Chasing Light in the Badlands & Beyond - Part 1

06/01/2021  |  South Dakota

It has become a tradition of mine in the past few years to spend a couple weeks each May and early June chasing storm light across the prairie states of South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and. Montana. One of my absolute favorite locations to capture stunning landscape images is Badlands National Park.

This past May I made another journey out to the badlands meeting top with my good friend and fellow rodeo/western lifestyle photographer, Mark LaRowe. I've know Mark for many, many years meeting him when he attended my Zion & Valley of Fire photo workshops over ten years ago. Mark and myself hit it off right away and we've been great friends ever since going on many photo journeys ever since.

On this past trip, we started in Badlands National park and managed to chase light and storms in many states putting in over 1,500 miles of driving and spending most night camped in the badlands or prairies where we could be on location for the best light and weather.

Clearing storm after sunrise across the Badlands of South Dakota.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Clearing storm after sunrise across the Badlands of South Dakota. Photo © copyright by Joseph Rossbach.

After our first night, boondock camping just outside of the entrance to Badlands National park, we awoke to pea soup fog at sunrise. Instead of rushing out to shoot we had a leisurely morning in camp enjoying coffee and waiting for the fog to lift. Once it did, we drove over to a favorite vista of mine to capture the play of early morning light and clouds across the badlands.

Not long after I shot this image the clouds cleared out and the forecast was calling for high pressure for a couple days in Badlands, so we opted to hit the road and chase better light.

Devils Tower in eastern Wymong catches the last rays of light at sunset.

Prairie Volcano

Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming

Devils Tower in eastern Wymong catches the last rays of light at sunset. Photo © copyright by Joseph Rossbach.

Our fist stop was Devils Tower National Monument located in eastern Wyoming. Devils Tower is an impressive sight to see rising from the surrounding prairie like a sentinel. We grabbed a campsite in the park and spent the rest of the day relaxing in camp and scouting potential sunset locations. I chose this composition at sunset using some large boulders at the base of the tower as a framing element. The sky was just clear enough in the West to paint the tower in magnificent light at sunset.

After a pleasant night in camp, I awoke to clear skies across the prairie. Checking all of my apps and weather forecasts it looked like our best bet for capturing dramatic light was north into Montana and near the North Dakota Border. We choose to visit Makoshika State Park, Montana's largest state park.

Makoshika consists of eroded canyons, badlands and desert formations. It is a beautiful park and a great place to get away from the crowds of nearby National Parks and explore.

The next three images below were captured during the golden hour at sunset and sunrise the following morning at a location in Makoshika State Park. I was completely blown away with the amazing geology of this place and colors. I will be back to Makoshika in the future to explore this place in greater depth.

Eroding badlands at sunset in Makoshika State Park, Wyoming.

Makoshika State Park, Montana

Eroding badlands at sunset in Makoshika State Park, Wyoming. Photo © copyright by Joseph Rossbach.

Hoodoos at sunrise in Makoshika State Park, Wyoming.

City of Stone

Makoshika State Park, Montana

Hoodoos at sunrise in Makoshika State Park, Wyoming. Photo © copyright by Joseph Rossbach.

Badlands at sunset in Makoshika State Park, Wyoming.

Makoshika State Park, Montana

Badlands at sunset in Makoshika State Park, Wyoming. Photo © copyright by Joseph Rossbach.

Our final evening in Makoshika was a rough one. That night huge storms developed and for a while it was a really awesome experience watching the lightning strikes across the landscape from our camp high on a ridge in the park. After retiring to the comfort of the tent however things changed quickly. The storm that was so pleasant to view was now on us and high winds were battering my tent around ,making sleep an almost impossible task. After a long night of little sleep we broke camp early the next morning and headed south again to Badlands National Park.

Badlands streathing for mailes as a huge thunderstorm develops at sunset.

Above the Maze

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands streathing for mailes as a huge thunderstorm develops at sunset. Photo © copyright by Joseph Rossbach.

After a long drive back south to Badlands National Park, we opted for the comfort of a hotel in Wall, SD that evening. Days are long in late May, so after a shower and much needed nap I poked my head outside to see storms beginning to build across the landscape. A few hours before sunset Mark and myself headed out to my favorite location in the park. Getting into this location requires a trail-less 2 mile hike into the maze of badlands accessed from crossing the prairie. The "Maze" consists of the most dramatic badlands peaks I've photographed in the park and the multi-colored eroded foregrounds make for a landscape photographers dream.

In the image above, I scaled one of the tallest mounds I could find to capture this vista across the maze of badlands as an approaching thunderstorm from the West swept across the sky.

A remote landscape located in the backcountry of Badlands National Park at sunset.

Temple on the Prairie

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

A remote landscape located in the backcountry of Badlands National Park at sunset. Photo © copyright by Joseph Rossbach.

The above image is one of my absolute favorite compositions that I pioneered last May while exploring the park and shooting with Ian Plant for our Badlands Adventure Video we produced. I scrambled over to this location just in time to catch the last light on the "big pyramid" at sunset. The amazing cloud formations made the image for me.

After some great light in the Badlands, we went storm chasing again the next day. This time we followed storms south to the Oglala National Grasslands of Western Nebraska. I've been to this location a few times over the years, so I had some pre-scouted compositions ready to go in case the weather got interesting...and did it ever!

Lightning and a massive super cell thunderstorm captured from tyhe remote badlands of Toadstool Geologic Preserve in western...

Toadstool Geologic Preserve, Oglala National Grassland, Nebraska

Lightning and a massive super cell thunderstorm captured from tyhe remote badlands of Toadstool Geologic Preserve in western Nebraska. Photo © copyright by Joseph Rossbach.

As sunset approached a massive super cell developed in the West and came sweeping across the prairie. After about one hundred shots, I was able to catch this bolt of lightning as the storm swept across the landscape. Minutes after getting this shot the window came roaring in and then followed by rain and hail. I retreated from my perch and took cover back down in the parking area in my truck until the storm passed over.

A beautiful area of badlands on the grasslands of western Nebraska during the golden hour.

Toadstool Geologic Preserve, Oglala National Grassland, Nebraska

A beautiful area of badlands on the grasslands of western Nebraska during the golden hour. Photo © copyright by Joseph Rossbach.

As the storm began to break up and move into the eastern sky, I hiked a mile across the open prairie to a location I found last June. The light was now perfect with dramatic clouds from the storm still lingering in the eastern sky.

Lightning strikes against a solidary badlands butte in the Oglala National Grasslands of western Nebraska.

Thunder Rolls

Oglala National Grasslands, Nebraska

Lightning strikes against a solidary badlands butte in the Oglala National Grasslands of western Nebraska. Photo © copyright by Joseph Rossbach.

That evening in camp on the prairie I was treated to thunderstorms and lightning dancing across the grasslands during deep twilight and into night. I set up my camera and framed a lone butte hoping to capture lightning. I sure did! I set the camera to keep taking 30 second exposures as I cooked dinner on the grill. When I went back 30 minutes later to review the images I was blown away to see this one.

Check back in soon for my next installment of images for this epic trip. In round two, we will focus on Badlands National Park where I spent the last week of my journey.