If you leave Chicago westbound on interstate 90 and drive for about 12 hours straight you will find yourself in one of the most desolate but beautiful landscapes full of varying degrees of environmental conditions that is known as South Dakota. The huge plain is covered in long stretches of highway, pastures, rolling hills and a desert-looking landscapes that make you feel like you’re in a prehistoric time. If you haven’t guessed yet I’m describing my vacation journey to the great plain state.
Since my wife and I were driving there, I decided that I had room in my car to bring pretty much everything. So I brought my Leica M4 with a Voigtlander 35mm and 50mm, the Hasselblad 500CM with an 80mm along with my Fuji 100f and Sony a6300. To be honest, I spent most of my time shooting with the Leica. I find myself always gravitating towards the rangefinder because it’s light and so easy to use. I reserved the Hasselblad for the photos where I had to time compose and take long exposures. And the digital cameras were for the moments when I was really lazy or just didn’t trust my analogue instincts and wanted some insurance that I got the shot.
I would think that South Dakota is normally not the first place people have in mind when they think of a vacation. The majority of vacation goers probably desire a warm climate with white sandy beaches and margaritas but South Dakota can bring the same type of peacefulness and tranquility for those who are up for some hiking and getting your steps in.
Fancy yourself on the hottest day in summer in the hottest spot of such a place without water — without an animal and scarce an insect astir — without a single flower to speak pleasant things to you and you will have some idea of the utter loneliness of the Bad Lands.” Thaddeus Culbertson, 1850
I love this quote as it sums the beauty and sheer terror the terrain can summon. As beautiful as the landscapes can be, if you’re not careful it can kill you. The Badlands were a sight I’ve never seen and I often felt as if I were on a different planet.
If you’re traveling there and want to have a camping-like experience without sleeping on the dirt and the fear of being bitten by an animal in the middle of the night, I suggest staying at the Cedar Pass Lodge located in Badlands National Park. There are several cozy cabin-style rooms complete with all accoutrements you’d expect from a hotel room. And the best part, the views are incredible. When the sun sets and night begins, the silence in the air is deafening. There are no highways, bars or bustling towns. Just the whistling of the wind and blades of grass clapping away.
There are a variety of trails available to visitors however it is strongly encouraged to plan your hikes in advanced and to bring plenty of water, wear comfortable boots, extra batteries (for cameras and phone charger), and it wouldn’t hurt to bring a first aid kit. To put it simply, Badlands National Park ain’t no walk in the park.
The majority of the trails you can find on a trail map and are marked easy, moderate, hard however they are not clearly marked when you’re walking and it’s very easy to find yourself walking on the easiest trail and then transition to the hardest one. You won’t know it until you find yourself scaling a rickety rope-ladder up a rock face and you’ll realize you’re no longer on the easy trail.
After a few nights in the Badlands, we headed further west to Custer State Park in the Black Hills. The 71,000 acre park is full of wildlife and a much different view compared to the desert looking Badlands. Custer encompasses several small towns inside of the park with several state routes traveling through the area giving beautiful views of the land and lakes.
The trails are clearly marked better than the Badlands trails, so it’s easy to stay the course and not get lost, However, they are long and you can spend at least two hours walking a trail but the views are worth it.
Black Elk Peak is the highest point in the state of South Dakota. If you are feeling adventurous you can go to the summit which is a short 6 hour hike up and back down.
If you’re not feeling up to the task of trekking the rolling hills, there are still great views to be had along the Wildlife Loop Road and Needles Highway. Both are long winding two-lane roads with plenty or spots to stop and take photos and there is no extreme walking involved. Just be sure to watch out for wildlife and not get too close.
One of the major traversed routes in Custer is Needles Highway; Needles gets its name from the tall spire-like rock formations that can be seen surrounding the mountain faces along the way. At the end of the highway you are greeted by Lake Sylvan, where you can park your car, find a seat and enjoy the view.
Sylvan Lake is also the entrance point for several easy to moderate trails including the Black Elk Peak trail. But it is also a touristy area so be aware that on weekends it may be very busy with kayaks, swimmers and others.
Towards the end of the trip, we traveled further west to Deadwood which is a mostly touristy area thanks to the casino and the TV series. However if you continue driving outside the city along Route 14 to Spearfish there are plenty of photography spots to be had with waterfalls and rivers. One of our last stops of the trip included a short 15 minute walk to Spearfish falls.
In retrospect, I probably brought too much gear. I ended up using the Leica most of the time for general photography. When there was an opportunity to compose a shot with a long exposure, I used the Hasselblad or my Fuji x100f.
The most enjoyable thing about this trip wasn’t even the trip; it was the countless hours ahead printing in the darkroom going over each contact sheet and selecting prints. After all, if you shoot analogue to only scan your photos and post to Instagram, do they even exisit? Sure digital is easier and in many respects it can be better; but that’s a different discussion. When it comes to film, I chose the shots I take knowing the hard work that will be involved to see the final image. That forethought helps me decide what’s really important in my picture taking journey no matter where I am. If I see myself snapping away just to take a picture then I’m just wasting film, but if I slow down and imagine the final print and consider the time it will take to see that print, then I haven’t wasted a frame. And in this trip there were no wasted shots.