Focus Trek #13 – Return to the Black Hills

Light Painting Video
Where is Your Fire?

‘Whenever the pressure of our complex city life
thins my blood and numbs my brain,
I seek relief in the trail;
and when I hear the coyote wailing to the yellow dawn,
my cares fall from me – I am happy.”
-Hamlin Garland

JF7 3881

20170711 203259-round

My name is Jim Burnham. I am a US photographer and I enjoy finding photographs in places I’ve never been before, with minimum preparation and a vague itinerary. This is a true Focus Trek from the Black Hills. Follow me on Instagram or Twitter -> @BurnhamArts 

In Focus Trek #9, I introduced the Black Hills Photo Shootout. A weekend of workshops in and around some of the most beautiful and varied landscapes in the country. This was my second trip, and although I normally do not revisit the same destination repeatedly, I made an exception for this (as I do for Leland, MI as well). You just have to make it different. 

Day 1: Rapid City to Spearfish

So, how do you make he same trip different? Well, by making the same trip different (duh). I added more time to the front end to be able to take the back canyon roads up and extra time on the back end to do the same thing. Last year, I ran into a problem where the weather was so spectacular that I found myself stopping every half mile, or 100 feet in some cases, to take a picture. I really needed an extra day on the front and back. But having a regular job makes my options tight.

The path I chose to take (in blue) from Rapid City to Spearfish was long compared to the direct route up Interstate 90 (yellow) and even last year’s route (green). I still have not yet driven down I-90 all the way, either way. The 2017 path included Mt. Rushmore and heading North from Hill City, it was mostly gravel roads. The fact that it was mostly cloudy the whole way up was not ideal, but the trip was awesome nonetheless. 

The map in short:

  • YELLOW: Boring direct route, if you have to make it in on time, take it.
  • GREEN: Nemo Rd, 2016 Route up the back roads
  • BLUE: Mystic Rd, 2017 Route up the central gravel roads, included Mt. Rushmore

I thought having four hours to drive up the back roads would have been enough. The weather was not as good as last year so I didn’t think I would have as many places to stop and take photos as I did. Most of the delay was shooting around Mount Rushmore, and I realize now I shouldn’t have wasted so much time there. 

Yes, it’s an important national monument, and I’m glad I finally saw it, but let’s face it, it’s been photographed millions of times, and even on a grey weekday, it was filled with loud, selfie-taking tourists. Ok, I took a selfie, but I was quiet about it.

I wondered what that mountain would have been like had they not blown it up. And here it is…

Photo from the National Archives. Source:

So I can appreciate the incredible skill and manpower it took to execute this, but cringe at the fact that it was done at all to that beautiful piece of stone. Then again, the number of people it provided jobs for during the worst of the depression is comforting. I’m just glad they didn’t continue with the rest of the bodies as was originally planned. Read more about Bill Groethe, the man who photographed Mt. Rushmore for eight decades:  The Smithsonian also has an interesting video with more information:

The route up was pretty grey, but I managed to find an attractive wall of stone for a large format panorama. This was about 12 vertical shots stitched together. The equivalent of 120 megapixels

The path I took up through Hill City to Mystic Rd followed the Mickelson Trail, a roughly 105 mile bike trail that runs from Deadwood down to Edgemont. One of the photos here show one of the many bridges that spans the road as the trail snakes back and forth. Maybe something to try in the future.

A few weeks before, I asked Nicole Hahn if she would be interested in me doing a short slideshow for the participants at some point in the weekend. I got a good deal of decent shots in 2016 (my opinion, of course) and thought it might help spark their imagination in case they find themselves in similar situations. I was surprised to get her nod of approval and I ended up opening up for the keynote speaker, Robert Vanelli. Vanelli is a commercial, sports and portrait photographer from Tampa, Florida. To say he is “larger than life” sounds like I’m being disrespectful, but he is, in the metaphorical sense and has the stories to match. He is a talented photographer, writer and instructor and unique character. You can find him at 


Day 2: Spearfish Canyon, Iron Creek Trail

I spent the morning and afternoon on Iron Creek Trail. In the morning we went out with Mike Wolforth, a local photographer based out of Rapid City. This trail is 11 miles down Spearfish Canyon from Spearfish. The sun was low and the creek had a nice even light on it from the sky. Some long exposure creek shots were in order.

The trail and surrounding cliffs are spectacular, with way too much to look at in a single morning.