The Terry Badlands look like the rest of eastern Montana from I-94: flat-topped buttes and a few erosion cracks in the sandstone cliff walls. Taking the Terry exit and proceeding north on Highway 253 for less than a mile and after crossing the bridge over the Yellowstone River, the gravel road sign heading west reads: “Scenic View.” As you travel through flat, prairie lands, you see isolated buttes scattered in the distant landscape. After a few miles, the earth becomes more rugged. To the north are huge, golden sandstone rocks lying in heaps. Nearby are the gray, gold and blackened soft “gumbo mounds” and red-rock chips lying in clusters that help make up the surface of this ancient ocean bed. On the south side of the road, you can walk up grassy knolls and look out over the Badland-scape viewing mounds and lesser-looking “pyramids.”
After about three miles on the Scenic View Road, you soon become surrounded by masses of sandstone rocks and closer freestanding pyramids. But the final destination is the lookout points, about five miles on the gravel road, where below are massive pyramids flaunting their bright gold and red hues.
Either morning or evening light is pleasing, with shadows being cast on the Badlands, giving you a second opportunity if the weather isn’t ideal in the morning.
By mid-June through the summer and into fall, you’ll get the green and then brown tones of the few grasses in this semi-arid environment. Driving the road in the spring might be too muddy, and getting stuck isn’t pleasant. When the cooler temperatures arrive, the morning lends itself to a frozen road, but if the temperatures rise during the day, the road will become mush. Late fall can produce some light snow on these mounds, which adds to the brilliant golds and reds as though it was powdered sugar dotting the prisms.
It’s a smart idea to carry an assortment of lenses, ranging from a wide-angle to a telephoto zoom. Some of the golden to brown sandstone rocks make beautiful foreground subjects leading to the background pyramids. Standing on top of the bluff, with the rugged land below you, use your lenses to capture panoramas of the entire scene, or to crop and zoom, catching fragments of bordering mounds, which then lead to a background of the Badlands.
Using smaller ƒ-stops, a tripod and a cable release will ensure sharp images, while a polarizing filter can help saturate the colors. Once the shadows become darker as the sun sets lower, it’s almost best to use only an 81A or 81B filter to help with warming the varied colors exposed in the mound faces.
To capture the light-green grasses of the arid environment, visit during early June, soon after the eastern part of the state’s typical rainy season from April to May. You’ll need to wait until the rains have ceased and the muddy gravel roads have been dried by the sun.
The golden grasses and meadows will be sprinkled with snow from November to December. The road in the mornings is still frozen, but won’t be as slick as it warms up. Later in the winter, you’ll be able to capture the blue hues in the snow that surrounds the buttes.
Contact: Travel Montana, (800) VISIT-MT, www.visitmt.com; Bureau of Land Management, Miles City Field Office, (406) 233-2831, www.mt.blm.gov/mcfo.
The natural color of the landscape can be a rich subject for photographs. The Tiffen Enhancing filter helps bring out the deep colors of rock formations and foliage. Using rare elements in its glass, the filter, available in a variety of sizes, enhances reds, oranges and rust brown with little effect on other colors. List Price: $119.16 (77mm). Contact: Tiffen, (800) 645-2522, www.tiffen.com.