Take What Ya Got
You absolutely do not need expensive gear to get awesome images from the North Dakota Badlands. Take what ya got: That means, take your phone camera, point-and-shoot camera, disposable camera, high end DSLR or even a video camera.
We rounded up a list of top places in the Badlands where you’ll want to go to get your fill of snapshots, portraits, wildlife and landscape photos. We recommend these because they are easy to access, and are unique locations that will prompt generations of memories and conversations.
Bonus: Along the way in this article, we’ve provided links to give you more information about each of the 8 places. And at the end, a couple of tips to make your photos standout.
Let’s start down south at the Interstate, then head north.
1. TRNP-South Unit
The Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) includes two popular units, the North and South, plus a third unit, the Elkhorn Ranch Historic site. Of the three, the north and south units are the easiest to reach. And of those two, the south Unit, off I-94 at Medora seems to get the most traffic.
Here’s what you’ll see in the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park: prairie dogs, bison, wild horses, mule deer, occasionally coyote and elk. When the visitor center is open, the park ranger there can give you an idea where the herds of bison or horses may be found. Sometimes you’ll be fortunate to get within 75 or 100 feet of them. You won’t need a telephoto lens. Sometimes, they are literally on the road.
The same is true of prairie dogs. They’re along the side of the road and sometimes scampering on to the paved surface. Deer like the wooded areas along the river. Elk roam freely in western North Dakota. We’ve discovered they’re easiest to spot when they graze hill tops. Coyotes? They like to hang round prairie dog towns and wooded areas where they might be able to take down a young deer.
Any of the trails present eye-catching vistas, the most popular for photos seem to be Boicourt (pronounced BY-court) Trail, and Wind Canyon Trail. They’re easily accessible and lead to memorable vistas.
Wind Canyon Trail leads through highly-eroded soft rocks over the east cliffs above the Little Missouri River. Mid morning to noon, and again late afternoon to sunset are good times for the contrasts of the cliffs to be most apparent.
Boicourt Trail is just south of Boicourt Overlook. The trail is wheelchair accessible for about a quarter mile.
2. TRNP – North Unit
On of the biggest draws to the north unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) is that it is more rugged than the south unit. It’s smaller and more intimate. Greater chance of driving through herds of bison or longhorn steers.
Just like the south unit, here is where you’ll find prairie dogs, bison, and maybe some elk or coyotes. Also in the north unit, get your camera ready for bighorn sheep. They’re usually off in the distance. So, if you have a way of zooming in on a distant critter, you will need it.
Unlike the south unit, you may be able to photograph legendary longhorn steers. They’re here for a reason — to give you and idea of what cattle drovers pushed here from southwest Texas 150 years ago. You’ll likely find them where the grazing is easiest, probably on the bottom ground, along the river.
The north unit is deeper than the south unit so the trails can be more challenging. However, the Cannonball Concretions area is fun for photos, especially if you have children. They like to climb on and around the huge round boulders. So you could get some fun candid children photos here.
A bit more difficult is the Caprock Coulee trail. Be prepared for a climb if you chose the southern portion of the trail, but once you get on top of this long climb, you get the opportunity to photograph the Little Missouri River far below.
3. Little Missouri State Park
A little known fact: The Little Missouri River starts out as not much more than a creek in Wyoming. As it gets closer to the Missouri River, it cuts a deeper channel. At the Little Missouri State Park, the river has cut the most rugged and difficult terrain.
Since the Little Missouri State Park is in the most rugged region of the state, many people like to wander the ridges in the park’s groomed area. The look over the edge to get photos of the landscape and sometimes of wildlife.
If you want to get in deeper, the trails are well-marked. It can be pretty impressive if you fall behind or ahead of your hiking companions to photograph their trail. Here too, look for unusual rock formations that will provide fun stories later on. On occasion we’ve spotted porcupines here. Many times we’ve stepped around rattlesnakes.
As long as you are up north exploring the Park north unit and Little Missouri State Park, head a bit east to photograph history from Crow Flies High. It is the legendary point at what used to be a bend in the Missouri River and probably where William Clark posted a sentry to watch for Meriwether Lewis to rejoin the Corps of Discovery in 1806.
When the river is low look over the north edge and you may see the foundations of the flooded town of Sanish. It was a vibrant local community that the Army Corps of Engineers flooded when they built Garrison Dam and created Lake Sakakawea.
Four Bears Bridge
Nearby is the world class Four Bears Bridge. It makes a stunning site at sunset all year long. On the west end is a bit more history where storyboards and bridge steel are displayed with good opportunities for photographs of the historical plaques.
5. Fairview Lift Bridge and Cartwright Railroad Tunnel
Speaking of bridges, while you’re still on the north end of the Badlands, go to a family favorite. The Fairview Lift Bridge promises two thrilling experiences, especially for kids. The bridge is high and the tunnel is dark. The catwalk along the length of the bridge is shielded by chain link fence for safety sake. Benches along the way are good places to sit a spell. It used to be a dual purpose bridge. Imagine driving across it?
The opening to the Cartwright Tunnel from the west makes for a popular backdrop for photos. Cell phone cameras that adjust to darkness are useful here. Take your camera inside to shoot memorable images. Once inside, the repeated pattern of the timbers are often recorded by photographers.
Down below is Sundheim Park where you can picnic, fish, launch a boat and sometimes camping is available.
6. Ft Union
While you are still up north head over to Fort Union. It’s free. And it stands as an impressive testimony to the way things were 200 years ago. Wide shots are often what people like to shoot here. Or they visit during a rendezvous. It’s a good place to take note of the small things, too.
Down the road a couple miles is another lift bridge, the Snowden or Nohly Liftbridge. This one, though it doesn’t lift, is still an active railroad bridge so stay off. It used to be a dual purpose bridge up until the 1980’s.
7. Ft Buford and Confluence Center
The stroll along the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers at the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center (MYCIC) is a photo paradise for birders.
If you’re not in to birding, take your camera for a walk west of the visitor center to photograph the Fort Buford cemetery. Much of it is historic, and if you look closely, reading the headstones, you may find a bit of humor. Fort Buford is a bit overlooked when it comes to its significant role in history.
Buffalo soldiers left a very favorable impression on communities in the region so that when railroads were built here, many of the buffalo soldiers stuck around.
Nearby the very impressive horse sculpture is a great photo subject — especially for members of the Masons.
Selfie/Family portrait bonus
The Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) has a couple of locations that are easy to access and are good for selfies or group shots. The East Entrance Trail in the south unit is a fun little hike to the stone building that once marked the entrance to the park before there was an Interstate. The light is good, and there are several angles for which interesting backdrops are available.
In the north unit, the River Bend Overlook could be one of the most photographed buildings in the state, and there’s a reason for that. It’s easy to get to and it provides a memorable view of the valley below. The light is good for selfies and group portaits while showing off the ruggedness of the landscape.
Here’s a tip for taking the best images. Do not face the sun, either as photo subjects or as the photographer. Put the sun at your shoulder. The result is contrast and colors are more visible.
And a second time: try shooting within the first two hours or the last two hours of the day. The sunlight is warm and soft which makes everyone look healthy!
Show us what ya got
We like to share images on our Facebook page. It inspires others and gives you a place to show off your visit.
We’ve got several more ideas for you to explore with your camera. One idea coming is a short easy hike across the grasslands. The other is a collection of road trips, driving across the Badlands for those great photos. Just subscribe to this blog and you’ll be the first to get a notice that the story is posted.
As always, a photo gallery of the beautiful North Dakota Badlands is available for your browsing and buying. Click here to see the images. They make great keepsakes.