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5 Top Stops in Badlands National Park

The otherworldly vistas of South Dakota’s Badlands National Park create a compelling backdrop for hikers, campers and photographers. A Midwest photographer shares five of her favorite stops.

Badlands National Park is one of my favorite places to visit and photograph. The landscape of ancient geological formations varies in color and shape, with buttes, pinnacles, canyons and prairies. Many animals—including bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and deer—call this rugged land home.

Driving the popular 39-mile Badlands Loop Road provides a quick overview of the park (and frequently a chance to see wildlife), but I recommend spending extra time at these 5 spots to get a more in-depth look.

1.Yellow Mounds Overlook This area on the Badlands Loop Road is by far my favorite section of the park. The colors and textures make this a favorite spot for photographers. The yellow mounds were formed when the sea drained, leaving the black ocean mud exposed to air. These formations are some of the oldest in the park. Both sides of the road offer jaw-dropping views. Catch a sunset here to watch all the colors light up.

Yellow Mounds

Yellow Mounds Overlook. Photo: Beth Mancuso

2. Conata Basin Located near the Pinnacles Entrance, Conata Basin comes directly after the Yellow Mounds Overlook (or before, depending on which way you’re traveling). The view faces west making this a great spot to watch the sunset. Conata Basin looks out over the Badlands and the backside of Yellow Mounds.

Conata Basin

Conata Basin. Photo: Beth Mancuso

3. Notch Trail Near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, this 1.5 mile out-and-back trail is not for those afraid of heights. The trail is marked as moderate to strenuous. The biggest obstacle:a wooden ladder you have to climb up and then back down. The trail winds along a ledge, eventually leading to an open view (or notch) of the White River Valley. The trail really makes you feel like you are in the heart of the Badlands.

Notch Trail

Notch Trail. Photo: Beth Mancuso

4. Norbeck Pass Norbeck Pass used to serve as a primitive trail for Native Americans and explorers. You’ll find this area near the Interior entrance on the east side of the park, right by the Fossil Exhibit Trail. I like to take photos here because the rock formations vary so much in size; you can climb on them and really explore. It’s also a great spot for sunsets and nighttime photography, as the skies get really dark here.

Norbeck Pass

Norbeck Pass. Photo: Beth Mancuso

5. Sage Creek Rim Road Take the path less traveled and venture onto Sage Creek Rim Road. Located near the Pinnacles Entrance on the west side of the park, this gravel road often leads to views of prairie dogs, bison and bighorn sheep, among the 39 species of mammals who live in the park.

Sage Creek Road

Sage Creek Rim Road. Photo: Beth Mancuso

Beth Mancuso is a Minnesota-based photographer who loves to hike, camp, and explore. She visits at least one national park a year and has been to Badlands National Park three times. She is hosting her first Badlands National Park photography workshop this fall.

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