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Bad River Road: a Hidden Photographic Gem

Nov 3, 2011

Some of South Dakota’s backroads offer not much to a photographer and some offer great rewards. The Bad River Road in central South Dakota between Fort Pierre and Midland provides more than most.

In roughly 45 miles of gravel road, you can find rolling prairie landscapes, winding waterways, a huge herd of buffalo, abundant other wildlife and a great ghost town. No matter what the season or weather, there’s bound to be something interesting to photograph here. 

The start/finish lines for this photographic journey are just outside of Midland at the top of the hill near the city cemetery or just southeast of Fort Pierre off Highway 83. Depending on your vehicle, road conditions, amount of time you’ve got to spend, lighting conditions, etc., you might want to tackle this road from each end on separate trips.

From the Fort Pierre end you’ll come to the beginning of Ted Turner’s Bad River Ranches within roughly 10 miles. The large herd of bison here has an immense expanse of territory to roam, so there’s no guarantee that you will see them at all. When they are near the road however, they are spectacular. Even if you don’t find the herd, you’ll see some beautiful prairie and river scenery.

From the Midland end of the road, it’s approximately nine miles to the ghost town of Capa. Never a hugely populated place, Capa now boasts one resident, hundreds of prairie dogs and a few cows. Please don’t trespass on Phil’s yard without his permission, but do stop and say hi. He appreciates the company and doesn’t mind photographers. GPS coordinates for Capa are N44.96.641, W100.58.862. 

Fourteen buildings are standing in Capa if you count three outhouses. Photographers (and painters) could spend a lot of time here capturing various subject matter. I love using High Dynamic Range techniques with this type of shooting. That involves shooting three or more different exposures of the same scene without moving the camera and then blending them together in the computer later. HDR gives you the ability to brighten shadows, darken highlights and emphasize texture. It also tends to give a vintage feel to a lot of photos.

There are many more hidden photographic treasures out there on South Dakota’s backroads. If you’ve got favorites you’re willing to share, let’s hear about them!


Chad Coppess is the senior photographer at the South Dakota Department of Tourism. He lives in Pierre with his wife, Lisa. To view more of his work, visit


02:34 pm - Thu, November 3 2011
Bernie Hunhoff said:
This would be everybody's favorite gravel road if they drove it, thanks Chad. Great shots.

For longtime readers, this is the road along which old Berlye Seaman lived. He was the hermit we featured during the terrible winter of 96-97. He told us how an old man survives a winter (much alike the Robert Frost poem).
04:39 am - Fri, November 4 2011
kevin said:
Sounds great! Sounds like at least a two day trip coming from Madison.
Thanks for the story
06:48 am - Fri, November 4 2011
anonymous said:
Great photos, Chad. I loved the piece on Capa we had a few years ago that featured your photos. Looks like you've added some great photos since then, too.
06:56 am - Fri, November 4 2011
John Andrews said:
Chad, you know South Dakota as well as anyone, so what are some of your other favorite backroad drives? Maybe places that aren't well-traveled, but should be?
11:27 am - Mon, November 7 2011
Chad Coppess said:
Thanks everyone.

John - Sage Creek Road in Badlands National Park, all of the gravel roads in the central Black Hills around Deerfield, Rochford, Mystic and south of there, Highway 71 south of Hot Springs, Highway 26 from Redfield through Polo, there are a lot of them!
04:02 am - Wed, November 9 2011
Myrna Hunhoff said:

Great photos! Makes me want to go get in my car and travel the back roads do sd!
09:40 am - Tue, January 15 2013
I'm happy to have found this page. I'm thinking of a photo trip this summer, and this is one road I'd like to discover. I have about a dozen cities I'll be researching, but if you have any other leads, I'd like to hear about them. Thanks.


Work on deviantART:
05:36 pm - Sat, May 17 2014
Kellie Koletzky said:
I just found photos from my grandma's photo album of when she taught school at Capa in 1925/1926 of the town if anyone is interested in them.
05:40 am - Sat, June 7 2014
Marilyn Burch said:
I don't have a web site. I drove through Capa recently on vacation and fell in love with it. if possible would you email me the photos?
10:25 am - Sat, September 12 2015
Sherilyn Bosch said:
We stopped in Capa on September 7th, 2015. Great photo opportunities!! We didn't see Phil...and I must admit we wondered if he was still alive and well. It looked like the pickup in his yard had current plates but I couldn't tell for sure. The prairie dogs sent up a loud chattering alarm as we got out for our first walk in the hotel. They wouldn't stay out of their holes near us but they, or different ones, would pop up further away to watch us and continue to chatter!! The roof of the church has pretty much collapsed now...only the front and back of the church still stand. But you could still see the arched window tops in the rubble. We all wished we had more time to continue on the road but after finding a nearby cemetery, and photographing all the graves I could find for Find a Grave, we had to continue back to the highway and head for home. I'll be back though!
12:39 pm - Thu, November 19 2015
My mother was born in Capa in 1912. Her father, Ary Byl (sometimes misspelled as Bly on some SD history sites) was postmaster in 1913 and published the town's newspaper, "The Capa Hustler." He worked out of the hotel, which I understand is still sort of standing! The family left for Grand Rapids, Michigan, around 1918. I loved your photos. Some day perhaps I'll get to see this beautiful pace in person.
06:22 pm - Wed, May 11 2016
Larry decker said:
The Bad River Road is one of my absolute favorite routes nationwide. Yes, it is gravel, or at least it was when I last traveled it 25 years ago. I can't help but remember one time when I was a youngster of about 27 or so, and I was on my way from Aberdeen to Rapid City with my girlfriend. She kept saying 'what are we doing out here? Where are we going?' I assured her I wasn't going to leave her out there, it was just a detour to see what was there. Beautiful country. And you will most likely be alone.

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