South Dakota: From the Black Hills National Forest to the Badlands

South Dakota: From the Black Hills National Forest to the Badlands

While South Dakota is officially known as the Mount Rushmore State, its status as the Land of Infinite Variety might prove even more enticing from a photographic point of view. The hodgepodge of scenic wonders contained in this sparsely populated state spans rolling prairie grasslands, rugged Black Hill forests, sparkling underground caves, and otherworldly Badland buttes, much of which is protected through America’s state or federal system of National Parks, Monuments and Forests.

Photographs © Chad Choppess

Unique angles on the famous faces at Mount Rushmore National Memorial are found all along the Presidential Trail, which leads to the bottom of the rock pile below the sculpture.

These protected lands symbolize the beating heart of our nation, inspiring countless visitors to celebrate the beauty they discover there in pictures. We developed this illustrated road map to aid you in exploring some of South Dakota’s most cherished landmarks, and to encourage you to capture lasting memories of your adventures.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Polarizing filters go well with high-altitude blue skies and puffy clouds at Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

“If you build it, he will come.” That oft-quoted line from the film Field of Dreams has equal resonance as the motivating force behind the formation of America’s Shrine to Democracy—the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, 30 minutes from Rapid City, this colossal monument was the brainchild of state historian Doane Robinson, who conceived of the mountain carving in 1924 as a way to draw people from all over America to his state.

Get there early for the best lighting conditions, or exercise your low-light skills with pictures of the nightly lighting ceremony. Regardless of your timing, make sure to explore the many photo opportunities from different vantage points along the half-mile-long Presidential Trail.

A short spur off Mount Rushmore’s Presidential Trail leads under two huge boulders leaning against each other, to create this peek at the likenesses of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Chad Coppess, staff photographer for Travel South Dakota, recommends a spot right off the trail, which takes you down a little spur between two giant boulders. Look through a big crack between them to frame the Presidential faces from a vantage point often overlooked by the masses.

Photo Tip “The best time to photograph Rushmore is at sunrise; yet, during summer months, Theodore Roosevelt’s face is obscured by Abraham Lincoln’s shadow,” says Coppess. “But in November, the sun has moved farther south on the horizon, so it lights up all four faces equally.”

Gear Tip “A polarizing filter will help to heighten the contrast between the endless blue skies, puffy white clouds, and Rushmore’s carved faces, which are very light gray,” Coppess says.

Iron Mountain Road and Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway

Motorists who navigate the twists and turns of Iron Mountain Road are rewarded with a perfectly framed view of Mount Rushmore through several granite tunnels.

Just outside Mount Rushmore, the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway offers stunning views of the Presidential faces framed by the local landscape.

Heading southeast from the monument, follow Highway 16A, a twisting route down Iron Mountain Road. You’ll find tunnels that were specifically carved to frame the faces, yet predate the monument itself. “They knew the mountain was going to be carved, so they constructed the tunnels to show off the faces before they were ever there,” Coppess says.

“Pigtail” bridges spiral up the side of Iron Mountain on the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, including this one that leads directly into a rock tunnel.

Three pigtail bridges are another photogenic attraction. “You’re most likely going to spot those and stop at each of them,” he adds. One bridge, he says, “spirals around underneath itself and then goes through a tunnel immediately at the bridge.”

Photo Tip Since the road is generally west-facing, Coppess recommends photographing here in late morning to maximize the light on all elements.

Gear Tip As for gear, he notes, “It’s about two or three miles between the tunnels and the monument, so, when shooting with my Nikon D810, I use a mid-range telephoto lens, such as my NIKKOR 80-400mm, f4.5-5.6, to help compress the distance a bit.”

Needles Highway

Needles Highway in Custer State Park winds between towering granite spires on one of the most scenic drives you’ll find anywhere.

After following Route 16A westward toward Legion Lake, you can pick up SD Highway 87 and head northward along the 14-mile stretch known as Needles Highway. Named for the area’s tall, thin “needles” of granite, this section of road runs through Custer State Park, and requires a Park entry license. Because of its mountainous nature, Needles Highway is closed during winter months

A drive along Needles Highway (left) offers stunning views of pine forests in Custer State Park and the rocky peaks of the Cathedral Spires, which culminate at Harney Peak (right), the highest point between the Rocky Mountains and the Alps.

Midway along this route, a turnout called The Cathedral Spires offers stunning views of the rocky outcroppings juxtaposed with Harney Peak, the highest point between the Rockies and the Alps.

Photo Tip “The vantage point for pictures here is primarily straight north,” Coppess says, “so you get morning light or evening light, but I prefer the evening.”

Wind Cave National Park

Well-known for “boxwork” formations throughout its underground wilderness, Wind Cave National Park offers an unusual glimpse into a world many people rarely see.

Alternatively, take SD Highway 87 12 miles south from Legion Lake to Wind Cave National Park.

Says Coppess, “Wind Cave is one of those parks that has two totally separate environments to photograph, and they are both spectacular.” To make the most of both, take a cave tour during the harsh midday light and use the late afternoon and early evening hours to explore the Park’s topside environment.

Photo Tip Wind Cave is famous for its boxwork mineral formations on the ceiling, and Coppess notes that the existing artificial light is optimized to show this feature at its best. “I’ve gone in there and added flash and it really doesn’t help, so just go with what they’ve got,” he says.

Gear Tip Tripods or other stabilizing devices are not permitted on cave tours, so consider boosting your camera’s ISO to 1500 or 2000.

Wind Cave National Park includes a large wildlife sanctuary above ground, where elk and bison graze. The gravel roads in the eastern section of the park offer the best opportunity to see the large animals year-round.

Above ground, you’ll find a wildlife sanctuary of nearly 29,000 acres, with mixed-grass prairie, Ponderosa pine forest and native wildlife such as bison, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes, and prairie dogs.

Photo Tip “The real secret to Wind Cave is the gravel roads on the Park’s eastern side,” says Coppess. “Quite often you’ll find large herds of bison along Red Valley Road, and that’s also where you’ll see elk and hear them bugling, especially in the fall.”

Jewel Cave National Monument

Paved trails, metal staircases, and well-lit rock formations typify a tour of Jewel Cave National Monument. Sparkling crystals gave the cave its name.

Northwest of Wind Cave, the even larger Jewel Cave National Monument ranks as the second longest cave in the United States and the third longest in the world, with 173 miles of explored passageways. From Wind Cave, take SD Highway 385/89 into the town of Custer and head west of SD Highway 16.

It’s hard to imagine calling this huge crystal draper in Jewel Cave National Monument anything other than “cave bacon.”

Jewel Cave is distinctive for its sparkling crystals, and particularly for a long ribbon of crystal called cave bacon that hangs from the ceiling. During the summer, two types of guided cave tours accommodate a full range of visitors—from the merely curious to the more intrepid. The more strenuous Scenic Tour involves climbing and descending 723 stairs along a ½-mile loop, (equivalent to 40 flights). All visitors are encouraged to wear rubber-soled shoes or hiking boots, and a light jacket or sweater, since the temperature inside is 49 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius).

Black Hills National Forest and Spearfish Canyon

Easily as impressive as most national parks, Custer State Park in South Dakota’s Black Hills showcases a huge variety of landscapes, from rugged rocky cliffs to undulating grassy plains to sparkling mountain lakes, such as Stockade Lake, seen here.

All these sites fall within the Black Hills National Forest, which covers 1.2 million acres of forested hills and mountains, in western South Dakota and northeast Wyoming.

Extending westward from Rapid City, this area is bordered on the north by Interstate 90, culminating in the limestone gorge and refreshing waterfalls of Spearfish Canyon, and in the south by the city of Hot Springs, just south of Wind Cave.

Spearfish Canyon is beautiful any time of year, but especially when autumn brings its explosion of color alongside the rushing Spearfish Creek.

Spearfish Canyon is known in the area for its autumn colors, primarily Aspen. To get there, head south on South Dakota Highway 14A from the town of Spearfish. Otherwise known as the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, this route twists through a 19-mile gorge dotted by three scenic waterfalls. “Bridalveil Falls is our tallest waterfall in the state,” says Coppess. “Roughlock Falls is a bit shorter, but it’s situated in a very narrow crevice and you can walk down into the bottom side or stand right on the upper brink of it and watch it go over.”

Cascading through several drops, Roughlock Falls is one of three major waterfalls to photograph in Spearfish Canyon, in the northern Black Hills.

Photo Tip Coppess recommends photographing Roughlock Falls in early morning and Bridalveil Falls in late afternoon, noting that Bridalveil is oriented such that it only gets direct sunlight for a few hours a day, which changes depending on the time of the year.

Badlands National Park Region

A cruise through Badlands National Park always rises to the top of the South Dakota vacationer’s list of highlights.

South Dakotas other National Treasure, Badlands National Park, comprises 244,000 acres of otherworldly landscape. Roughly an hour east of Rapid City, Badlands National Park is accessible by Interstate 90 or South Dakota Highway 44, for travelers who prefer two-lane travel.

SD Highway 44 cuts through Buffalo Gap National Grassland, which covers a huge chunk of South Dakota’s southwestern corner. Coppess points out, “You’ll see prairie grass whether you’re officially within the National Grassland area or not.”

Late afternoon thunderstorms often build above the South Dakota grasslands throughout the summer. Photographing the dramatic clouds over a peaceful landscape can provide some standout images.

Photo Tip “Grasslands are great with those late afternoon thunderheads building above them,” says Coppess.

In these conditions, it is essential to be attentive about extreme weather. “Traveling in spring and summer, especially in western South Dakota, you should always keep an eye on the weather. Just know what’s happening,” he cautions. “A lot of times this will mean you’ll just get some great photos of super dramatic clouds, but you don’t want to get caught out in a lighting storm or a tornado, and we do have both.”

Sunsets at the Pinnacles Overlook on the west end of the Badlands Loop Road are particularly beautiful.

Photo Tip Coppess recommends two distinctive vantage points, both a short drive south of Wall on SD Highway 240, otherwise known as Badlands Loop Road. The first, Pinnacles Overlook, is a big, broad expanse of Badlands formations stretching southward. “It almost feels like the Grand Canyon,” he says. “You see a lot of people there in the evening, photographing the distant sunset over the Black Hills.”

Another appealing element here is a herd of Bighorn sheep that frequents the area. “It’s a good-sized herd, and in springtime they have babies running around,” Coppess says.

Springtime in Badlands National Park means bighorn sheep babies will be scrambling up and down the rocky formations. They are often found near the Pinnacles Overlook on the western part of the scenic Loop Road.

Southeast of Pinnacles Overlook, Yellow Mounds Overlook offers a distinctive view of colorful rounded earth formations in bands of bright yellow and bright red, along with the natural tan.

Gear Tip “You get this kind of rainbow effect with the mounds, and there’s a bit more vegetation, so the green mixes in with the red and yellow,” Coppess says. “All that with a blue sky and is pretty colorful, making it another good opportunity for a standard polarizing filter.”

A bit more ground vegetation can be found around the Badlands’ Yellow Mounds area than other parts of the park. The green grass and juniper trees contrast nicely with the rock formations.

Photo Tip Yellow Mounds Overlook is a great spot to photograph the spring bloom. “There are a lot of low flowers that pop out—flowering cactus and wild primroses and others—which gives some interesting texture and color to the landscape,” Coppess says.

The Badlands is a great environment for macro photography. In addition to macro shots of flowers in the spring, the dry soil of Badland formations and the surface of the “Wall” along the main loop road offer many creative possibilities. “It looks like rock, but it’s not, it’s dried up dirt, and it cracks to form all sorts of interesting patterns,” says Coppess.

A well-marked trail leads from the Doors and Windows parking area into the heart of the Badlands rock formations. The spiny ridge of rocks runs north and south, and you can walk to either side, for equal opportunities to capture stunning photos of sunrise and sunset.

Avid hikers will want to head to the eastern end of Highway 240, near Cedar Pass, to a turnout called Doors and Windows, and a hiking trail that takes you out in among the Badlands formations. A large ridge of spires running almost straight north and south offers a prime vantage point for great light when photographing sunrise and sunset.

Gear Tip: As the name implies, conditions in the Badlands are very dry, so carrying sufficient water is essential. “It can be hard to carry a bottle when hiking with camera gear, so a Hydration Pack is really useful,” says Chris Nicholson, author of the book, Photographing National Parks.

He notes that while you can get good pictures from the loop road, “like most parks, if you get out and hike a little bit, you can find your own private spots to photograph.”

South Dakota’s huge open skies often offer interesting cloud formations, which function well as a compositional element paired with the rugged landscape.

In such instances, other gear essentials he recommends include an analog compass, and Emergency Gear. “Most wilderness survival incidents don’t happen to people on a week-long backcountry trip,” he explains. “They happen to people going out for 2 or 3 hours who think, ‘I’m only going for a 2-mile hike, I don’t need supplies.’ I have a wilderness survival kit,” Nicholson adds, “and if I’m going to hike more than a ¼ mile, that goes on me, too. While I do carry a phone with GPS, and a separate handheld GPS, if the batteries go or you can’t pick up a signal, you should have a map and compass, and you should know how to use them. ”

It’s not quite the Grand Canyon, but some of the overlooks in Badlands National Park can compete for spectacular grandeur and photogenic beauty. Visitors will not be disappointed with the picture making opportunities to be found in this jewel of America’s National Park system.

Do you have any adventures to share from visiting a National Park or Monument? If so, please add your voice to the Comments section, below.

About the photographers:

Chad Coppess is the senior photographer for the South Dakota Department of Tourism and State Development. He has traveled the entire state for this agency since 1993, to make South Dakota pictures of fairs, festivals, rodeos, visitor attractions, historic sites, landscapes, wildlife, and nature. Coppess publishes tips and ideas for exploring South Dakota at, which has become a valuable resource for other photographers visiting the state. His photographs have appeared in many publications including National Geographic Traveler, and have been exhibited at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. Additionally, Coppess is co-founder of the annual photography festival Black Hills Photo Shootout.

Chris Nicholson is an East-coast-based photographer and writer, and author of the book Photographing National Parks. He is also a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night LLC. A magazine editor for ten years, Nicholson has worked independently since 2004. He has studied and worked in America’s National Parks throughout his career, regularly traveling to various parks for photography and related projects

This story is part of a multi-part series on America’s National Parks, Forests, and Monuments. Read the other stories in our series here: Maine Driving Guide: From Mount Katahdin to Acadia National Park and North Dakota Driving Guide: Theodore Roosevelt National Park.


This is a wonderful article. Went to the area last year, you hit all the highlights. Not just for the photography opportunities, this is also a great travel itinerary.

Hi David, thanks for the compliment on my South Dakota Driving Guide. I've never been there myself, but after writing this piece it is now at the top of my bucket list! I hope you had some great adventures there and came back with awesome pictures to boot. Thanks again for writing in and for reading the Explora blog.

That was a great article.  I particularly like all of your helpful hints on getting the best results for photos.  A lot of beautiful photos of the incredible sights.  I'd love to visit the badlands one day.  Thank you for sharing with us.  Aloha.

I'm glad you enjoyed the article Keith. All photos in this story (and many of the tips) are courtesy of the official photographer of South Dakota Tourism, Chad Coppess, who also runs a website called Dakotagraph. If you ever plan a Badlands trip you should definitely check out his Website for further advice and updates. Here's wishing you happy trails, great pictures, and thanks for reading the Explora blog!

Thanks, Jill, for a wonderful article. I've just come back from this area, as part of a 3-week roadtrip. I used your article as a way to find these awesome places. Even though I wasn't able to stay for the right light at either Spearfish Canyon or the Badlands, I've seen tham, loved them, and plan to go back.

Thanks for the compliment on my article Lorraine. So glad to know that the driving tips were useful in a real life trek! I haven't had the opportunity to visit South Dakota myself yet, but researching and writing this article certainly made me bump this trip to the top of my bucket list. Here's hoping that you have the opportunity to get back there soon!

Great article. Wish I had this a month earlier as we just got back from a road trip. Spearfish Canyon is beautiful, I can't imagine in the fall. Cray Horse is another cool place to see. One bit of advice for the 2 caves you mention-we attempted to go on a cave tour  but the tour tickets are 1st come, 1st serve, in person.  One person I spoke to said people were in the parking lot at 630 waiting for the AM tours...and unfortunately no online reservations. The entire day's tickets are usually gone by 1100 she said. 

Glad you like the article Dave, and thanks so much for the very helpful advice about ticketing for tours of Wind and Jewel Caves. What you describe seems like a perfect opportunity for great sunrise shots before getting in line for tickets. Thanks so much for reading Explora, and stay tuned for more articles like this, which might come in handy for your next road trip!

Beautifu images.  I sure can relate to them.  I'm from South Dakota.  Well done! Thank you for sharing.

Hi Fred, thanks for writing in and for your compliment on the article and the images. I'm sure Chad Coppess and the South Dakota Department of Tourism thank you too. As someone who has never had the opportunity to visit your awesome state, it was a total pleasure to be an armchair adventurer while researching this piece, and I can't wait to plan a first hand visit in the future. Thanks, as well, for reading our blog!

Thanks for your article and beatiful photography.  I got hooked last September 2015 when visiting the south Rim of Grand Canyon.  I'm going back to finish what I started - leave in 6 weeks for month long travel (fly & drive combo) beginning in Black Hills. Then to Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Sedona, Hoover Dam, Zion NP, Marble & Antelope Canyons.  Bucket list is nearly complete.  My ankle replacement can wait.

Wow Llnda, what an itinerary ... can I come along in your camera bag?!? Here's wishing you an awesome journey and hoping your ankles hold up! Thanks for reading Explora and, if you are so inclined, please send updates on your travels via comments. We love getting mail!

It has been more than 50 years ago since I was to that part of the world.  If my 'bucket list" had only one thing on it, it would be to make one last trip to th Black Hills and be flexible enough to take a few short hikes there.

Hi Gene, I'm so glad my article brought back past memories of the Black Hills and encouraged you to add another trip there to your bucket list. Here's hoping that you can get there and wishing you some glorious hikes in one of America's National Treasures. Many thanks for reading the blog and please stay tuned for the next installment in our America for Explorers series!

I knew it would be beautiful but had no idea it was this cool. It seem like it would take a year in a camper to capture most of it and even then you would have only scratched the surface of photo ops. WOW  :)

Thanks for your comment Jim. Once I started researching this story, I too was amazed at how many great photo ops there are to discover in South Dakota. While I'm sure that spending a year in a camper would yield no shortage of stunning images, I don't know if it would ever be possible to do more than scratch the surface when it comes to photographing the great outdoors. Happy trails and thanks for reading the Explora blog!

Stayed in Custer State Park for a few days in Sept. 2014. I agree; it is a 'national treasure' well beyond typical state park fare. Scenery abounds, The Needles Highway is a must do. A night run on that road is both awesome and spooky. Few do it, but the night sky scenes are worth the trip. About half the fun of CSP is the wildlife. Buffalo, deer, antelope are all within short telephoto range. We even saw a large white mountain goat while hiking a trail jutting from the Needles Highway.
We made our second trip through the Badlands while heading to CSP. It cannot possibly disappoint. Just do it. 

Thanks for adding your tips to the comments section Terry. As a night photographer myself, you've just inspired me to plan a trip along the Needles Highway that includes photo ops after sunset! And, regarding wildlife, our next article in this series will feature North Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt State Park, including tips on photographing some of the wildlife there. Thanks very much for reading Explora and stay tuned for our next installment!

We were out in late March with the family for Spring Break.  You have captured just about everything, but agree Crazy Horse should be included. Take a trip to the top for the full experience. Beautiful photos! Look forward to more of these. 

Hi Mark, thanks for your comment, as well as the tip about climbing to the top of the Crazy Horse Memorial. Since this is a privately owned attraction, it doesn't fit within our parameters of National Parks, Forests, Monuments, but it's great to see multiple people bringing this up as a South Dakota venue that's not to be missed! Thanks for reading the blog and please stay tuned for more articles like this as part of our America for Explorers series!

Fantastic article and photos. Went through SD 49 years ago and after reading this article, I will surely be visiting SD again in the following year.

Glad to hear that our story and Chad's pictures have inspired you to revisit a place you saw so long ago, Don. I'd love to hear how your past recollections of the area compare to what you find there today. Happy travels and thanks so much for reading the Explora blog!

Visited South Dakota last month.  The Black Hills are indeed special.    Great photos.  Sorry you missed the Crazy Horse Memorial!  Definitely a story in itself and shouldn't be missed.

Hi David, thanks for reading and writing in. I definitely appreciate your point about the Crazy Horse Memorial, however the focus of our America for Explorers project is specifically to feature America's National Parks, Forests and Monuments. Since the Crazy Horse Memorial is a privately owned attraction, it doesn't fit within our parameters for this series. That said, I'm glad you pointed this venue out to our readers in your comment. Thanks so much for reading the blog, and please feel free to write back if there are additional South Dakota sites that you'd like to recommend!

Awesome article on travel photography in South Dakota.  Rarely does a travel photography article/blog go into the depth you have.  Not only amazing images but tips on locations, view points, time of day and seasonal tips as well.  SD is now a bucket list location.  Thank you for a wonderful article.  So many places, so little time!

Thanks for your kind comments Gregory, so glad to hear that you read and appreciated all the detail this article contained. We couldn't have done it without the incredible knowledge base and inspired images of Chad Coppess, staff photographer for the South Dakota Department of Tourism. If you do make a trip to South Dakota, I highly recommend that you consult their Websites for further details and updates on must-see destinations in the state!

Thanks so much for reading Explora. And, since you enjoyed this article, please stay tuned for more stories like this and additional resources about other regions/states as part of our America for Explorers Project!

Every photo is spectacular in lighting, compositon and subject matter. Thank you for the photo tip for all the photos. I would love to see a photo essay like this on every state especially Utah, Montana Alaska and Florida. Thanks again.

Thanks for the compliments on this article Dolora. We've got more articles of this nature planned for the future, as well as additional resources that will cover National Parks and Monuments in every region of the United States. Thanks very much for reading Explora and please stay tuned for the next installment in B&H's America For Explorers Project!

Hi Ms. Waterman,

Wow! South Dakota is awesome as can be and it has just been added to my Bucket List. If I make it there I'll be sure to spend a month at minimum. 

Earlier this year I had the good fortune to spend a week in Yellowstone in January followed by two days at the south rim of the Grand Canyon, unaware at the time that it was the 100th anniversary of the park system. Such incredible, stunning beauty! 

Thanks for this article.

Hi Tom, thanks so much for your comment. I'm glad to hear that my article inspired you to add South Dakota to your bucket list. Researching this piece inspired me to add it to mine as well ... Maybe we should make a plan to meet up at Mount Rushmore! Please stay tuned for other articles and additional content about the National Parks from B&H in the months ahead and thanks, as always, for reading the Explora blog!

My friends and I are leavin Aug. 3rd for South Dakota. This article helps us plan our trip.

Hi John, it's great to hear this article will be helpful to planning your South Dakota trip. Please feel free to write back and post updates on your adventures. Here's wishing you happy trails and thanks for reading Explora!

Thanks for your comment James. I think it's safe to say that, as staff photographer for Travel South Dakota, Chad Coppess makes everyone long to visit his magnificent state!