It is being called the Great American Eclipse. On August 21, 2017, the path of a spectacular total solar eclipse will sweep a narrow arc across the entire mainland of the United States. The moon’s umbral shadow begins at the Pacific coast off Oregon and arcs over the US to the shores of South Carolina. Casper, Wyoming, sits on the narrow centerline where the moon’s shadow turns day into night. The open spaces around Casper and its generally favorable weather provide a very good chance for an exceptional eclipse photo opportunity in an easy-to-reach location. On the morning of August 21, the partial phase begins as the shadow of the moon passes directly over our pre-selected location. Full totality occurs at approximately 11:42 AM and lasts for two minutes and 26 seconds. The grandeur of a total solar eclipse comes from the dramatic view of the sun’s corona, its outer atmosphere, which we can see only when the moon blocks the brilliant solar disk. This rare cosmic event will not again be visible over the continental US until April 2024!
The sky is also part of our focus for the rest of our travels as we explore two less-visited icons of the vast northern Great Plains—Devils Tower and the South Dakota Badlands.
Columnar 1,267-foot-high Devils Tower looms dramatically out of the empty prairie landscape and the sparse woodlands of the Belle Fourche River of northeastern Wyoming. An igneous intrusion revealed by erosion over the ages, its steep massive columns separated by deep vertical cracks, the tower has been a sacred landmark for Northern Plains Tribes for thousands of years. Called “Mato Tipila” or Bear Lodge by many local tribes, a name translated incorrectly as “Bad God’s Tower,” the formation has been known as Devils Tower since the late 1800s. Theodore Roosevelt established Devils Tower National Monument in 1906—America’s first national monument. The iconic formation has been a part of our popular culture ever since it was first immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
We photograph Devils Tower in the morning and evening light. Reflective feldspar crystals turn the gray-toned rock a rusty orange in the golden light of early morning. As light and shadow move across the deeply grooved columns, graphic images emerge. We explore along the easy loop trails at the base of the tower to capture the many changes of view against the vast Wyoming sky. After dark we return to shoot the tower silhouetted against the starry night sky.
Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota is comprised of 244,300 acres of starkly-eroded topography—buttes, pinnacles, dry gullies—set amid mixed-grass prairie grasslands. At the core of the park is The Wall—the nearly 100-mile-long stretch of dramatically eroded escarpment that is a draw for photographers. Water and wind has sculpted the badlands for the past half million years and it is estimated that an inch of The Wall is further eroded annually—an extremely rapid rate in geologic terms. Called “mako sica” or “land bad” by the Lakota people and termed “les mauvaises terres” or “bad lands” by early French-Canadian trappers, the area has remained rugged and remote—and highly photogenic.
At sunrise and sunset, the light on the subtle colors of the badlands sedimentary formations deepens the buff, gray, yellow and red hues. Shadows create graphic designs on the sculpted canyons, sharp spires and buttes. During August, great thunderheads can loom on the horizon and a downpour brings out the richest colors. Thirty-nine species of mammals can be found in the park, including prairie dogs, bison, mule deer, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and pronghorn.
The week of August 21 is also the time of a new moon and the broad open skies of Wyoming and South Dakota far from light polluting nearby cities offer some of the best opportunities for dark sky photography. Photographing stars and the brilliant swath of the Milky Way in the night sky over vast prairie landscapes broken by dramatic geologic formations is a goal.
To round out our Great American Road Trip, we stop for a short shoot at iconic Mount Rushmore in the scenic Black Hills of South Dakota.
Join us as we capture one of the most unique events of 2017—a total solar eclipse over the US—and explore two of the most photogenic landscapes of the Northern Great Plains.
Day 1 (Aug 19 in Casper)
Participants fly to Casper, Wyoming and transfer to our group hotel. Meet the leaders in the hotel lobby in time for our first group dinner. (D)
We have a full day to get organized for tomorrow’s eclipse shoot. Our cameras, long lenses, filters and memory cards are at the ready, checked and rechecked, for tomorrow. We go over details for proper eclipse exposures. The weather reports are studied—we scout the area around Casper for several possible locations for eclipse viewing. (BLD)
Eclipse day! At approximately 10:22 AM the moon begins its pass over the sun. Our photographic highlight is to capture the corneal ring as it flares around the sun at total solar eclipse during the two minutes and 26 seconds of totality beginning at 11:42 AM.
Following the excitement of photographing the solar eclipse, we drive three hours to northeastern Wyoming to Devils Tower National Monument. After we leave the highway for quieter roadways the readily identifiable igneous intrusion already begins to tantalize from a distance, appearing as an unexpected feature rising from the surrounding prairie. The formation slowly begins to dominate our field of view as we approach until Devils Tower stands fully 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River. Before reaching the entrance of the national monument, we encounter an extensive prairie dog colony. We should easily get good images of these habituated black-tailed rodents.
Our lodging is only 13 miles away from the monument, giving us easy access. (BLD)
We photograph Devils Tower in the best light of morning and evening from various angles and from along the easy loop trails. The base of the tower is one mile in circumference and the distance from base to summit is 867 feet. The formation is a considered a premier technical climb, making for an opportunity for us to photograph climbers scaling the steep rock face. At night, with clear skies, we photograph stars as they arc across the wide open dark sky silhouetting Devils Tower under a new moon. (BLD)
Following a morning shoot at Devils Tower we drive to Custer, South Dakota in the Black Hills. Today’s photo activities are unscheduled and depend on weather and on our timing. We may explore the granite spires of the Needles Highway or the famous Iron Mountain Road, a route meticulously planned to perfectly frame Mount Rushmore in three different granite tunnels. (BLD)
We depart our hotel following an early breakfast, taking our luggage with us. Morning is the best time to photograph nearby Mount Rushmore National Memorial. A monumental icon of the US, this towering carving of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln can be photographed from numerous interesting angles.
After our visit to Mount Rushmore, a 2-hour drive to the mixed-grass prairie lands of western South Dakota brings us to the wild and rugged landscape of Badlands National Park. Badlands was first established as a national monument in 1939 and designated a national park in 1970. In 1976, the park added the South (Stronghold) Unit—a stretch of land currently jointly managed by the US Park Service and the Oglala Lakota Nation. Bison were re-introduced to the western part of the 64,000-acre North Unit in 1963.
Our overnight lodging is in the town of Wall SD—home of that famous landmark of American tourism, Wall Drug. (BLD)
We photograph the boundless central feature of Badlands National Park—The Wall—from many of the numerous viewpoints and from short trails leading to broad panoramas. We take time to explore the graphic details to be found in the dance of light and shadow across the colorful maze of eroded gullies and pinnacles. We watch for some of the many mammal species found in the park and, in the North Unit, we should see bison on the prairie grassland. The clear night skies of the badlands promise thousands of stars and spectacular images of the Milky Way. (BLD)
Day 9 (Aug 27 in Rapid City)
In the morning, we drive to Rapid City Regional Airport in time for afternoon flights home. (B)