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Autumn leaves at Sica Hollow State Park.
Autumn leaves at Sica Hollow State Park.
Sumac at Sica Hollow State Park.
Sumac at Sica Hollow State Park.
An abandoned house at the foot of the Coteau des Prairies.
An abandoned house at the foot of the Coteau des Prairies.
Goldenrod still in bloom in late September.
Goldenrod still in bloom in late September.
A little used road in the southern Slim Buttes.
A little used road in the southern Slim Buttes.
Raindrops on fall foliage in the southern Slim Buttes.
Raindrops on fall foliage in the southern Slim Buttes.
A southern Harding County scene just south of the Short Pine Hills.
A southern Harding County scene just south of the Short Pine Hills.
Draws filled with autumn color in southern Harding County.
Draws filled with autumn color in southern Harding County.
Low clouds and a light rain converge on Bear Butte.
Low clouds and a light rain converge on Bear Butte.
Bison in the foothills of Bear Butte.
Bison in the foothills of Bear Butte.
Sunlight accentuates the colors along the South Fork of the Moreau River near Hoover.
Sunlight accentuates the colors along the South Fork of the Moreau River near Hoover.
A lone tree along the JB Pass Road in the Slim Buttes.
A lone tree along the JB Pass Road in the Slim Buttes.
Neighboring trees of different hues along the JB Pass Road in the Slim Buttes.
Neighboring trees of different hues along the JB Pass Road in the Slim Buttes.
The JB Pass Road as it winds westward into the high plains beyond the Slim Buttes.
The JB Pass Road as it winds westward into the high plains beyond the Slim Buttes.
Castle Rock area of the Slim Buttes near Reva Gap as the last light of the day appeared.
Castle Rock area of the Slim Buttes near Reva Gap as the last light of the day appeared.
One of the castle rock formations in the evening sunlight.
One of the castle rock formations in the evening sunlight.
An autumn morning at Center Lake in Custer State Park.
An autumn morning at Center Lake in Custer State Park.
Autumn color at Custer State Park.
Autumn color at Custer State Park.
Autumn color at Custer State Park.
Autumn color at Custer State Park.
A bison cow at Wind Cave National Park enjoys a mud facial from the recent rains.
A bison cow at Wind Cave National Park enjoys a mud facial from the recent rains.
White-tail deer framed by autumn leaves along the wildlife loop in Custer State Park.
White-tail deer framed by autumn leaves along the wildlife loop in Custer State Park.
Ever watchful.
Ever watchful.
A mountain bluebird with fall color as a background in the southern portion of Custer State Park.
A mountain bluebird with fall color as a background in the southern portion of Custer State Park.
A closer look at the bird with the sky on his shoulders.
A closer look at the bird with the sky on his shoulders.

Waiting for the Light

Oct 10, 2018

A cold and steady rain pelts the north windows as I write this month’s column. It reminds me of my first day out chasing fall colors in northwest South Dakota just two weeks ago. Autumn color comes to the high country earlier than the valleys and towns of southeastern South Dakota, so when I left Sioux Falls, with its green-leaved trees and barely-brown lawns, after work on September 26, it hardly seemed like summer was ending. When I arrived at the Slim Buttes of Harding County around lunchtime the following day, the draws where adorned with the gold, yellow and orange dress of a high plains autumn. The problem, however, was that the sky was dull and overcast. Then for good measure, a determined string of raindrops began to fall. I don’t usually mind the rain, but I have seen the Slim Buttes catch the golden sunlight of an autumn evening. That’s why I came back.

There are several other places to find autumn beauty in this state. Sica Hollow State Park and the surrounding Coteau des Prairies hills and lakes in northeast South Dakota offer stunning patches of red sumac in the underbrush of yellow, green and orange foliage during late September. Goldenrods can still be in bloom along with aster if the rains hit just right. The northern Black Hills is well known for the bright yellows of birch and aspen that adorn Spearfish Canyon’s scenic byway. Custer State Park also has patches of color along its winding roads to the high country and lower creek valleys where the Southern Hills meet the open plains. It has become an annual journey for me to drive through this last hurrah of color before the wind blows it all away and snow covers the land.

I will always believe the Slim Buttes of Harding County is the best place to welcome autumn. The unique landform — a 300 to 400 foot rise in a giant L-shape from the high prairies — is majestic enough at any time of year, but it just doesn’t get any better than when the color of fall accents the hills and ridges against the deep greens and pine browns of Custer National Forest’s evergreens. And that is why I returned the day after it rained as the sun and clouds played tug-of-war in the sky. There was very little wind and the air was cool and fresh. It was light jacket weather with hardly any insects. High plains perfection. I stood for an hour in one spot along the JB Pass Road waiting for the sunlight to hit a patch of trees just right. A coyote called and I saw it move down a far ridge into the trees. A lone pickup passed along the road behind me and then it was quiet. Just me, the sky and trees as far as I could see. Food for the soul.

Later that evening, the sun broke free from the clouds just before sunset to bathe the castle formations in golden hour light. I was on my way east through the Reva Gap as the scene before me was transformed into a work of art. I stopped along the highway and shot photos until the sun was hidden behind the buttes again. This is why I lingered into the evening at one of South Dakota’s most remote but exceedingly breathtaking places. This is what I came to see.

Christian Begeman grew up in Isabel and now lives in Sioux Falls. When he's not working at Midcontinent Communications he is often on the road photographing South Dakota’s prettiest spots. Follow Begeman on his blog.

Comments

07:54 am - Thu, October 11 2018
Stuart Surma said:
I too just love the Slim Buttes!! Tried to swing through on the way back from Canada- but ran out of sunlight! Instead, went screaming down I-94 & turned South at Glen Ullin thinking we would end up at McIntosh & then supper at Isabel?? All of the sudden hard top turned into gravel & back to I-94 & Bismarck, N.D. instead!! Stu
09:54 am - Thu, October 11 2018
Gene V Hetland said:
Great work as always, Christian! I have never been to the Slim Buttes area, but I still hope to get there. We live in a beautiful state, and your work is an illustration of that beauty!

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