, the light that reflects off the sky is by then very soft and will not show off the many sharp edges of the formations, but it is something to behold nonetheless.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) in Badlands National Park, SD.

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis) in Badlands National Park, SD.

Wildlife – Past & Present

Four footed creatures making their homes here include an impressive bison herd, elusive pronghorn, camera-tolerant mountain bighorn sheep, mule deer, bobcat, coyote, swift fox, rare black-footed ferrets and the ferret’s favorite meal, many animated little prairie dogs. On the wing are bald (and possibly golden) eagles, hawks, harriers, geese and others.

Anyone with an interest in paleontology will love Badlands National Park. Scores of millions of years of fossils abound here. Saber toothed cats, sheep-like oreodonts, boar-like creatures, tortoises, several ancestors of horses, early rhinos and many other long-vanished species once inhabited this land and left lots of evidence to mark their passing. Their bones and teeth are everywhere here.

Native Americans in the Park

In more recent history, this was the land of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux). The Stronghold (south) and Palmer Creek units of this tri-furcated national park lie today within the Pine Ridge reservation of the Oglala Lakota Sioux nation. As a result of the gold rush of the 1870’s, it’s a much smaller parcel than that with which they started.

Norbeck Pass in the North Unit of Badlands National Park, SD.

Norbeck Pass in the North Unit of Badlands National Park, SD.

Getting Around and Weather

Badlands National Park offers an open hike policy meaning that, rather than being restricted to fixed trails, visitors are welcome to walk anywhere they wish. Naturally, taking the proper precautions, including carrying plenty of water, is always important. Be aware of rattlesnakes in the area, as well. If you intend to backpack or hike extensively, consider wearing rigid leg gaiters.

South Dakota sees many extremes of weather in winter and summer, so perhaps the best times to plan a photo trip here are late spring and early fall. That’s also a good way to avoid the crowds on the park’s popular loop road. Late spring and summer bring the wildflower bloom, while early autumn sets the many cottonwoods ablaze in brilliant yellow.

 

Red Shirt Table in Badlands National Park, SD.

Logistics

Your airport of choice is Rapid City Regional (RAP) which is convenient to the many other worthwhile sights in the area including iconic Mt. Rushmore, the undulating hills of Wind Cave National Park and the bison of Custer State Park. Flying into Rapid City will get cinema buffs thinking about Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic “North by Northwest.”

For the most part, roads are paved or well-graded and maintained gravel. The exception is the largely undeveloped south unit of Badlands National Park which will definitely require a vehicle with both 4-wheel drive and high clearance when venturing past the first overlook.

Badlands National Park and adjacent Interior, SD, offer a few basic, but very conveniently located lodging options. The nearby town of Wall near the park’s western border is a tourist mecca boasting just about every chain motel you can name.

 

Jerry Ginsberg is a widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras.

His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America. More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com, or email him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com