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Sep 06, 2022
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is filled with scenes of raw beauty like this one from the park's North Unit.
I had never heard of Theodore Roosevelt National Park until a couple of years ago, but it is now one of my Top 3 destinations after spending a few days photographing the beautiful North Dakota park.
My visit there was part of a 24-day road trip during which I created prints in Oklahoma, Nebraska, both Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. However, my time at Teddy Roosevelt NP is definitely one of my favorite parts of the epic trip.
Well, the park's two units envelope some of the most incredible landscapes I've ever seen. These badlands — not to be confused with those found in South Dakota's Badlands National Park — are simply gorgeous!
I started by spending three nights in my tiny camper near Medora, ND, home of the park's South Unit. This portion of the park is larger than its cousin just 80 miles north, and its rugged badlands are filled with all the natural beauty Mother Nature could muster.
This unit also is home to wildlife including bison, deer, prairie dogs and wild horses — and I was privileged to photograph those sometimes elusive wild horses!
But it was the landscape that kept grabbing my attention. I was fortunate enough to have wonderful skies for pretty much every sunrise and sunset, and that allowed me to create some of my favorite national parks prints to date!
Take "Badlands Awakening" (above), for example. I drove the scenic loop during midday to scout out possible locations for sunsets and sunrises, and that's how I discovered the perfect morning perch for my tripod just off Buck Hill Road. I knew by setting up on the edge of the road I could zoom in and stack the badland hills by zooming in a bit.
The next morning I rolled out of my campsite at 4:30, and made the hour-long drive with mounting excitement because I could see perfect clouds forming.
I was in position behind my tripod-mounted camera when sunrise painted the sky and cast beautiful light over the park's badlands. It was incredible to be there — and I had it all to myself! I felt such peace as I worked.
Topping off the experience was the bison bull that wandered over the hill and walked just yards from me as it eased down the road. Man, those things are massive!
A ranger told me where the park's wild horses tended to hang out during the heat of the day, and I considered making the hike to the series of coulees and canyons, but it was HOT! Every day the temps pushed into the upper 90s with humidity that had me pouring sweat with any exertion, so I decided I would put off horse hunting for another trip.
And then I rounded a corner to find a band (that's what these groups of horses are called) of mustangs standing on a ridge above the road. Cars were lined up, with people watching the animals.
I parked and grabbed my Nikon 300mm lens and went to work, keeping my distance as I shot photos from different angles. I really like the one I titled "Wild Horses" (above), but I also came away with the two below that are really cool!
I also had opportunities to photograph the other wildlife for which Teddy Roosevelt NP is known. American bison were seemingly everywhere. In fact, I was set up for my very first photos my first evening there and heard grunting below me: I looked down to find a herd of bison feeding. That soon turned into three groups of the massive animals.
It's always smart to keep your distance from these bison. Tourists every year get hurt because they mistakenly get too close. So I used my long lens to capture photos of the beasts.
My favorite is "Buffalo Head," which I was able to capture when a bison walked close to my truck.
Sometimes, however, I found myself within yards of a bison — and there was nothing I could do about it. The first time I felt pretty safe because there was a guard rail between me and the animal.
But then there was the time I walked one of the park's trails to locate a likely sunset spot. On the way back, I looked up when I was about 100 yards from the parking lot to find a bison walking onto the trail, coming directly toward me.
I could do nothing, since there was a sheer, 30-foot cliff to my left and walking to my right would take me across the bison's path. So I just stopped. The bison did the same, and we just stood there sorta checking each other out.
Finally, the bison began walking in my direction, moving about 15 yards to its left. All I could do was cross my fingers and hope the animal didn't spook as it passed me. I did get awesome video as it moved along.
It wasn't the best situation, but I didn't know what else to do: I literally had nowhere to go that would remove me from proximity.
And then there were the bighorn sheep I happened across on my final morning. Honestly, I wasn't even looking for more photos: I had taken what is my favorite print of the entire trip ("First Light in the Badlands" at the top of this blog) and was satisfied to get to camp, cook breakfast and head on down the road.
But I glanced up a ridge covered in prairie grass and saw what I thought were rocks at the top. "Strange," I thought. "I don't remember those rocks."
My second look revealed movement, and I thought I would get some photos of mule deer.
However, when I put glass on the animals I saw huge curved horns, and knew I was being presented with an opportunity many photographers would die for. Two of the sheep were mature, and one of those was an absolute trophy.
I started shooting with the four sheep at the top of the ridge, When the sheep eased over the hill and out of sight, I quickly parked the truck and climbed out.
Time for a long-lens stalk.
It was an incredible experience. The sheep didn't care that I was following them (from at least 100 yards), glancing back occasionally. The morning light on the biggest of the bachelor group was gorgeous!
When the group moved into trees on the edge of the prairie, signaling that they were likely headed down the cliff into the badlands, I sprinted onto a finger ridge that allowed me to get closer because a deep ravine would separate me from the animals as they worked down the side of the cliff.
Just like I had hoped, the biggest sheep led the way and passed in front of me just 50 yards or so away. I got an amazing photo of it before it trotted out of sight.
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The entire experience was incredible. I was able to tick off another national park from my to-do list, and it was a park that is now one of my absolute favorites.
The scenery is fantastic, the wildlife diverse and crowds sparse. Many times I felt like I was the only one there!
It's definitely on my return list!
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