Last week my friend and fellow photographer MK Smith and I went on a “photo safari” to South Dakota, including two days at Badlands National Park. This place of rocky, red spires, deep canyons and never-ending rolling grasslands strikes me as both subtle and harsh all at once. A bright, sunny sky can moments later be clouded with thunderheads; a steep, rugged hillside gives way to a juniper tree-filled canyon; and birds and animals flourish despite a lack of lushness and water. The tiny towns of Scenic and Interior were sad and lonely, yet the view from 3,282 feet atop Sheep Mountain was awe-inspiring. Everything worth doing in the Badlands involved travel along narrow, sometimes steep, gravel roads. And during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset this dramatic, almost lunar, landscape seems like the most beautiful and peaceful place in the world.
My trip included a stay on the edge of a butte overlooking the national park on one side and the White River on the other. Circle View Guest Ranch is located at the end of a mile long dirt driveway about 5 miles from the Badlands. Ranch dog Hank offers free tours of the stunning property, and guests are treated to a ranch breakfast each morning which includes eggs from their free range chicken flock. The highlight of my trip was a pre-dawn drive through the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands and then on to Sheep Mountain Table to watch the sun rise over the Badlands’ remote south unit, which is managed by the Oglala-Lakota Tribe. Before reaching the summit, an antelope sprinted across the road in front of us setting the tone for an amazing day of new sights and adventures.