A Photographer’s Guide to White Pocket

In Adventure, Guides, National Monuments, Photography, RV, Travel

In the pocket. Vermillion Cliffs National Monument

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The landscape of Arizona and Utah is some of the prettiest in the nation.  Images of Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Canyon De Chelle, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon dominate outdoor magazines with each publication.  These are the places that “everyone” seems to want to see.  Quite simply, the scenery is stunning!

In addition to all the well known photo locations in the Southwest, more photographers are being drawn to what was previously an unknown destination.  White Pocket.

Close to the ever famous Coyote Buttes, and the Wave formation, White Pocket sits with amazing scenery, rock formations, and quite the off road adventure for the more intrepid photographer.  We’ll be covering how to reach White Pocket, available camping, required gear, and of course, images from the location.

Getting to White Pocket

Driving North on House Rock Road.  Close to the North Rim too!
Driving North on House Rock Road. Close to the North Rim too!

For almost a year now images of White Pocket have dominated my photographic wish list.  Somewhere along the way I stumbled across a few photos of the place along with images of Coyote Buttes, and I had to see it for myself.  Two books were found that helped fuel my imagination.  “Photographing the Southwest, Volume 2“, by Laurent Martres, and the “Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau,” by Michael R Kelsey.  Each book has been viewed cover to cover, and a great number of places are now on my “must see” list.  But I can now say happily, I have seen White Pocket, and I want more!

Laurent Martres’ book has the best information available regarding White Pocket, and if you’re interested in other amazing opportunities in Arizona I’d strongly recommend the book.  In addition, there’s also Volume I covering Utah which is a must read for photographers as well.  While we’re going to cover the in’s and outs of White Pocket, there’s a lot more to see and I’d be remiss not telling you about the books as well.

From direct experience I’ve found that approaching White Pocket from the south along BLM 1017 to be the best approach in.  While the road between Paw Hole and Cottonwood Cove (Coyote Buttes South) is passable for some off road vehicles, it is not recommended for all.  Therefore we’ll talk strictly about getting to White Pocket from 89A.

The journey from Route 89A in Arizona to White Pocket is less than 25 miles long.  However, you will be driving for quite a while to make the 25 miles.  While the first 10 miles are on well packed dirt roads (House Rock Valley Road to BLM 1017), you’ll soon find yourself in extremely soft sand as you make your way to Poverty Flat Ranch, and then on to White Pocket.  Be prepared to spend some “behind the wheel” time, but also be prepared to stop here and there for photographic opportunities.  This trip shouldn’t be rushed!

Once you get off of House Rock Valley road onto BLM 1017 you’ll still have some well packed dirt roads under tire.  Enjoy this, as in a few miles you’ll be cutting north and getting into the unpacked sandy driving that will bring you to a crawl.

The ride between BLM 1017 and the Poverty Flat tank is a long one, even if mileage is short.  The bulk of the time will be spent in the sand, and occasionally rock outcroppings will pop up in the road to give a little extra traction right when you seem to need it most.  Fortunately, while you’ll be gaining ground, the incline isn’t too steep, so fear of getting bogged down in the sand is limited.  Keep in mind, road conditions change season by season, so you might encounter different conditions on your trip into the pocket.

Reaching the Poverty Flat Ranch you’ll see many old ruins, fences, an old windmill, and finally a large water holding tank on your left.  Park here for a few minutes to take in the scene.  To your north you’ll see Cottonwood Cove in the distance, and to your east you’ll see the White Pocket Monolith.  Yup, you can see White Pocket at a distance for the rest of the ride in.  Keep your eyes open, but also pay attention to the road!

Deep Sand driving into White Pocket.
Deep Sand driving into White Pocket.

Be happy now!  You’re almost there.  Approximately 5.8 miles from the tank is your destination.  Bear right from the tank on the obvious road.  You’ll follow along a fence for a good distance, then you’ll cut right at an old corral.  There are places to park in the area if you’d like to stop again and take more photos.  Since you’re so close, what’s an extra stop or two?

Leaving the corral area you will encounter deeper sand.  Hopefully you’ve aired down your tires, and if you have you should get through without incident if you keep a steady pace and don’t loose momentum in the deeper sand.  Worse case scenario, a set of sand ladders will get you moving easily!  Oh, and be sure to watch for deeper ruts in the road.  My first trip in I didn’t watch the changing conditions close enough and launched two passengers and gear into the air several times.

Once you climb a short but steep section and take a hard cut to your right you’ll be reaching the height of land.  The White Pocket Monolith will be visible off to your left, and it’s quite a scene.  This is your last major decision point.  From the height of land you have a long grade down toward White Pocket, and you should ask yourself if you should park a the top and walk a few miles in, or if your vehicle is doing great.  If you haven’t had issues so far taking the vehicle in should be okay.  But you really need to be certain!

Along the entire way leaving BLM 1017 to White Pocket you’re going to come across several fences and gates.  Someone will have to exit the vehicle to open the gates, and reclose them after you pass through.  Don’t leave the gates open!  Please be courteous enough to leave things as you found them!

_MG_0259_60_61Camping Opportunities

Making it all the way to White Pocket is a time consuming proposition.  So let’s hope you’re planning on camping there, or in the area.  After all, you’re visiting the location to see one of those unique spots that most people will only ever dream about.  Make the most of it.  Stick around for a while!

The parking area near White Pocket offers many opportunities to make camp.  The ground is flat, not too many cacti (although they are there, so watch your step), and chances are you’ll be the only vehicle in for the day.  Given the remote location you won’t be seeing many people in the pocket, if you see any at all.

You don’t have to camp at White Pocket exclusively.  All along the way in you’ll pass some great dispersed camping.  If you’re making a larger trip out of this adventure and plan on visiting other locations such as South Coyote Buttes, there are sites along BLM 1017, and on the way to Poverty Flat.  In addition, if you’re planning on going to Cottonwood Cove, there’s a few great sites near there as well.

Keep in mind, all of the dispersed camping should remain as such.  Leave no trace applies here.  That means that toilet paper and human waste above ground isn’t a great idea.  You’re off roading, I assume you have a shovel.  How about making use of it?

If you can’t tell, on my last trip to White Pocket I was horrified to find that folks who had camped before me did not follow a “leave no trace” policy.  Just plain gross folks!  Clean up after yourself, and keep White Pocket from becoming another permit only area!

Finally, if you don’t mind driving back and forth consider staying at State Line Campground.  It’s along House Rock Valley Road very close to the UT / AZ Border, there are restroom facilities available as well as some great picnic tables.  Fantastic camping, and it’s free!  Once again, clean up after yourself!  You weren’t raised in a barn.

Moonlight illuminates White Pocket
Moonlight illuminates White Pocket

Gear for your trip to White Pocket.  Be Prepared!

The gear list doesn’t have to be too complex.  If you’re an experienced off roader then you’re most likely covered.  But for the novices (like me) here’s a list of what travels with me now.

  • Nissan Titan 4×4.  If you’re going into these locations, please don’t do a 2 wheel drive vehicle.  You will get stuck, and you will make a mess out of the road for other responsible visitors!
  • Max Trax:  Great set of Sand Ladders.  If you get jammed up in the sand, these will get you out!
  • 2 5 Gallon Jerry Cans:  Pretty self explanatory.  Gas!
  • Shovel:  Once again, self explanatory.  :)
  • ARB Tire Delator, and QuickAir DC powered tire inflator.
  • Tool and Repair Kit:  The same tools I keep in the back of the Titan for all my needs when on the road with the Airstream.

Safety Gear in the truck

  • Yaseau VX5R & FT8500:  My HT Ham Radio, in truck installed 8500, and whip antenna on the truck.  Already have the frequencies up there programmed in.  Cell phones don’t work in any of the places we’re going.  ARRL Repeater guide book comes along as well.
  • Garmin 2610 GPS:  I’ve had this fantastic GPS for so long now.  Who needs a new one when I’ve got the best?
  • Fire extinguisher:  Yeah, that’s on hand too.  You never know.
  • Spot Messenger:  The Spot has proved to be a useful little device.  The bulk of my test messages on my last trip made it out to the world.  A few that I tried sending from Hackberry Canyon didn’t make it.
  • EMS Guide Emergency Medical Kit:  This is a big medical pack that I got from Eastern Mountain Sports oh so many years ago.  It covers all of the major bases, and a few that I never thought of.  It’s the emergency kit that has ridden with me for years, and traveled around in my backpack before that.

Truck entertainment

  • XM Radio:  I’ve been an XM user since 2002.  Think they’d give me a “thank you” discount by now.
  • IPod Touch:  For use when driving and hiking.

Camping Gear

  • Northface Tent:  I think I own the Rock 22.  Reminds me of my old Slickrock that I’d gotten so many years ago.  That one is still stored back in New England.
  • Thermarest Sleeping Pad:  Love these pads!
  • Petzl LED Headlamp:  I’ll be bringing 2 in case anyone needs to borrow one.
  • Brunton LED Lantern:  For in camp use, lighting up the tent for night shots, and for attracting every flying insect around into the tent!
  • Slumberjack 30 degree bag:  The winter months require something more substantial, but most of the year a light bag will do.  Planning on Nov – March?  Bring something warmer.
  • Whisperlite International Stove:  Quick boiling of decaf in the morning and heating beef stew at night.
  • OR Bathroom & Kitchen bag:  I stuff the forks and knives with the toothbrush and toothpaste.  What can I tell you?
  • Epi-Pen:  Between bee and food allergens, gotta have this with me always.
  • MSR Nesting Pots:  For the water boiling, etc.
Sunrise at White Pocket
Sunrise at White Pocket

Hiking Equipment:

  • Keen Hiking Sandals:  I’ve really come to like these sandals.  And I’ve found that hiking in sand in my Chacos leads to blisters.  Using the Keens and some socks….all happy all day long.
  • Osprey Stratos 24: The Osprey pack I picked up years ago as a light hiker / climbing pack.  I can fit a 100 oz Camelback water bladder in it, and the water keeps me cool all day long as well.  This is the pack I used on the past trip up, and it will be the pack I use for the upcoming trip.
  • OR Medium Medical Kit:  A smaller version of the emergency medical kit that will stay at the truck.
  • Leatherman Multi Tool:  I just always have one of these in any pack.  So many uses.
  • Synthetic tops and shorts by Northface, Mountain Hardware, Smart Wool, and Cloudveil.
  • Oh, and my Tilley Hat.

Camera Gear and Packing

  • Canon 5D Mark II
  • Canon 40D:  The backup
  • Canon 17-40mm f/4
  • Canon 24-70mm f/2.8
  • Canon 70-200mm IS f/4
  • Canon 10-22mm EFS lens (for the 40D)
  • Zing Medium Camera cover.
  • Clik Elite Medium and Large Lens Pouches:  I was really hoping to get to try some of Clik’s other packs on the upcoming trip, but I’ve received no response from them.  So, I worked out my own solution with my Osprey pack and a few of their lens pouches.  Worked well.  I’ll do a podcast on that sometime.
  • Camera cleaning kit:  Gitzo Rocket blower, lens brush, soft cleaning cloth, and lens cleaning solution.
  • Pelican 1520 Camera Case:  For all the gear on the ride up.  Weatherproof, dustproof, and it gets to ride in the back of the truck as the passenger compartment will be full.
  • 4 8GB Sandisk CF cards, and 2 4GB Sandisk CF cards:  No computer is coming along, so I’ve got what I’ve got for memory.  4 day trip, 2 days of guaranteed all day hiking in amazing places…..I think I’m covered.

Oh, and by all means, don’t forget WATER! At least a gallon per person per day.  Personally, I keep 2 gallons per person in the truck.  It just makes sense if you’ve got the room.

Dunes and sandstone in White Pocket
Dunes and sandstone in White Pocket

Photographing White Pocket

Ah, now we arrive at the important stuff.  Getting there, gear, safety gear…..it’s all about making for a good trip.  And if you’re heading out to see one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen, once you’ve got your bases covered you shouldn’t have to think about all the big stuff.  You should just be thinking about capturing that amazing scene that nobody will believe is real.  At White Pocket you can do that time and again!

If you’re looking to capture dawn and dusk at White Pocket I’d suggest camping nearby.  The drive in can leave you showing up after the amazing light has gone, and the drive out could leave you navigating unfamiliar territory in the dark.  Nobody wants that.  Camping next to the parking area leaves you in and out at your leisure!  And believe me, you’ll want to shoot dawn and dusk here!

The entire main formation of White Pocket is a photographer’s dream.  It’s also an amazing challenge.  See, the colors change throughout the day.  Sun, clouds, and all the rest play into what the formations look like.  Mid-morning sun vs high sun can present two different and stunning takes on the same exact formation.  You’ve got to give yourself time to see what the lighting has to offer.  And this is not a place that is dawn and dusk only!

Fortunately the main area isn’t huge.  If you’re moving quickly you can circumnavigate the area in about an hour and a half.  That leaves no time for pictures, but just saying it’s not a giant expanse.  Still, it’s large enough to contain mini canyons, fun little climbs, shadowed areas, and more.

Entering White Pocket you’ll be tempted to stand around for quite some time taking pictures.  You walk onto an amazing sandstone expanse that’s a mix of white to gray stone.  The larger formations are directly in front of you, off to your left and right as well.  Explore!  That’s what you’re there for after all.

Several of the large whitish mounds hide really fun secrets.  As you walk around them you find them almost “cracked open”, displaying oranges, reds, and yellows.  These brain rocks, combined with the multi-colored striations are amazing photographically.  Most likely this is what you’re looking to visit White Pocket for.  Work around each of the formations at your leisure!  But don’t forget to look around, and look behind yourself.  That’s where you’ll normally find your best photos.

Getting tunnel vision while taking pictures is an easy thing.  Don’t let it happen here!  Getting fixated on specific formations might distract you from the amazing image that you’re standing on the edge of.  The large formations cry out to be shot, but the minor details around you might just make for a more compelling image!

Now, if you’re looking for GPS coordinates or suggested formations, you’re going to be disappointed.  That’s not provided here.  After all, if you’re going to travel here you need some adventure.  Seriously, you’ll do well shooting in White Pocket, and providing you an exact location to get the same image someone else did isn’t going to add to your fun.  Part of the photo adventure is making your captures unique from anyone else’s.  Easy enough to do here.

One thing to watch for while shooting White Pocket…..shadows.  No, not the formations shadows.  They can add to the drama of a scene.  Instead, watch for your own shadows and those of others around you.  Sunrise and sunset are extremely cool in the pocket, but normally what you’re looking to shoot at those times will be right in the path of your shadow!  Make sure to get clear of your shadow, tripod shadows, and camera shadows.  Get creative with your angles and positioning.  It’s no fun getting “that shot” and finding that half the foreground has a perfect profile of you in it!

Curved formations in White Pocket
Curved formations in White Pocket

Common sense and common courtesy while visiting

The Vermillion Cliffs National Monument is an amazing place.  Coyote Buttes, Paria Canyon, Buckskin, Wirepass, and White Pocket are all in the monument.  The BLM controls the area, and the management is pretty loose in my opinion.  While permits are required for several of the areas, you’re still not likely to see a ranger or any other management authority.  That leaves a ton of responsibility on your shoulders.

Practice the leave no trace policy that any hiker worth their salt should be aware of.  Take only pictures, leave only footprints.  No rock hounding while visiting, no grabbing up fossils, etc.  Leave everything as you found it so the next visitor has the same opportunity as you.

Think of it this way.  Coyote Buttes is already under a pretty restrictive permit system.  Only so many people per day in.  The Wave is hard to get to now due to the permit system limitations.  Do you really want these other wonders to become extremely restricted?  I sure don’t.  But if we don’t practice some simple common sense ideas while visiting we might see further restrictions on other amazing formations in the area.  Don’t give anyone a reason to make it tougher on nature photographers to get access to these amazing locations.

Additionally, make sure you’re prepared.  Gear in working order, vehicle ship shape, emergency recovery gear with you, become familiar with your equipment before the trip, etc.  Going into White Pocket you’ll find yourself in a remote area where the only person responsible for you is you.  Emergency services are not right around the corner.  They really aren’t, and even if you have emergency communications gear it may be hours before help could arrive.

Finally, please be careful while exploring the formations.  The fins, striations, and other rocks are not granite or something else as solid.  One wrong step could ruin a beautiful piece of rock art.  I’m sure readers wouldn’t want to be responsible for breaking something while visiting!  Take your time, watch your footing.

Now, go enjoy your own adventure

I certainly hope this posting is helpful to readers.  Personally, months were spent scouring the Internet regarding White Pocket, how to get there, and what I needed to make a successful and safe outing.  This post tries to condense it all into one spot, and most likely the post will evolve.

Readers are welcome to comment on the information contained here, request additions, and make their own suggestions.  This is for informational purposes, and to help you have a good trip.  Keep in mind, you’re responsible for you, so this site and author are not liable for any issues you may encounter when visiting remote areas, including White Pocket.  Setting out to see these places is your choice, and the end result of your travels rests with your decisions and abilities!

With all that butt covering mentioned, I hope you can get out there yourself and have an amazing trip.  It’s rare to find places so compelling.  And while you’re out, try and visit a few other nearby locations.  Turn this trip into an epic adventure that you’ll remember forever, the area is conducive to that after all!

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