Although South Dakota may not be the first state you think of when you are looking for great locations for landscape photography, the state does offer plenty of beautiful scenery, especially in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. The rugged landscape is ideal for being photographed, and there are a number of amazing locations within close proximity of each other. This page includes information on some of the best locations for photographers in South Dakota, so hopefully it can aid in your planning. The interactive map below shows the location of each spot mentioned on this page.
This page will continue to be a work in progress, so please feel free to leave a comment with your own suggestions of great places to photograph.
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota is unique and amazing place. The striking landscape has an otherworldy feel that can lead to interesting and unique photos. the park is divided into two sections, the North Unit and the South Unit (or Stronghold Unit). Most visitors stay in the North Unit as the Stronghold Unit is much more difficult to access. The Interior Entrance and the Northeast Entrance are ideal places to enter the park (both are on the east side), as they will put you right onto Badlands Loop Road. Driving along this road will lead you to many vistas and overlooks, as well as a few trailheads.
→ For a much more detailed look at the park please see our Guide to Photographing Badlands National Park.
Custer State Park
In the Black Hills of western South Dakota, Custer State Park is a great place for both landscape and wildlife photography. It is just south of Mount Rushmore. At Custer State Park you will find beautiful landscape, granite peaks, picturesque Sylvan Lake, and a variety of wildlife including bison, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, elk, and more. The 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road will give you a great introduction to the park, and you may encounter bison or other wildlife right on the road.
→ For more details please see our Guide to Photographing Custer State Park
Wind Cave National Park
Just south of Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park features one of the longest caves in the world. Guided tours are available for touring the cave. Above ground the mixed grass prairie includes hiking trails that can be explored.
Needles Highway is a scenic route the passes through Custer State Park. If you appreciate amazing mountain views you will love Needles Highway. You’ll find amazing forest, meadows, and granite peaks along this 14-mile winding road.
Jewel Cave National Monument
Located about 20 miles west of Custer State Park is Jewel Cave National Monument. It is the third longest cave in the world with more than 180 miles mapped and surveyed. There are different types of tours available depending upon your interests.
Mount Rushmore is located in the Black Hills, southwest of Rapid City. This iconic American location can easily be visited on the same trip as other locations like Custer State Park, Needles Highway, Badlands National Park, Wind Cave Nation Park, and Jewel Cave National Monument. At night it is illuminated, giving a different photographic opportunity.
Crazy Horse Memorial
The Crazy Horse Memorial is located about 15 miles from Mount Rushmore, and not far from Custer State Park. This memorial for the Lakota warrior was started in 1948 and is far from completion.
At the north end of Black Hills National Forest, Spearfish Canyon offers beautiful scenery with rock formations and waterfalls. The 19-mile long canyon features colorful limestone formations that are waiting to be photographed. The 22-mile Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway will take you through the canyon and provide plenty of amazing views. Spearfish Creek and waterfalls present even more photographic opportunities. Roughlock Falls and Bridal Veil Falls are popular with visitors.
Bear Butte is northeast of the Black Hills National Forest, and just northeast of the town of Sturgis. This rock formation is sacred for several native American tribes, and is part of Bear Butte State Park. There is a herd of buffalo that roam the area.
Harney Peak is the highest point in South Dakota and in the Black Hills. It is located within the Black Elk Wilderness area and several different trails lead to the summit. The shortest and most popular trail (about 7 miles) starts at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park. Another trail starts at Mount Rushmore. An old stone fire lookout tower sits at the summit.
Palisades State Park
Palisades State Park is one of the few destinations on this page not located in or near the Black Hills. It is in southeastern South Dakota, near the Minnesota state line. Popular with hikers and rock climbers, Palisades State Park is a fairly small park that features beautiful rock formations that reach as high as 50 feet. There are four trails available for exploring the area. There are a few overlooks that offer great views of the Split Rock Creek surrounded by the formations.
Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge is in northeastern South Dakota. This wetlands area is important for many species of migratory birds. The 15-mile Wildlife Drive is open from April through October and includes 12 different stopping points. There is also an observation tower and an overlook to provide viewing and photography opportunities.
Waubay National Wildlife Refuge
Waubay National Wildlife Refuge is about 75 miles southeast of Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge. An observation and a few hiking trails offer photographers an opportunity to capture the wildlife (mostly migratory birds) and landscape.
Want to learn more about neighboring states? Please see:
- The Best Places to Photograph in North Dakota
- The Best Places to Photograph in Montana
- The Best Places to Photograph in Wyoming
- The Best Places to Photograph in Nebraska
- The Best Places to Photograph in Iowa
- The Best Places to Photograph in Minnesota
License links: CC0, CC BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-ND 2.0, CC BY 2.0, CC BY-SA 2.0
Tips from SD Tourism Photographer Chad Coppess and Paul Horsted offers some great ideas and tips about any photos you would want to take during your stay in the Black Hills.
It’s not called Harney Peak anymore, it’s Black Elk Peak. You need to change the name in this article to reflect that change and correctly honor the Native leader Black Elk.