The South Unit at Sunset

We like to time our visits to Medora so that we can catch the spectacular color changes at sunset.  This weekend, we strolled up Ridgeline Trail to watch the colors of the wintry golden hour turn to magenta and then blue.

At the top of the stepped trail is a park bench where you can look far to the northeast. It looks like this mid-afternoon:

Badlands ridgeline trail

Looking northeast from the Ridgeline Trail in mid-afternoon. The contours of the Badlands are evident. The road in the lower right corner is the scenic drive, and hidden at the bottom is the parking area.

As the winter sun began to sink, we split up and walked across the hilltop of Ridgeline Trail, checking for changes in the scenery.  Before we got back to the original location of the shot above, the golden colors of the landscape became apparent.  You can see the apparent color change to gold:

golden hour badlands hills

We kept moving the entire time we were at the top. The temperature drops and it turns dark quickly. Before the golden hour, before sunset, the sun illuminates the hills. The striations of the many layers of rock are very apparent when the bright sun hit the south-facing hills.   We had already started walking down to the car when we stopped to capture the third photo here.

First the Golden Hour, then the Blue Hour

Looking straight north from the hilltop of Ridgeline Trail.


Headed back with the goal to get to the car before it got much later,  we watched the beginning of the blue hour. Some of the hills in the distance picked up the cold blue colors that come as the sun disappears. The far background turned magenta as the golden hour grew late and blues entered into the landscape.  

Badlands landscape golden hour

Just before we lost the sunset entirely, the distant landscape picked up a gentle magenta glow while the hills in the foreground were still glowing yellow.

Sunset makes the colors change

The color change happens as the sun gets low on the horizon and the rays are filtered through the greatest thickness of the atmosphere, creating a yellow cast known as the Golden Hour.  Immediately after the sun sets, or at dusk, the sun is gone and with it goes the warm colors of yellow and gold That’s when the landscape turns blue and is called the blue hour.  If you catch the balance between the Golden Hour and the Blue Hour, you can find magenta in the landscape as we did.

If you want to catch the colors, plan to be at a good vantage point about 45 minutes before sunset.  In the winter, you don’t have a lot of time, so don’t get too far off the beaten path.  Once the sun starts setting, it gets relatively dark quickly — and colder.

You can get memorable photos of the North Dakota Badlands.  Here are six tips.

Another good place to take an easy Badlands walk in winter is the Long X Trail.  It’s worthy of a couple of hours trail time and it will break the winter blues.

Take the Badlands home with you