By Tom Haxby
Recently I found myself wanting to visit and photograph the Badlands. Just visiting South Dakota would be a first for me. It’s one of the few states I have never set foot in. Like many others during this pandemic, I feel more comfortable avoiding crowds, driving, staying in a tent, and doing my own cooking. So, into the truck went the camping gear and camera equipment and off I went on an odyssey to the Badlands of South Dakota!
It was August and hot but this was one of those times when I thought “if I don’t go now, I don’t know when my next chance will be.” I hit the last of the summer heat and the haze from the western fires was obvious. And, because the south unit of the park is on the Pine Ridge Reservation, it was closed due to COVID-19. Still, it was an adventure! I would like to visit again because I found that there are many, many photo opportunities in the Badlands. NANPA is planning a regional event there from May 31 to June 3, 2021 with Sandy Zelasko, and this is probably a perfect time to visit.
Driving west from heavily-forested Michigan to the prairies of western South Dakota was fascinating. The gradual dissipation of forest cover as I headed west brought more and more of the open sky and revealed the contours of the landscape. It was such a different perspective for me and I could just imagine the opportunities for spectacular sunrises and sunsets.
After three days of driving I finally arrived at Badlands National Park and quickly discovered this is a place all nature photographers should visit at least once. The colorful geologic formations are beautiful and distinctive. Layer upon layer of sediments, deposited during the time this was part of a vast prehistoric ocean, have been sculpted into a menagerie of peaks and valleys that are highly photogenic. It was hot, dry, and dusty during my visit, but I could easily imagine what this area would be like in late spring or early summer, when moisture would enhance the colors of the formations and prairie grasses. I understand that rainstorms often carve gullies into the erodible soils, creating great leading lines. Distant thunderstorms also provide opportunities to photograph lightning—at a safe distance—or simply dramatic, stormy skies.
In addition to many photographic landscape compositions, the prairie grasslands are interspersed with mountainous terrain which provides diverse areas of habitat for wildlife, both those adapted to grazing and finding shelter on the open plains, as well as for those species adept at navigating steep terrain. Buffalo, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, coyote, mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk and other animals make great photo subjects. The different environments are also great for attracting a wide variety of birds. I kept my eyes open for the always photogenic burrowing owls in prairie dog colonies.
Photographing animals who spend most of their time grazing is a challenge because, well, that is what they do most of the time. Graze. You have to have patience and be ready for that moment when they suddenly do something more interesting, like lifting their head and looking right at you, interacting with each another, or engaging in some type of dramatic action. Being safe around large mammals, such as bison, and in areas known for poisonous reptiles, is important, too. Think ethically, use a big lens and maintain a safe distance from wildlife. The National Park Service advises visitors to stay at least 25 yards away from wildlife, and farther from fast-moving predators.
My favorite subjects were probably the prairie dogs. They are very shy, but if you are patient you will have the opportunity to see and photograph their animated daily lives. I often used my vehicle as a blind, but I could see that a patient approach could eventually overcome the reserved nature of these charismatic rodents.
Bighorn sheep were fairly common in the Badlands. The herds of rams, ewes, and lambs roamed the park, often very close to the roads. One other ethical and safety consideration, for you and the wildlife, is to slow down on the roads. You also get to see more that way.
During my trip, I had envisioned a photo of a bighorn ram standing on a precipice gazing toward the sky bathed in spectacular light. Alas, that opportunity will have to wait for next time and gives me an incentive to plan a return visit. I hope that will be soon.
Tom Haxby is an accomplished nature photographer based in Michigan. He served as NANPA’s president from July 2019 through June 2020. Tom’s photography is influenced by more than 25 years as a natural resource professional and a lifetime interest in the outdoors. His photography has won numerous awards and been featured in a wide variety of publications.