Picture Perfect Days in South Dakota

I had an image in my mind of what South Dakota would look like. I wasn’t even close. Unlike my imagination, the NW corner of South Dakota was picture perfect. Rolling hills greeted us as we entered South Dakota from Wyoming. The vast earthy-tone color palette was a visual artist’s dream, begging to be captured with the camera.

Photo by Karla Locke

We arrived in South Dakota just a couple of days after the Sturgis Motorcycle rally. I was amazed by the cleanliness of the small towns we visited, including Sturgis. It was like the motorcycle rally never happened. We stopped for lunch in Rapid City on our first day after arriving, the town was a step back in history, yet well maintained, one of the cleanest towns I have ever visited, filled with art and a wonderful mix of modern touches.

Our RV Park, Heartland RV Park in Hermosa, South Dakota was also a delight. Just about twenty miles south of Rapid City, it was easily accessed right off the highway. Conveniently located, it was a great stepping place for visiting the area and a place of rest after a long day of touring. We did not get the chance to indulge in most of the amenities, but we did enjoy a few of the wonderful meals they served at their event center, especially breakfast.

Heartland RV Park — Hermosa, South Dakota

Our youngest son drove up from Colorado to spend a few days with us “glamping” as he calls it. He had been to the area a few times before so he made a great tour guide. And, of course, traveling with fellow photographers, he understood the need to “STOP” when someone shouted to stop.

The Badlands in South Dakota — photo by Karla Locke

Our first day out was an incredible day for visiting the Badlands and Wall Drugs. With the sun shining, the sky blue, and an occasional fluffy cloud or two, the day showed a promising picture-perfect day for photographing in the Badlands.

A herd of Bison lazed in the summer sun as we drove up to the gate. I started to notice some similarities to our visit to Canyonland in Utah the previous year with our son, only the colors were more muted and the prairie land added a calming effect to the landscape’s deep ravines.

It was a Wednesday, in the middle of August, and the tourist crowd was low after such a busy week with Sturgis, making it a comfortable day for touring.

Everywhere we passed was amazing but by far my favorite was the Yellow Mounds Overlook. The COLOR was stunning and vibrant, reminding me a little of the Painted Hills in Oregon. No matter which way you pointed your camera, there was color to capture.

Yellow Mounds Overlook in the Badlands — photo by Karla Locke
Yellow Mounds Overlook in the Badlands — Photo by Chris Locke
Yellow Mounds Overlook in the Badlands — photo by Tony Locke

We had a great surprise when we stopped by the Doors and Windows area, a Big Horn sheep enjoying the shade, not a care in the world, and he didn’t seem to care about all the humans taking his photo.

By the time we ended the loop, the temperature had climbed to 95 and we were ready to hunt for dinner, but we had one more stop, WALL DRUGS. This iconic location is a must-stop-and-see, so we were told. We stopped. We saw. We had the nickel coffee, the free ice water, and a milkshake at the soda fountain section. The history of the place was fun to read and the place is HUGE!!!! Almost too big and overwhelming. I can now say, “Been there, done that.”

By the time we made it home, a thunderstorm had whipped in and from the west. At least it waited until the end of our day.

The next morning, we had to take the truck into Rapid City, so our day started late. The morning was chilled and misty, leftovers from the thunderstorm the night before. The plan was to start our afternoon drive on the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park. Since we started shortly after lunch, it was risky if we would see anything. Clouds hung over us, threatening us with rain, but the wildlife in the park did not disappoint. We had barely started the loop when a large herd of Bison created a traffic jam. Families of Bison were crisscrossing the road, since we couldn’t move, the cars all stopped and gawked. It was a joy to see so many young Bison in the herd. It was also a bit nerve-racking when one would get close to the car, one of those Bison horns could seriously cause damage or scratching to a vehicle. We just held our breath and waited for them to pass. Once they passed, we were able to continue our journey, only to find another traffic jam, a small herd of Burros. People were feeding bread to the Burros from their windows, causing the Burros to beg at each car. It was like we were paying a toll to get through.

A light rain started after the Burros and the drive got steeper as we climbed into a mountainous area. But the scenery was worth every mile. Once we were done with the Wildlife loop, we took the Iron Mountain Road, just outside of Custer State Park. This road has some impressive CURVES and three of the most unusual tunnels.

Iron Mountain Road — Photo by Chris Locke

It is seventeen miles of the most sensational landscape you will ever see. Make sure you take this road heading from Custer State Park towards Mount Rushmore and watch carefully, after the first tunnel there is a clearing in the trees and when the sky is clear you can see Mount Rushmore off in the distance, then around the corner is a parking lot where you get another scenic view of the Presidents.

It was a picture-perfect day for us because the sky did clear just as we exited the tunnel and there were the Presidents shining in the sun. A magnificent and spectacular view. From this point, it is about three miles to Mount Rushmore.

Mount Rushmore from Iron Mountain Road — Photo by Chris Locke

The Iron Mountain Road Experience:
17 MILES
314 CURVES
14 SWITCHBACKS
3 PIGTAILS
3 TUNNELS
4 PRESIDENTS
2 SPLITS

I have dreamed of visiting Mount Rushmore since I was a child, it only took me over fifty years to finally fulfill that dream. The photos I had seen over the years cannot do this area justice. The clouds parted and the sun was shining as we entered the park, Mother Nature was cooperating with our first visit. We walked the path, stopped every couple of feet for photos. We then made our way back to the stands for the evening show and the “lighting” of the Presidents. As the show started, the clouds moved in and hid the faces. It was disappointing but I refused to give up. Just as the evening program was ending and it was time to turn on the switch, the clouds parted and there the four Presidents were, all lit up and towering above us. It was indeed… Picture-Perfect.

Mount Rushmore — photo by Karla Locke
Mount Rushmore — Photo by Tony Locke

The next day, our plan was to drive the Spearfish Canyon scenic byway to see the waterfalls and stop in Deadwood, but it was pouring rain through most of the drive. We managed to snap off a few photos at a pond and along a river, but the waterfalls were a bust and so was Deadwood. We ended our day at the Motorcycle Museum in Sturgis and then visited the Full Throttle Saloon. Despite the weather, it was still a picture-perfect day, you just sometimes have to change your view and your mind of what to photograph.

Photo on the left by Chris Locke. Photo on the right by Tony Locke

Traveling with my two favorite photographers, my son and my husband, always makes for a picture-perfect day, but it is extra special when the area you are photographing provides the most scenic backdrop for the camera lens and the visual artist’s eye.

Chris Locke’s website

Tony Locke’s Website

Photo by Chris Locke — Betty Jo (the Airstream) and the evening stars

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