Hidden gems are hard to find. In my opinion, you do not go looking for them, they find you. They can appear when plans go awry or you stumble down the path less traveled. I found myself in this situation as I watched the sun rise over a grassy ridge-line. The beautiful rays of light illuminated a herd of bison in subtle hues of red and orange. Each breath they exhaled lit up like golden smoke leaving a campfire. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota was not my plan A or even plan B, C, or D for that matter. But in that moment, I felt alive and wanted to be nowhere else in the world. I had found a hidden gem.
Like most of planet Earth dealing with Covid-19, the pandemic put a hold on my travel plans. Argentina announced flight restrictions on Americans just days before my departure to Buenos Aires. My month of epic photography and hiking in Patagonia would have to wait. Initially it made me upset. I had been planning the trip for over a year. However, I quickly realized there are more important issues in life. The virus has caused hundreds of thousands of people to become sick and many more have lost their jobs. Thankfully, my family and I were healthy and safe.
Thus, I decided to switch gears. The middle of March is arguably the best time to visit Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Throw in pit-stops at the sandhill crane migration on the Platte River and a visit to Badlands National Park in South Dakota and an epic road trip is born. With my small Volvo sedan packed to the brim, I headed West a day later.
I spent the first week photographing an unbelievable number of sandhill cranes in Nebraska. Later traveling to Badlands National Park where the beautiful landscapes were spectacular. The incredible number of cranes would turn the sky black and sunrises in the Badlands never failed to inspire. In the back of my mind though, I could not wait to get to Yellowstone. It has always been the pinnacle of wildlife photography for me. Unfortunately, the night before leaving my phone flashed with the message, “Yellowstone and Grand Teton are closing their doors”. A sinking feeling hit my chest. Alone in my tent I thought, “Now what?” A quick scan of Google Maps just confirmed my remoteness. After a few minutes I noticed the small dot for Theodore Roosevelt National Park; only five hours away according to Google. As I closed my eyes that evening I thought to myself, “Hell, why not?”
Now, I consider myself fairly well versed in National Park knowledge. One of my life goals is to visit all 62 National Parks; I even work in one. However, Teddy Roosevelt National Park has never been on my radar. I have never met someone who has visited and could not tell you anything about the Park. As I pulled through the entrance of the South Unit though, I knew I made the right decision. A mile into the Park I came across a coyote hunting. It silently crept along the fringes of a large prairie dog town. Hundreds of prairie dogs barked in unison to alert their neighbors of the danger. Their calls filled the air like a rock concert. After 10 minutes of unsuccessfully hunting the coyote vanished into the tall prairie grass. I could not imagine a better way to enter the Park.
Established in 1978, the Park consists of three separate units; North, South, and Elkhorn. Predictably, it’s named after our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, who spent a considerable amount of time in the area. He worked as a cowboy and cattle rancher, both of which helped shaped his ideals as a conservationist and inspired certain land-management legislation during his presidency. The Park’s cold, semi-arid climate equates to frigid winters and warm summers. With over 100 miles of trails, many visitors enjoy back country hiking and horseback riding. The dark night skies reveal brilliant stars and occasional glimpses of the northern lights.
After pulling into the Parks South Unit, I set up my tent at the only campground, Cottonwood Campground. Minus a campervan from Montana, I enjoyed the whole area to myself. Before sundown, I drove the Park’s 38-mile Scenic Loop Drive to scout various photography locations. Almost immediately, I ran into a large herd of buffalo walking down the road. I sat silently as the 1200-pound “thunder beasts” began to pass a few feet from my car. As the ground rumbled beneath them, I could feel each step they took in my chest. A few miles after the bison, a band of pronghorn appeared over a ridge-line. These antelope are normally very skittish and are the fastest land mammals in North America. They did not mind my presence though, as I got out of the car to capture some photos. Just past the pronghorn a small herd of mule deer emerged from a narrow canyon and began grazing along a prairie dog town. I couldn’t believe the amount of wildlife in the Park. It might as well have been Yellowstone. Every turn revealed a different species, not to mention some of the most picturesque views of the surrounding badlands and prairies. The French fur traders gave the term badlands to the region as they are “bad lands to traverse.” Though hard to navigate, they are incredible landscapes to view and photograph. The topography changes constantly, revealing steep cliffs edged with rich bands of red soil. As I continued driving, to my delight the rest of the Scenic Loop Drive revealed more of the same. I found buffalo, prairie dogs, turkeys, deer, pronghorn, and song birds all over the landscape. Wildlife flourished in this vast wilderness. I returned to my campsite as the sun began to sink over the surrounding hills. Over a dinner of ramen noodles and cliff bars I could hear coyotes howling in the distance and owls hooting just a few trees away. This was a true hidden gem.
I spent the next week following a routine similar to most wildlife photographers. I would wake up before sunrise and head out to a promising location with the hope of finding wildlife. Most mornings I photographed buffalo grazing along the rolling hills. The rising sun would light up their fur in brilliant hues of orange, perfect for great pictures. Other days I found turkeys gobbling as they flew off the roost in the early dawn light. One morning while following a herd of bison, I stumbled across a sharp-tailed grouse lek. A lek is an open area where male grouse gather to display their quirky courtship dance for females. I sat for hours as male grouse, with wings extended and feet stomping, rattled their tail feathers and danced around the lek. Purple sacs on their neck would fill with air and their gentle cooing sounds echoed across the landscape. Each hopeful to secure mating rights with a female. Some afternoons I embarked on scouting missions along the numerous trails that crisscrossed the Park. Other days I cycled, only stopping for the occasional bison crossing the road. Evenings were my favorite, though. The sun would slowly start to sink in the open sky, casting its golden tones across the badlands. Prairie dogs would begin to head into their burrows for the night as coyotes would hunt for any unsuspecting victims. I would simply pick a spot and let nature come to me for the best photos. Often, I would have mule deer grazing at my feet or spot bison traveling across the land in their never-ending search for food. In the comfort of my tent, I fell asleep each evening to the sounds of nocturnal animals waking up. The best part, I rarely passed more than 10 cars each day.
On the last morning I awoke to a beautiful blanket of snow. The landscape, coated in white, looked like a different world. Most wildlife remained hunkered down but as usual, the buffalo continued to move. Snow accumulated on their thick coat and their heads swept the snowy ground in search of grass. With the white backdrop, you could see every detail of their large bodies. Time stood still as I photographed them for hours. Eventually, I could not ignore my numb hands any longer. As I walked to my car to head home I stopped in the middle of the snowy landscape. I sat there silently and smiled as snowflakes landed gently on my face. I am going to miss this hidden gem.
Camera: Canon 7d Mark II
Lens: Sigma 150-600 f/5-6.3