After nearly a week on my back I’ve had lots of time to think about the recent trip to Coyote Buttes and White Pocket. I thought I’d share the whole wrap up here for folks thinking about a visit to the area.
Photographing Coyote Buttes
Most folks who are like me, wanting to become a better photographer, most likely dream about shooting in Coyote Buttes. I’m willing to bet 95% of us have seen photos of the wave, and the photos are usually really good. The question that goes through our minds? “I wonder if I could produce something that good?”
The reality can be a dismal wakeup call. Getting in to see “The Wave” takes some doing. The lottery system, booking 4 months in advance, or showing up at the Paria Ranger station to put your name in the hat for 2 days out, are all difficult propositions. On my last 2 visits to the ranger station the numbers were posted for the “in person” lotteries. 47 applications, 67 application, 58 applications……..and 10 folks get picked.
Are you going to plan a week long trip to the area hoping you can get into The Wave for a day? Yeah, what a trip that would be…….
There is hope though. Coyote Buttes South. Sure, it doesn’t have “The Wave”, but it has similar formations. It also has some amazing “rock sculpture”, wild sand dunes, and photographic opportunities you’ve probably never even dreamed of. Best part? You can in fact get passes for certain without dealing with the lottery system. Just go to the BLM’s calendar registration site. They give out 10 permits per day online. There, now you won’t have to spend a week in the area and walk away with nothing.
Oh, just book in advance, please!
A day isn’t going to do it
For the most recent trip I only obtained permits for one day. We arrived the day before, went in to Paw Hole and Cottonwood Cove at different times, and came away seeing very little in my opinion. Looking at maps of the area I found there was a great deal more to cover. Next trip, 2 days minimum.
Timing sunrise and sunset, figuring out what areas are in shadow and when, all of this is important if you want to walk away with that “amazing” photo from the area. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll come away with something cool no matter what, the area is that photogenic. But if you’re looking to produce a shot that’s formed in your mind then it becomes all about timing.
That’s why more than one day is recommended. You’ve got to do some walking and scouting. Find “that” spot. Figure out the lighting and when it will work to your advantage. There’s a lot of work behind getting “that” shot when you’re doing landscape, I promise you.
So, when you’re booking your permits, give yourself a few days. Spend at least one full day in Paw Hole. Explore the entire area if you can (I didn’t get to). Figure out what it is you want to present and go for it. The same goes for Cottonwood. In my opinion, Cottonwood is even more expansive, there are 3 primary areas to visit (in different directions of course) and one day is the minimum you want to spend there. If you can swing it, go for 2 days.
There are unmarked camping areas just outside of the permit zone. In the case of our trip, we stayed at State Line Campground. What a great spot. But there was one problem with the location. Too far out from South Coyote Buttes. We would have needed to get out of the camping area by 4 a.m. if we wanted to really get sunrise. Your better option, use the unmarked camping areas near Poverty Flats, or on the “alternate” route in from the southern access road off of House Rock Valley Road (more about that momentarily).
Camp as close in as you can. For my next trip I’ll be camping near a corral close to the Poverty Flats Ranch. It’s recommended in the Photographing the Southwest Series, and I now understand why.
Being close in to the locations will give you a better handle on time. Worrying about getting through deep sand before dawn and after dusk can be daunting. But if you don’t have far to go, you can get in earlier and stay longer. Plus you won’t be wasting as much gas roaming around the deep sandy tracks!
You’ve got 2 options to get to the Coyote Buttes area. Coming in from the North in Utah off of Route 89, or coming in from the South in Arizona off of 89A. Both places, North or South, bring you to House Rock Valley Road. The big question…..where are you going?
If the answer is both North and South Coyote Buttes then I’d suggest coming in from Utah. State Line campground is a terrific spot, and it’s very close to the launching point for North Coyote Buttes and The Wave.
Instead, if South Coyote Buttes and White Pocket are your only destinations then I’d suggest coming in from 89A. Less time on House Rock Valley Road gets you to BLM 1017, and it is an easier way in to cottonwood Cove and Paw Hole. Plus there are many places to camp along 1017 and 1066 (both BLM “roads).
Photographing White Pocket
Like South Coyote Buttes, White Pocket deserves some time. Plan on one day at minimum, maybe two if you’ve got the time.
We arrived at White Pocket a little over an hour after sun up. The entrance to White Pocket was well lit, the short sand dune hike made us think of our time at Paw Hole the day before, and we were happy to get into the rock formations quickly. Our big wish was that we’d gotten in a little earlier, or even camped at White Pocket. That would have been best given the distance from State Line Campground to White Pocket. Next trip we’ll know better.
The White Pocket monolith which is the backdrop to the crazy “brain rock” formations would make for excellent sunrise shooting. Sheer cliffs of yellow and red go up along the monolith’s face. By the time we arrived the sun had already done its thing on the monolith.
The main formations are not as large and vast as Coyote Buttes. I think you can easily hike the bulk of the super scenic stuff in a few hours. But to really get the lighting you want you’ll be revisiting spots throughout the day. Huge shadows are cast in the morning due to the size of the formations. I’m sure the same could be said for sunset as well. Some spots with narrow slotted areas and pockets probably get a limited amount of light during the day. So wandering around and getting a feel for the best light is advisable.
I can tell you, on my next trip up I’ll be spending a full day at White Pocket, and if I could swing two days I would. We’ll just have to see what comes up with the schedule over the next few weeks.
Camping at White Pocket
Right outside of the BLM management area you’ll find many spots to pitch a tent for the evening. Or two evenings if it suits you. There’s a fair amount of flat ground near the parking area, and it’s doubtful you’ll run into too many other visitors.
On our trip out we did run into Mark from Minnesota. He was camped in his little Toyota pickup near a shade tree and the fence just slightly South of the parking area. We spoke with him for a short time and learned that he was on his third day at White Pocket, and had photographed the monolith right at sunrise that morning. Ah, one of those, “Darn, wish I’d been there too,” moments.
If you’re going to camp next to White Pocket, keep in mind. You’re a long drive out to either 89 or 89A. Bring plenty of water, food, and additional provisions in case you get stuck.
Getting to White Pocket
If you’ve gotten to Cottonwood Cove, Poverty Flats, etc, you should be able to get to White Pocket. There’s some extremely deep sand in spots, and the final leg into White Pocket is a long downhill traverse through DEEP sand. The problem won’t be getting into White Pocket, it will be getting out.
I can say, road conditions several weeks ago allowed the Titan in and out. I’m happy to say I had the Max Trax with me, and Ken’s Jeep nearby. There were several moments when I thought we’d get bogged down for sure, but we did in fact make it. Still, recovery gear and another vehicle is advisable going into White Pocket.
If you come in from the south (89A) and go through Poverty Flats then you’re already close to White Pocket. Instead of continuing North toward Cottonwood Cove you head East / Northeast at a split off near the big tank at Poverty Flats. Just keep following the super sandy track until you reach White Pocket. There’s one climb before the big downhill that almost stopped the Titan too. Just remember, keep your momentum in the sand!
Off Road Ready is Essential!
In the recent posts on the trip I think folks got the message, but I’m going to keep pushing this one. I figure people often search the web and come across a specific post and they don’t read the whole series at any site. Quick information, in and out! So, here it is once more…… High clearance 4 wheel drive vehicle when accessing South Coyote Buttes and White Pocket.
During my several trips up I’ve heard a lot from the folks at the Paria Ranger station, the RV park I stayed at, and other travelers I’ve met. Tourists with 2 wheel drive vehicles who really want to see the places and figure what the heck, it’s a rental car after all. What happens to them?
The vehicles get bogged down in the sand. They try to get out by hitting the gas and only dig deeper holes. Eventually they have to be towed out at an extreme expense. The last woman we spoke with at the ranger station talked about several different instances with German tourists in the past few weeks. Also she described a truck getting bogged down on the way into Paw Hole, and the fact that the road was pretty torn up due to the truck digging itself deeper into the sand, which then makes it harder on other vehicles trying to get in.
After learning how the Titan handled in the sand I can say with confidence that I could get in and out of each of the areas. Don’t think that means I’d leave my sand ladders at home, or that I don’t want a second vehicle there with me. Conditions can change, and it’s better to err on the side of caution. I don’t feel like shelling out a ton of money to get myself extracted! And that leads to another concern…..if I needed extraction, how would I contact someone for help?
Your cell phone does not work near Coyote Buttes or White Pocket. I promise, it doesn’t. I used to work for several cell phone carriers planning and deploying networks, and you know what? They’re not going to stick a multi-hundred thousand dollar cell tower in a place with no people. Crazy sounding as it is, that’s the truth. No phone traffic = no revenue. They’re profit motivated organizations, not altruistic folks who like to waste money. Plus, could you imagine cell towers in the background of your photos? I don’t think so……
Essentially, when you go out to these areas you’re cut off. You’d better be confident in your vehicle, those with you, and any extraction methods you have at your disposal. But when all that falls apart you do have options.
Fortunately for me, I’ve been a HAM radio operator since 1997. I’ve got several HT units (hand held), and I’m getting my FT-8500 Yaesu mobile rig installed in my Titan. More powerful output than the hand held units offer. That’s emergency communications option number one.
My second emergency communications purchase was the Spot Messenger. Great little device that I’ve tested out a good bit this summer. It uses the satellite network to send out simple signals that are then translated into e-mails that get sent to friends and family that I’ve selected. The messages are confined to OK, Help, or 911. I can also send tracking signals so folks can follow my progress. If push came to shove I’ve got the 911 option which will dispatch search and rescue to the GPS location I transmitted.
Beyond the HAM radio and the Spot there’s not many options for getting in touch. Well, unless you brought a satellite internet setup along with you. That would be very cool from the techie standpoint, but I don’t know how realistic it is for the average person heading into the Buttes and White Pocket.
There you have it!
Well, that’s everything I have to say on the last trip to the Buttes. I’ll continue working on a few images from there this week, and we’re through with all the posts on the this particular trip. Keep in mind, I’ll be taking another soon.
Hope you find this post helpful if you’re planning a trip to the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. And if you do take one, or have taken one, be sure to drop a note here and tell readers where to find your stories and photography. Always happy to point people to more information on these places!