“How is it that we, toward the Atlantic, have heard so much about the Grand Canyon and so little of this, when this is so much more miraculous?”
– Frank Lloyd Wright on seeing the Badlands in South Dakota.
These exact words echoed in my ears as I stood among the mixed-grass prairies, the wind blowing through my hair, looking down upon the dramatic, rugged landscape before me.
How had I never visited the Badlands before this?
The Badlands, in central South Dakota, is an ancient landscape shaped by millions of years of continuous erosion and deposition by water, wind, and sun.
Spending time in the Badlands is a lot of fun; the park has great hiking trails, camping facilities, and a scenic loop road to explore the area.
Hiking in Badlands National Park is the best way to see the majestic White River Valley; if you are interested in the Badlands trails, read our detailed Badlands visiting and hiking guide.
The landscape at Badlands is a photographer’s paradise and we were surprised by the magnificent photo opportunities presented by the Badlands.
In fact, I loved the Badlands even more than Grand Canyon National Park and thoroughly enjoyed my time there.
Also Read: 5 Reasons why Badlands is better than the Grand Canyon (and 2 reasons it’s not!)
And so we have compiled this guide to photographing the Badlands for amateur photographers – because that’s what we are!
We don’t consider ourselves anywhere as good as the professionals but we love having a good time behind the camera and building up our gear.
This photography guide is for every Badlands visitor who wishes to capture the beauty of this rugged landscape for eternity.
Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary: When to go and What to See
Top 5 South Dakota Scenic Drives: Road Tripping with a view!
Badlands is over 244,000 acres of mixed-grass prairies, bizarre rock formations, and stunning wilderness and offers plenty of opportunities for exceptional landscape and wildlife photography.
Truth be told, it is very hard to take a bad photo of the Badlands.
However, this guide will detail some of the best places to take great shots, the best times of the day along with must-take photographs examples.
Best Gear To Photograph Badlands National Park
A DSLR camera will make your Badlands photos really shine through.
When we went to the Badlands, we had the Canon T5i. Since then we have upgraded our camera and if you are traveling to the Badlands and in search of a good camera we recommend the latest Canon T7i or the comparable Nikon D5600.
Another great option if you are thinking of going mirrorless is the Sony Alpha a6000 which comes in a similar price range and is extremely lightweight.
I have had this camera on my wishlist for long and currently looking for an excuse to dislike my T5i. (I can’t find any, except the weight and bulkiness)
Telephoto Zoom Lens
Trust us on this one, you will use a telephoto zoom lens a lot in the Badlands.
I had bought a new one just before the trip and was so glad I did. It proved very useful to shoot the Badlands wildlife from a distance.
I could take many photos of the wildlife including deer, prairie dogs, bison, birds, and coyotes.
I especially love the photos of prairie dogs that I took with my Canon EF 75-300 mm; the compact structure and lightweight fits perfectly in my camera bag as well.
I also love taking landscape shots with this lens as well as it almost has a wide-angle effect.
The wider field of view offered by a wide-angle lens makes a huge difference in capturing dramatic vistas of the Badlands.
We did not have a wide-angle lens when we went to Badlands and I thoroughly missed not having one.
Badlands dramatic vistas are made for squeezing as much into a single frame as you can and I assure you that you will be utilizing the wide-angle lens a lot on your Badlands trip.
Since then we have purchased the ultra-low budget Altura wide-angle lens – in fact, we purchased it just before our visit to Petra and took beautiful photos of the great Nabatean ruins and would highly recommend it to anyone.
A tripod is essential if you want to take low light sunrise or sunset photos or pitch-black night photos with the Milky Way in the background.
The long exposure required for these types of low light photos can only be done without blurring images by using a sturdy and stable tripod.
In addition to these conditions we also used the tripod a lot in broad daylight because it was very windy and I didn’t want to risk getting all shaky images.
We also used the tripod to capture some good photos of us together at Badlands.
While the Badlands photograph the best during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset, they look white and washed out during the day.
We recommend carrying a good polarizing filter to take good photos at any time of the day.
They reduce the haze on the landscape, pop out clouds, and provide the much-desired blue sky background.
Another filter that you can keep with you in the Badlands is the ND filter.
Best Places To Photograph Badlands National Park
Badlands Loop Road
The geology of Badlands is very complex; eroded buttes, spires, blunt mounds, gulleys, and pinnacles make up this surreal landscape.
The Badlands Loop Road, one of South Dakota’s best scenic drives, is about 50 miles long and drives around the North unit and its many outlooks make photographing the landscape very easy and accessible to most visitors.
Some of the best overlooks for photographing the Badlands are Big Badlands Overlook, White River Valley Overlook, and Panorama Point Overlook.
Big Badlands Overlook is good to see the sunrise while we captured lots of cloud drama and a double rainbow at the Panorama Point Overlook. Panorama Point is also great for sunrise.
Big Badlands and Panorama Point are close to Cedar Pass Lodge and the campground and so is popular for sunrise photography.
We recommend driving very cautiously on the Loop Road in the dark as you are highly likely to encounter wildlife.
Conata Basin Overlook is popular for watching a Badlands sunset while the Yellow Mounds Overlook has vibrant and colorful yellow mounds formations.
Pinnacles Overlook was also great for viewing the sunset.
Badlands Hiking Trails
While there are no hiking trails in the South Unit, the North unit has plenty of great hiking trails for every fitness level.
Many of these trails have beautiful views over the White River Valley and the south unit of the Badlands.
Hiking these trails allows photographers to get closer to different geological landforms and capture unique angles and different perspectives than merely driving the Badlands Loop Road.
The Notch Trail and Saddle Pass trail, in particular, ascend the Badlands Wall and are great for Badlands photography.
Also Read: 9 Awesome Badlands Trails: Guide to hiking in Badlands National Park
Sage Creek Rim Road
The Sage Creek Rim Road is an unpaved, gravel road but it was in a pretty good condition.
We did not have a high clearance vehicle nor was it 4WD but could easily drive the Sage Creek Rim Road. This road traverses through many beautiful, untouched parts of the Badlands.
You won’t see as many dramatic landscapes on this road but you will come across great wildlife.
I put my telephoto zoom lens to best use on this road and could capture many animals in their natural habitat.
The Roberts Prairie Dog Town along this road is great to view the prairie dogs.
Best Time To Photograph Badlands National Park
At Sunrise And Sunset
All landscapes look fabulous at sunset and sunrise but these golden hours have an exceptional effect on the Badlands.
The eroded and rugged landscape takes on the sun’s orange and pinkish hues and appears stunning.
The red color in the landscape becomes deeper while the white appears golden during these magical hours.
The soft light casts mysterious silhouettes on the prairies and the Badlands appear more dramatic by the minute.
During And After Thunderstorm And Rainfall
Thunderstorms and rainfall have a vivid effect on the Badlands landscape.
The layers and strata of sedimented stones look more vibrant after rainfall and individual layers are easily recognizable in photographs.
Stormy clouds cause this otherworldly landscape to look even more alien.
Sun bursting through the clouds lights up the landforms and if you are lucky to capture a rainbow across the Badlands it creates really beautiful images.
We were lucky to spot a double rainbow and could take some stunning photographs.
Badlands has amazing night skies; darkest we have yet seen apart from Big Bend National Park and Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean.
You can get clear photos of the night sky especially if you plan your trip around the new moon.
Badlands also holds an Astronomy Festival in the first week of July which is an excellent time to look at the stars, planets, and constellations through a telescope and take night sky photos along with fellow enthusiasts.
Must Take Photographs Inside Badlands National Park
Expansive Views Over The Badlands
Put your wide-angle or ultra-wide-angle lens to best use and let your photos speak about the massiveness and extent of the Badlands.
Use them to capture the feelings of wonder and intrigue that the Badlands arouse in most visitors.
The stark landscape is one of the best photography subjects that you will encounter in a long time, so make the most of this wonderful opportunity.
Badlands Road Views
We loved taking photos of the roads passing through Badlands.
They made up for pretty spectacular photos, especially the ones which showed the Badlands Wall rising straight up ahead.
I also enjoyed taking photos of cars traveling on the Sage Creek gravel road and kicking up a cloud of dust behind them.
We were also lucky to capture a beautiful photo with the rainbow at the end of the road.
Also Read: Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary: When to go and What to See
The Badlands have a startling variety of dramatic and bizarre geological formations; quite unlike any, you would have seen at other places.
On the hikes or using a telephoto lens, you can capture the landforms from up close.
You can also photograph cool and unique features like earthquake fault lines, embedded fossils, and mineral deposits.
On the Badlands Loop Road, I had my telephoto lens on the camera for a majority of the time because of the unexpected wildlife viewing opportunities.
We saw and shot pictures of many animals including white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, deer, bison, coyotes, chipmunks, rabbits, and burros.
Photographing the wildlife in its natural habitat was incredible fun.
Native American Culture
South Dakota and Badlands were once Lakota Nation.
The Sioux people have been calling the Badlands home for decades and the Native American spirit is almost tangible in this area.
The south unit of the Badlands is managed in conjunction with the Oglala Sioux tribe and there are many opportunities to photograph the Native American culture and its elements inside the park.
Do read our guides to Hiking in Badlands National Park and our detailed South Dakota Road Trip itinerary.
We also recommend reading the photography guide published by NPS here.
If you are looking for one piece of advice on capturing stunning Badlands photos, we would say trust the Badlands to show you something magical and then click away.
We saw rainbows, pronghorn deer, and a mesmerizing sunset; who knows what you will see?