Photographing Badlands National Park in 4 Hours

We have all been there. A trip somewhere for some reason that once wrapped up, leaves you some time to shoot. Not enough time to thoroughly cover an area, but enough time to do what you love best!

This happened to me a week ago. I was in South Dakota teaching a cowboy portrait workshop and when I was all wrapped up I had a free afternoon and evening to go shoot. I decided on Badlands NP where I had not been in many years. So I left my hotel about noon and drove the 2 hours there, paid the entrance fee, and went at it.

Obviously 4 hours is not enough time to shoot this magnificent park, or any park generally, but it is all I had. When the ranger gave me the park map I scoured it, calculated the mileage, and thought I could do the whole loop from the Pinnacles Entrance along Sage Creek Rim Road to Scenic, then on to Interior, and finish up along the Badlands Loop Road and its many overlooks.

It was about 2:00 and sunset was 6:20 and I felt I had enough time, so off I went. Here are some shots from 4 hours in Badlands NP.

Here is the park services map and I highlighted the areas I spent most of my time. Top center is the Sage Creek Rim Road and I drove West (left) all the way to Scenic. Then the highway 44 to Interior and back along the Loop Road. The entire loop was about 90 miles.

As I started on the Sage Creek Rim Rd. I stopped at Hay Butte Overlook and then at every pullout after that with the last stop being Sage Creek Basin Overlook. From there to Scenic, a little further from the overlooks was required to get great shots and I was limited to shooting from the overlooks due to time. No time for hiking.

I started at the Hay Butte Overlook and began shooting. The sun was quite high at 2 pm and so I was careful in dealing with high contrasty light.


Hay Butte Overlook

Finding some of these first shots blah in regards to color and contrast, I converted some using Topaz B&W Effects.


Hay Butte Overlook

The B&W conversion made these more interesting in my opinion.

Hay Butte Overlook

I kept moving down the road and captured this backlit image near Hay Butte after a cloud came over the sun to diffuse the light.


Past Hay Butte Overlook

I spotted a little bit of color and felt I had a stronger image that was converted to B&W with color brushed back in using Topaz B&W Effects.

Near Sage Creek Basin Overlook

As i got around the Sage Creek Basin Overlook I came across some unusual foreground lines and due to lack of color, high light angle, and haze on the horizon, these were perfect candidates for B&W using Topaz B&W Effects.

Near Sage Creek Basin Overlook

Near Sage Creek Basin Overlook

After Sage Creek Basin Overlook I blasted on to Scenic and passed Prairie Dogs, Bison, a Porcupine, and Bighorn Sheep. I should have shot but didn’t have a lot of time.

Scenic, South Dakota

The old saloon, which I first shot 30 years ago, was backlit at about 4 pm so I HDR‘d it, did a little burning and dodging, brown tones in Photoshop, and used a High Pass filter along with retouching out a lot of garbage on the ground. Cool old building. I next put the pedal to the metal and zipped from Scenic to Interior, about 30 miles because you are mostly crossing private land along Hwy 44.

At the Cedar Pass entrance you have a wide area of grasslands with the Badlands in the back and the sun was getting golden.


Cedar Pass entrance area

There are some interesting formations right at the beginning of the Badlands Loop Road.

The Castle

The Castle is right there at the Cedar Pass entrance. I used Content Aware fill to remove the highway signs.


Norbeck Pass

By the time I got back to the car and up the Loop road to Norbeck Pass, the sun had fallen behind the clouds and the light was fading.

White River Overlook

Shortly thereafter the sun was gone and the light had flattened out.


Panorama Point

I finished at Panorama Point as the light was fading fast and this is a phenomenal spot. I used Photomerge to complete the pano and added the moon for interest and color.

There are several more great overlooks between Panorama Point and Pinnacles entrance where I started. But my timing was a bit off as I ran out of time to catch them all. I spent to much time in Scenic, SD.  But when you only have 4 hours you do what you gotta do. Next time I am short on hours I will stick with the Badlands Loop Road.

Have you been here? If you have any thoughts please leave a comment.

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