Yep, Labor Day is past. That does not mean your outdoor adventures are over. Autumn adventures are some of the best.
All you need is your sense of adventure, a map, a tank of gas and your camera.

Fall Photography

Autumn View from the road leading to the Little Missouri State Park.

View from the road leading to the Little Missouri State Park.

Autumn is an excellent time to get into the Badlands. It’s not ungodly hot, and the colors can be amazing.

We found that out, kind of by accident.

Yeah, the hiking and camping we know is good this time of year, but so is the landscape for camera bugs to capture.

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

Where are you going? 

Boy that’s the debate we get into with each other every time.  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.  We like to consider these five possibilities.

The southern Badlands are gentle. The northern Badlands are rugged.

The North Dakota Badlands follow the Little Missouri River from near Marmarth north to Mandaree.  They get much more rugged on the north end than on the south end.  So, your first consideration is how rugged do you wanna be?

Grab a map and get going

ridges are tops for hikes forest service map

Green squares are public access and the Forest Service Map shows valley trails such as “Long X” and the ridgeline trails such as the closed “Summit Trail.”

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.

While Mary is a map guru, I’m all about the weather.  It 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. 

Compare 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 you compare each different weather information source.

We use that smart phone to consult one of these:


Weather Channel,

National Weather Service,

Frieze-Notis Weather Service.

Pick the one 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.


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.

Stands of Aspen Trails on the Ice Caves Trail, Western North Dakota autumn fall

Autumn on the Ice Caves Trail is a remote area accessed only by a local ranch road, Scairt Woman Road, and only under favorable weather conditions. Aspen trees are abundant in lower areas of the landscape here during the fall.

Now for the good stuff—getting the photos you want

If a fall photo op is your priority, the mid-section of the Badlands may answer your need – as long as you stay within sight of the Little Missouri River.  Trees are scarce in the Badlands, except along the Little Missouri River.  

The sweet spot is up north.

We’ve found that driving either the West River Road, or the East River Road north of I-94 can provide good photo opportunities. 

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 that because you consulted more than one weather site more than  one time. If it happens that when you get to the Badlands, the 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 bring?

We’ve gone back and forth on this one.  We pack light. And we’ve packed a complete 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.

However, for this kind of day hike, 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.

Autumn in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park fall colors Peaceful Valley Ranch

Want to stay in your car? Just take a drive through the Theodore Roosevelt National park.

Hike for the best fall shots

If you are ready to get out on foot – RECOMMENDED! — Use a good backpack with chest and belly straps as well as shoulder straps make the load almost unnoticeable.

Pack for the autumn moment

As always take water. Take more bottles than you think you will want. You can also 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 use 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.  I guess that’s why they call it the “golden hour.”

As the sun lowers in the west the light warms, and the montrous iron railroad bridge in north eastern Montana, which some believe to be haunted, becomes nearly inviting in a mezmerizing sort of way.

The monstrous iron structure constructed in 1913 seems almost warm and inviting as the sun lowers in the western sky, and golden hour begins on an autumn afternoon .

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 get out to satisfy our creative and exercise desires. 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 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!


Frequently Asked Questions

When is the best time to shoot Badlands autumn colors?

The last half of September is best, depending on how dry the summer has been and when the first frost has occurred.

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.

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Coming up: Unique shopping stops are on our list of places to explore this fall.  And coffee. We love coffee and pie. So, we’ll tell you about the best coffee shops from Glendive to Dickinson, Marmarth to Mandaree.

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