Yep, Summer is past. That does not mean cool-weather outdoor adventures are over.
The Badlands beauty remains.
We headed out southwest of Grassy Butte toward Devils Pass and shot this little 20 second video from the pickup window.
You’ll discover more about Devils Pass in a blog by Brian Kittelson about his great riding adventure on the Maah Daah Hey Trail. Find it here: Perfect Ride on the Maah Daah Hey Trail in North Dakota!
If you want to head west on a gravel road, the roads are good for travel — all you need is a sense of adventure, a map, a tank of gas and your camera.
Warm open days of autumn or early winter are excellent times to get into the Badlands. It’s not ungodly hot, and the subtle colors can be impressive.
It’s an adventure that combines exercise, photography and exploration.
So, why not step away from daily noise and step in to an environmental and audible quiet. That’s what happens when you drive in the Badlands. It’s is a visual break from everyday signs.
Plan, prepare and pack for cool-weather adventure
Where are you going?
Boy that’s the debate we get into with each other every time we plan a Badlands experience. Like kids in an amusement park, “which ride do we do first?”
For us that depends on how energetic we feel.
And how far from civilization we want to get.
And how much time we have.
Those factors decide for us; do we go north or south. The North Dakota Badlands follow the Little Missouri River from near Marmarth in the southwest corner of the state, northward to Mandaree. North Dakota’s badlands get much more rugged on the north end than on the south end.
So, your first consideration is how rough do you wanna be? The southern Badlands are gentle. And the northern Badlands are rugged.
Grab a map and get going
Mary is a map addict. She has several maps all showing different information for the same area. She’s kind of hard core about that.
Me? I’ll figger it out when I get there. I have a general knowledge of the area thanks the U.S. Forest Service Maps I’ve consulted for a couple decades. Of course, the newest ones are the best ones. They’re more up to date.
We make a good Badlands adventure couple. While Mary is a map guru, I’m all about the weather. Both are necessary. For me, weather was a fascination in college that helped me get my graduation credits in science. Then as a building contractor keeping an eye on weather was essential. Then came a stint as a TV weather man. All that helps us plan where and when to go on a cool-weather adventure.
Rule of thumb: Compare sources for the best weather forecast – not just one
I can’t stress enough that consulting one weather source one time is not going to give you all the info you need. Public forecasters consult more than one weather model, and not the same ones as each other consult. We do the same thing when we compare each different weather information source.
We consult at least two of these:
Not Just Once
Pick the weather service you like, but don’t look at it just once when you plan your fall photo safari. Look at those forecast sites several times over a couple days and you’ll get an idea of trends to expect. Weather forecasts are best for only about 12 hours. Trends over 48 hours are the most helpful.
Pick a Spot
Micro-climates are fun to anticipate…and important.
General weather patterns are just that. General. You can expect more heat or cold, more wind or less, more sun or more shade in different regions of the Badlands. The terrain changes the weather from place to place. So, note the direction of the wind. It gets intense when it is funneled down a Badlands valley. Not the sun direction — those hidden slopes are cooler and sunlit slops are warmer.
Now for the good stuff—get the photos you want
If a cool-weather photo safari is on your list, the mid-section of the Badlands may answer your need – as long as you stay within sight of the Little Missouri River. Trees and bushes are scarce in the Badlands, except along the Little Missouri River. So, not only will you get vegetative variety to your photos, but you will also stand a good chance of photographing deer — or sometimes moose in the north.
Two spots to consider
- We’ve found that driving either West River Road, or East River Road north of I-94 can provide good photo opportunities without having to hike a distance.
- Another good location is the Little Missouri State Park. This is the sweet spot. It’s rugged and steep with a good variety of trees to provide autumn color. The ever-present cottonwoods and aspens are mixed with varieties of ash and oak.
What if there are clouds?
Well, of course you knew there would be clouds because you consulted more than one weather site more than one time. Right? (see above)
If, when you get to the Badlands, clouds move in and the day is less bright, that’s a good time to practice your black and white photos, or your macro photos.
We try to remember this rule of thumb: Grey dull days good for monotone texture, bright days good for color.
What to take?
We’ve gone back and forth on this one. We’ve packed light. And we’ve packed a complete camera backpack. I guess Mary thinks I’m a big strong guy and can carry the blanket, water, food, tripod, more than one camera and lenses. I can, but it’s not my favorite way to get out and get away.
So, for cool-weather day hike, for getting a few autumn photos: Pack light.
Even if you are sticking to your car, you’ll want to get out and look around. So, have things readily accessible, easy to reach.
Hike for the best shots
Recommended: If you are ready to get out on foot – use a good backpack with chest and belly straps as well as shoulder straps to make the load almost unnoticeable.
What to take
As always take water, even on a cool-weather adventure. Take more than you think you will want. You can always carry them back home and drink them on the road.
Remember to take extra memory cards, batteries and cleaning cloths.
This could be a good time to do more than just using your phone camera to take snap shots. Take a tripod to see what happens when you slow down and plan a shot. A good backpack will have external straps to help carry a collapsible tripod.
On the shoot
Plan for golden hour. That when shadows are long, contrasts are apparent, and the colors turn gold. It happens fast and early in the fall and winter.
Look for position, angle. Stand? Ho hum.
Kneel? Yes. Lay? Of course.
Lay on your back and look up at the trees with the bluffs, hills and sky in the background.
We get excited when we do this kind of thing. That’s because we are exercising our bodies and our minds. We’re exercising our creative spirits. And we’re getting some good ol’ North Dakota a fresh air!
This next weekend could be the best cool-weather weekend all year. You’ll know when you get there.
Even if it isn’t the peak of North Dakota Badlands fall season, you’ll still find spots where you ‘ll want to go next spring, summer or winter. So, that’s a win, right there. You’ll be one step ahead next summer because you scoped out the area this fall.
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How the Civil War changed ranching in North Dakota.
Frequently Asked Questions
When is the best time to shoot Badlands fall colors?
The last half of September to November is best, depending on how dry the summer was and if there is snow on the ground.
Where is the best place to shoot Badlands fall colors?
Along the Little Missouri River between Marmarth and Mandaree. The Little Missouri State Park north of Killdeer is colorful.
Do I have to hike to see the fall colors?
No. Both East River Road and West River Road north of I-94 take you on a loose ribbon of hills and grasslands to showcase fall colors