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Landscape Photography and Badlands – Alberta and South Dakota

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The landscape is like being there with a powerful personality and I’m searching for just the right angles to make that portrait come across as meaningfully as possible. Galen Rowell

I thought I would use this issue to share with you a recent trip I had to photograph the Badlands of southwestern South Dakota. For someone (me) who is interested in landscape photography, this area is a magnet that has drawn me to it twice now. I first went there in 2013 to attend a photo tour put on by Jason O’Dell (http://www.luminescentphoto.com) and Deborah Sandidge (http://www.deborahsandidge.com/). The tour lasted 3 days and I took an extra day to drive over to Wyoming to photograph the Devil’s Watch Tower. It is an understatement to say that I was literally blown away by the size and magnitude of the place. Coming from Western Canada, I was very familiar with the Badlands of Alberta that occur along the Red Deer River valley They pale by comparison to those of South Dakota. This year, 2014, I returned to South Dakota to attend the same tour, which was extended by a day and I took an extra day to investigate the southern portion of the Badlands for comparison. In my opinion, they are just as spectacular as the ones in the northern part of the park.
Badlands are loosely defined as a type of arid terrain where layers of the softer sedimentary rocks, sandstones, soft shales and often volcanic ash deposits, etc., have been intensely eroded by wind and water. The areas usually have steep slopes, very little vegetation and little if any soils covering them. They owe their appearance to the fact that the rocks are often poorly consolidated; this is a geological term that describes how well cemented, or fused together, the grains in the rock are and thus how hard the rock is. This poor consolidation makes the rocks easily eroded by wind and the torrential rains that often accompany summer storms.
While some of the best known Badlands can be found in Canada and the United States, areas of similar landforms are known from New Zealand, the Putangirua Pinnacles; Italy, Spain, Argentina and Taiwan. I would encourage anyone who is interested to search the web for descriptions of these places. For now, I will limit my discussion to the two areas that I know best – Alberta and South Dakota.
The Alberta Badlands http://albertatravel.org/Badlands_Alberta.htm occur at two major places along the Red Deer River. The first is in and around the City of Drumheller, named after one of the early settlers in the area. They also occur further down river north of the town of Brooks in an area that has been set aside by the Provincial Government as Dinosaur Provincial Park http://www.albertaparks.ca/dinosaur.aspx. Other areas of similar erosion can be found at places along the Red Deer River, however, they have not been granted Park status and are thus mostly on private land. Drumheller is about a 1.5 hour drive east of Calgary and Dinosaur Provincial Park, an established UNESCO World Heritage Site http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinosaur_Provincial_Park, is about another hour or so beyond that. In total, they are comprised of a number of different areas along the river totaling somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 acres, roughly 8,000 to 10,000 hectares.
The rocks in the Alberta Badlands are Cretaceous in age having been deposited in an interior sea between 60 and 80 million years ago.. They consist of sandstones, shales, siltstones and coal beds. In fact, coal was the major reason that this area was settled. The mines provided coal to heat homes in the area and to provide fuel for the steam trains of that time. These rocks have also been a great source of dinosaur fossils over the past few decades.

Alberta Badlands - Dinosaur Provincial Park - view from overlook at the entrance.

Alberta Badlands – Dinosaur Provincial Park – view from overlook at the entrance.

Alberta Badlands at Horseshoe Canyon, south of Drumheller. Dark layers are coal and black shale, lighter layers are sandstones, siltstones and grey shale.

Alberta Badlands at Horseshoe Canyon, south of Drumheller. Dark layers are coal and black shale, lighter layers are sandstones, siltstones and grey shale.

A feature of some badlands are these "tower-like" formations called hoodoos.  They form with a cap rock or resistant sandstone and an underlying layer of softer shale or siltstone.  The ones in this picture are about 3 to 5 metres high.

A feature of some badlands are these “tower-like” formations called hoodoos. They form with a cap rock or resistant sandstone and an underlying layer of softer shale or siltstone. The ones in this picture are about 3 to 5 metres high.

Hoodoos in the making.  This image is from Dinosaur Provincial Park.

Hoodoos in the making. This image is from Dinosaur Provincial Park.

The Badlands of South Dakota http://www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm are made up of three units totaling over 240,000 acres (about 100,000 hectares). The North Unit, probably the best known, is that part seen by most tourists. It covers about 64,000 acres (about 26,000 ha) and contains the visitor centre, a seasonal lodge with cabin accommodation and a campground. The Stronghold and the Palmer Creek units are contained within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and are managed cooperatively between the Oglala Lakota and the US National Park Service. There is a series of roads that skirt the Stronghold Unit and give access to a lookout at Sheep Mountain Table and Red Shirt Table.
The rocks, or sediments of the Badlands are underlain by the Pierre Shale of Cretaceous age, roughly 70 million years old. The sediments that comprise most of the landforms in the Badlands are made up of sandstones, siltstones and shales deposited in a variety of environments from shallow tropical seas to open woodlands with meandering rivers. This deposition took place in the Eocene 34 to 37 million years ago and the Oligocene (26 to 34 million years ago. Details of the geology can be found on a number of web sites, for example, http://www.nature.nps.gov/geology/paleontology/pub/fossil_conference_6/benton.htm .

Badlands o f South Dakota

Badlands o f South Dakota

South Dakota Badlands

South Dakota Badlands

Sunrise in the Badlands of South Dakota - Door and Windows view  point

Sunrise in the Badlands of South Dakota – Door and Windows view point

The Blue Hour at Sunset in the Badlands of South Dakota - Big Badlands Overlook

The Blue Hour at Sunset in the Badlands of South Dakota – Big Badlands Overlook

South Dakota Badlands - Rise of the full moon at the Doors and Windows View point.  The red in the rocks are from the setting sun behind me.

South Dakota Badlands – Rise of the full moon at the Doors and Windows View point. The red in the rocks are from the setting sun behind me.

This is a view looking southwest across the Stronghold Unit from Sheep Mountain Table.

This is a view looking southwest across the Stronghold Unit from Sheep Mountain Table.

If you ever have a chance to visit either landscapes, the rewards are plentiful. My only suggestion would be to slow down and enjoy the view. Take at least two or three days to explore each location and plan on getting up to see the sunrise. Oh, and don’t forget the sunset as well. Your best pictures will be at the ends of the day.

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