By Will Keener and Ron Wolfe—
There are some great faces in Western South Dakota – the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Abe Lincoln and Sioux warrior Crazy Horse.
In addition to these chiseled-in-granite monuments, there are many great places to photograph in this Black Hills region.
Consider Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, and Spearfish Canyon, for example. Finally, there are some great tourist communities and historic towns here to help you get the best out of your stay.
Rapid City, a growing metropolis on the banks of Rapid Creek, is the gateway to the Black Hills region. The city has risen out of its creek bank beginnings and appears to be growing quickly with a modern airport and plenty of motel and restaurant choices. From town, it’s a short drive to Mount Rushmore, the signature attraction of the area.
Photographing Rushmore and the nearby Crazy Horse Monument may not be your cup of tea, but if you haven’t seen these impressive stone creations, you are missing out on two true works of Americana.
If you do want to photograph the monuments, you can push yourself beyond the standard tourist shots and look for some unique angles and story-telling shots.
Both monuments are visible from surrounding roads and viewpoints, so you don’t have to go into the monuments, although there is much to be learned by doing so.
Badlands National Park
Just 60 minutes east of Rapid City, Badlands National Park presents a look into the geologic past. It’s as if the prairie surface has been ripped away, leaving the underpinnings of a continent from eons past. The hoodoos, mesas, mounds, and other land forms offer a color pallet that is a landscape photographer’s delight.
Additionally, buffalo (more properly bison) roam here, sometimes jostling for position with cars on the park’s loop road. Other wildlife – from big horn sheep to prairie dogs — also call the park home.
The Badlands Loop Road transverses most of the park’s North Unit and runs more than 50 miles. It includes a series of vistas and overlooks showcasing different landforms and geologic formations. You can easily take more than a day to explore this road and its turnouts. Additionally, there are other scenic road options, most not paved, and several good hiking opportunities.
We found it a good idea to drive the loop and make notes along the way about which vistas might be best suited to sunrises, sunsets, or other shooting times.
The communities of Wall, Interior, and Scenic all offer lodging and other amenities and are located near separate entrances to the North Unit, the most visited part of the park. Two other units, located on portions of the Pine River Reservation, lie to the south and west. (National Park entry fees apply.)
We chose to base at Wall, South Dakota, a small community along I-90 and near the northeast entrance to the park. In addition to a grocery and several lodging and restaurant choices, Wall is home of the notable Wall Drug Store. If you drive through this area, you cannot escape the Wall Drug billboards leading you to the store. We checked out the free ice water, five cent coffee, and an impressive Native and Western American art collection at the rambling store.
Custer State Park
With chiseled granite spires, rolling foothills, and tumbling alpine streams, Custer State Park is another locale rich with photographic opportunities. Abundant in bison, elk, deer, mountain goats, and pronghorn antelope, among other species, the wildlife photo potentials here rival the landscape promise of the area.
The 71,000-acre state park is dotted with lakes as well. Man-made Sylvan Lake amidst some spectacular granite formations is one of the more photogenic areas of the park. The lake is along a scenic route called the Needles Highway (closed in winter.) This 14-mile stretch takes visitors past spectacular granite spires, two major park lakes, and through three narrow tunnels.
The 17-mile Iron Mountain Road is another showcase route for the state park with tunnels that frame Mount Rushmore in the distance. The route includes plenty of switchbacks, bridges with loops, and twisty terrain, but the tall timber and vistas make it worth the journey.
A third loop in the park, called the Wildlife Loop, is a primary grazing area for the park’s bison herd. We also photographed wild burros in this area and saw antelope and other wildlife on this aptly named loop. (State Park fees apply.)
Hill City, Custer City, and Keystone all offer restaurants, lodging and other amenities close to the state park. If you’ve only got a day to spend, the park is reachable (roughly an hour) from Rapid City. There are several lodging options within the park as well. (Check out the links in our resources section for more information.)
Wind Cave National Park
In our planning process, we opted to skip Wind Cave, although the park is very popular and offers prairie views as well as subterranean tours. Because of reduced numbers of tours due to Covid precautions, some visitors have been unable to get tickets on the day of their visit, so plan ahead. Park regulations also do not permit the use of tripods inside the cave, although flash photography is allowed. (National Park entry fees.)
Spearfish Canyon Nature Area
Fifty miles northwest of Rapid City, along Interstate 90, Spearfish Canyon beckons as another rich photo location. Tumbling waterfalls along steep, spectacular limestone cliffs make Spearfish Canyon one of the most photogenic places in the Black Hills. A number of trailheads offer hikers a chance to move away from the highway that winds through the canyon, as it climbs 2,000 feet in just over 20 miles. (No fees.)
During our research, we found excellent photos from the Black Hills in all seasons. But commercially speaking, businesses gear up for a strong surge of summer visitors. This surge includes the famous, or infamous, Sturgis motorcycle rally each August. The numbers can be overwhelming during high season, so consider other times if you are able.
Our early May visit preceded the best of the wildflower season, but brought with it other weather opportunities, including some early morning fog and some fleeting rainstorms. In Custer State Park and Spearfish Canyon, fall colors can enhance your landscape shots.
Our layering policy for photo clothing paid off as we saw temperatures in the high 70s as well as numbers approaching freezing. Shooting gloves, rain gear for us and our cameras, warm caps, and clothing layers were part of our kit.
In doing our planning, we were able to identify a couple of overlooks in Badlands for sunrise candidates. We headed straight for one on our first morning and were rewarded with a modest coloration of sky but a sweeping panorama of foreground color, radiating in the early morning light. It reminded us that planning and getting out early are a successful combination.
We continue to use old school paper guides and maps, although we found cell service in the region to be good. We find notes made ahead of time can also be helpful when making decisions on the fly.
While some tend to think of South Dakota as a plains state, the western portion of the state offers rugged hills, eroded badlands, mysterious caves, and a rich spectrum of wildlife. Historic mining towns and vibrant Black Hills communities make exploring the area a fun and rewarding experience.
Road Conditions: https://www.sd511.org/ This site offers road conditions, travel advisories, and weather information in an interactive format for all of South Dakota. You can also call 866-MYSD511 (866-697-3511.)
State Visitor Guide: https://www.travelsouthdakota.com Concise information on local communities of interest and their amenities. You can request a printed state highway map on this site as well.
Rapid City: https://www.go-southdakota.com/rapid-city/
Badlands National Park: https://www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm
Custer State Park: https://gfp.sd.gov/parks/detail/custer-state-park/
Custer State Park Lodging: https://custerresorts.com/lodges-and-cabins/
Spearfish Canyon Nature Area: https://gfp.sd.gov/parks/detail/spearfish-canyon-nature-area/
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway: http://spearfishcanyon.com/scenicbyway/index.html
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