The Badlands

Lately, my world has been hectic. I bought my first house. I’m about a month away from having my first child. No, that doesn't mean I'm having another child it just means that it's my first kid. My photographic adventures for the next few years might be a bit different. With that being said; I decided to take one last trip before the baby arrives. My wife and I went on a road trip to South Dakota and eastern Wyoming. The distance between where we currently live in Illinois and our first stop in Wall, South Dakota is 869 miles totaling around 12-1/2 hours of travel time in a car.

I had been to South Dakota as a child. I kept some of those memories. I recalled climbing dirt monoliths at the Badlands, seeing prairie dogs, Wall Drug, climbing more rocks at Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake, Needles Highway, and Mount Rushmore. It’s easy to see why I wanted to return with those locked up in the old storage bin. Plus, my wife had never been so I wanted to show her one of my all-time favorite vacations my parents took me on.

Our first stop after all the driving was to Badlands National Park located just outside the infamous Wall, South Dakota a.k.a. Wall Drug. If you have ever traveled west you know Wall Drug exists because they have billboards and signs peppering I90. If you see signs saying Wall Drug you know you’re heading into South Dakota. The Badlands and Wall were both dead at this time of season. Once the school year let’s out these places become tourist traps. Which by the way is great for South Dakota because this place looks like the Dust Bowl when tourist season is closed.

Okay, back to the Badlands. Before passing through the gates we saw a prairie dog colony. These little rodents are cute as can be, but they have the plague. Seriously. There was a sign that said the prairie dogs have the plague. For all you anti-vaxers please bring your children to this place and prove your point (don’t bring your unvaccinated children here to play with the prairie dogs.) Once we passed through the gates we saw bighorn sheep and turkeys. So, within the first 5 minutes of being in this place I’ve seen prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, and wild turkeys. You know what I saw in Cuyahoga National Park? Ticks. That’s it.

The weather was gloomy for the most part during the two days we were there, but fortunately it didn’t rain too long, or too much that we couldn’t enjoy wandering around the many areas of the park. It did create some fascinating challenges for me to conquer behind the viewfinder.

The photo above was taken during blue hour. Typically, my blue hour shots in the city glow with colors due to the artificial light from the streets, buildings, and traffic. When you shoot blue hour in western South Dakota everything is dark except the sky. I used a Duracell LED flashlight to paint the eroded buttes, but even that would have required me to run around the area multiple times painting with light. 

Painting with light is fun, but it requires a great amount of energy for large landscape images. For those of you who don't understand long exposure photography here is what happens: I set my camera on a tripod. The tripod keeps the camera straight and balanced for a long duration of time. The camera settings vary per scene, but it's usually a 30 second exposure or longer (on bulb.) I'll explain bulb in another post. During the 30 seconds the camera is taking the photograph I turn on my flashlight and flash it on the subject I want lit up. A few seconds too long and you've blown out your subject. A few seconds too short and you've got no light. It's a balancing act. I was in no mood to be bitten by a rattlesnake so I stayed in one spot. 

The Badlands got their name from the Native Americans, specifically the Oglala Lakota who called them mako sica, meaning "land bad." French trappers and traders who traversed the region called the Badlands Les Mauvaises terres a traverser, meaning "bad lands to cross." Interestingly enough these lands also encompass the largest expanse of prairie in the Park System. 

Though it may seem stark and rugged, these lands were full of wildlife. Along our adventures we managed to see plenty of bighorn sheep, pronghorn or "antelope", mule deer, black-tailed prairie dogs, coyotes (which we almost hit near the Yellow Mounds late at night), and tons of birds. Luckily we didn't cross paths with any rattlesnakes during our trip. We did not see any bison during our trips into Badlands National Park, but we did see plenty of them in Custer State Park. 

If you're planning on visiting the Badlands I highly suggest making Wall, South Dakota your hub. Wall is about ten minutes or so North of the Badlands. Wall has food, gas, lodging, and all the commodities for a great trip. We stayed at the Best Western a few blocks away from Wall Drug. The Best Western had an indoor pool so that was a pleasant surprise for a fairly cold April and May. Wall Drug has a huge gift shop, cafe, activities for the kids, and a pharmacy. There are bars and other dining in town as well. 

Overall, I loved the Badlands and I can't wait to take my daughter on this road trip in the future. Also, my wife was super cool with me stopping every ten feet to take photos while she was in her third trimester of pregnancy.   

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