Photography Excursion – White Pocket, Arizona
Photo Trip Report of ‘White Pocket’ located in the Paria Canyon – Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness area.
This is a report on an area I just re-visited two weeks ago and have been meaning to write about for a long time…
Remote locations that few people venture to here in the Southwest seem to have a magnetic quality for me. Add to that a beautiful, bizarre and other-worldly landscape and I’m planning the trip already.
The area known simply as ‘the White Pocket’ in northern Arizona fits that bill perfectly. Just 6 miles east of Coyote Buttes South, (another gorgeous and remote location itself) White Pocket contains some of the most astonishing geology you will ever find anywhere on earth. Like Coyote Buttes South, most of the formations are layered sandstone, made from different generations of sand dunes deposited hundreds of millions of years ago during the Jurassic period. Geologists say that every time a new layer of dunes was blown onto an existing layer, the ones beneath it were compressed and hardened by groundwater minerals. These crossbeds often have different colors because the mineral deposits in the groundwater (sometimes rich in iron) varied from generation to generation… The formations at the White Pocket are distinctly different from the ones you’ll see at Coyote Buttes because much of the top layer is as the name states: ‘white’. This is because the last generation of sand that solidified over the white pocket area was rich in silt.
All of that gives a fair idea of the basis behind how these formations came to be, but the truth is, nobody really knows exactly how the formations here came to take on such a chaotic appearance. There are abundant signs of soft-sediment deformation, but in ways that aren’t normal. I am obviously not a geologist, but I’ve heard theories of earthquakes, floods and volcanic action during the sedimentation process… If any of that means anything to you, that’s great. If not, that’s ok too, because visual stimulation is something anyone should be able to enjoy, regardless of your interest in geology. Although I’d have to admit that this landscape may be too chaotic and random for some people’s taste.
Supposedly the area was named by cowboys and ranchers who settled the land in the late 1800s and early 1900s. ‘Pockets’ generally referred to areas of hard rock in the desert where rainwater would collect. Cattle still roam somewhat freely in the Pariah Canyon wilderness and the white pocket is still used as a water source by many animals traveling the sands from Autumn to Spring. In the middle of the formations there is still the remnants of an old dam wall built by ranchers to help keep more water contained.
The formations here lack the perfect symmetry that has made “the Wave” in North Coyote Buttes so famous. And because of that, it is much harder to photograph. You can spend days here (trust me I know firsthand) and not even come close to capturing the pure cacophony of swirling rock the way your eye saw it. I would need a week here to even begin to do this place justice photographically, and as I write this I am realizing that words do very little to explain the feeling you get when standing in the midst of these ancient monsters.
To me, there is something very special about desert areas with aesthetic appeal that also see very few human visitors. The silence is deafening. The environment unpredictable and inhospitable. That is what attracts me to places like this rather than the better-known parks. Take for example Zion National Park: It is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but unless you’re there during winter, you’ll be constantly rubbing elbows with fellow photographers, hikers, old ladies with disposable cameras (flashes on all the time), soccer moms, baseball dads, nature nuts, confused city folks, tourists of all kinds, bikers, and whining children who just want to go home and play Xbox (among others). Now don’t get me wrong, I like the company of other people as much as the next misanthrope, but you have to admit there’s something stripped away from the feeling of a wilderness area when it’s been turned into an outdoor mall… You’ll get none of that in White Pocket or Coyote Buttes South. There are no main roads that join landmarks together, no overlooks and no nearby lodging. This is why I seek these sorts of places out. And unfortunately that’s why they are becoming more and more popular every year. I shouldn’t complain since I am part of the problem: photographing the place and blogging about it. But in the tradition of being an American citizen, I’ll go ahead and complain anyway.
Getting there isn’t easy. In fact, it can be completely impossible if you don’t have a vehicle with high clearance and a good 4wd or Awd system. The closest towns to this area are Page, Arizona to the east and Kanab, Utah to the west. Both of these “cities” could be considered “in the middle of nowhere” to many people as it is, but then there’s the venture from one of those towns (take Page for example) to the White Pocket itself which includes 35 miles on a 2 lane highway, followed by 20 miles on a rutted-out one lane dirt road and finishing up with a 15-mile plow through the driest, deepest sandy back roads you’ll probably ever encounter. I won’t publish directions, but as the old saying goes -’seek and ye shall find’. There are plenty of detailed directions to the White Pocket if you’re willing to do a web search.
Another thing that’s a plus about White Pocket is the fact that you don’t need a permit to legally go there, unlike Coyote Buttes North and South. This makes planning your trip a little bit easier. Those wishing to legally obtain a permit for Coyote Buttes (North especially) have to jump through a series of hoops which is honestly a good thing in my opinion, because it keeps the hordes of tourists away. With White Pocket, the last 10 miles of “road” are the hoops you have to jump through and that itself will discourage a lot of people. Still, on my last visit, there were two other parties camping there besides mine, and an average of 3 to 4 vehicles a day came through for day-hikes. The good thing is that most likely anyone you run into out there is going to be a decent person. Most people visiting are serious photographers or nature enthusiasts/adventurists. There is a feeling that the BLM may have to start issuing a permit system for the White Pocket in the future. Only time will tell.
If you’re going to visit the White Pocket or Coyote Buttes South, you are going to be driving through some very deep sand. Don’t even bother trying to get there in a passenger car. You can get to the Coyote Buttes North trailhead in a small car, but you won’t make it to White Pocket. I suggest bringing an air compressor and deflating your tires to around 18-20 psi. This will help your vehicle glide over the sand a little better. Use the air compressor to bring your tires back to normal psi when you return from the sandy roads. A shovel is a must in case you get stuck. The most difficult thing about these deep sand roads is that there are abrupt patches of extremely sharp, uneven rock here and there throughout the trip. In order to get through the deep sand you need to keep up your momentum because without traction, you will get stuck in the sand if your vehicle stops. – But in order to get through the rocky parts of the road without blowing a tire (like I did this last trip) or bottoming out and damaging something crucial underneath, you have to slow to a crawl… This means you have to keep your eyes open at all times and be ready to quickly slow down when the sand turns to a stairway of sharp rock. This can be very nerve-racking (or very fun, depending on how you look at it.) I drive an 09 Subaru Forester which is an underrated and very capable off-road machine. It has gotten me there and back twice now, but I have seen more than a couple pictures of American 4×4 trucks stuck in the deep Paria Sand.
Another thing to consider is bringing some extra floor mats or strips of old carpet in case you do get stuck… These can be tied to your rear forks so that you can keep going through the deep sand once you get going again, without having to stop to pick them up and risk getting stuck again. The hardest part of the drive is coming back from the White Pocket, about 2 miles from it- A steep winding hill that you will go down in order to get there. The main difficulty is that at the bottom of this hill, there’s an old dry creek rut that makes gaining momentum for the hill impossible. But chances are that if you got there, you will make it back- no problem. Obviously, there’s no cell phone service out there, so keep that in mind when planning.
As stated before, photographing this place is not easy. There are so many twists, turns, peaks, valleys, and utterly strange shapes here that it’s hard to make a traditional landscape or abstract composition work. This forces you to think outside the box photographically. Like most landscapes, early morning and evening offer the best light. If you go between October and March, you may be lucky enough to have pools of water to photograph as well. On my most recent visit, I spent my time in the hard mid-day light exploring the surrounding area. This was an excellent exercise which only left me yearning for more exploration. I was able to hike up to the highest point in the general area – just east of the White Pocket, and take This Panorama of the landscape from atop a huge sandstone cliff. Although not a technically great shot, it’s unique and pretty interesting as it shows a seldom-seen view of this location, looking down onto the White Pocket from above. I have made some ‘snapshots’ that work with the interface of the Gigapan site so that you can get a better idea of how the landscape is spread out.
When you look at the broad landscape from any high vantage point in the White Pocket, you will see Coyote Buttes North, Buckskin Gulch, and countless unnamed and largely unphotographed rock formations tossed throughout the Paria Plateau. This scene makes me want to spend a few weeks backpacking in the area, simply exploring – photography being secondary. One thing to remember is how extremely delicate the terrain here is. Please be careful where you tread. A misplaced foot can crumble a formation that took millions of years to form.
White Pocket is one of those places that leaves you wanting more… When the light was poor, I found myself simply enjoying the scenery and the immortal feeling of this remote place. So much time (hundreds of millions of years) has gone into creating this place and it’s a privilege to be able to enjoy it in this relatively untainted state without the rush of a highway buzzing in the distance or any other man-made distractions. Places like this still exist in the United States and I suggest going there and experiencing it for yourself if you’re anything like me. Just don’t forget your camera and plenty of water… As for me, I’m already scheming on when I can steal away and get back out there…
Thanks for reading
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