Explore White Pocket on the Paria Plateau, Northern Arizona
Join Me for an Adventure Very Much Off the Beaten Path
There are many places here in the southwestern United States that easily fit that description—hidden gems and wild, wonderful, even weird places far down unpaved back roads and rugged two-tracks that are a challenge to get to but well worth the trip. I've been fortunate to visit many places like that since moving to Arizona more than a decade ago.
But there's one such hidden gem that stands out in my mind as the most awesome of them all, and that's a geological wonder called White Pocket. It's a magical piece of the planet, tucked away in the Coyote Buttes area of the Paria Canyon/Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. White Pocket actually looks more like a massive sculpture made by other-worldly hands than rock formations. I was lucky to visit this amazing site a couple of years ago with my adventurous friend Sueanne.
Here, I'd like to invite you on a virtual tour of this fantastical place. I'm not a geologist or an expert on natural history, and there's plenty of both you could cover about this area, but I'll share a bunch of photos from my own day-trip and some information about White Pocket— including how to get there if you're so inclined—and point you to other good resources and maps to help you plan your own trip.
So, grab your imaginary hiking shoes, your sunscreen, some water and snacks, and your adventurous streak of course, and c'mon....
Even the Most Rugged 4WDs Get Stuck From Time to Time
But we didn't! I took the photo above from the bouncy passenger seat of Sueanne's pickup, on one of the better stretches of road on our way to White Pocket. She had to keep up the speed to lessen the chance of getting stuck, but there was one rugged hill where that was tough. I was a little nervous, myself. (Just don't tell Sueanne.)
Coyote Buttes, separated into north and south sections, is a 112,500-acre, remote expanse of desert managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This area encompasses part of extreme southern Utah and northernmost Arizona, south of Highway 89 between Kanab, UT, and Page, AZ. The main road into this area, called House Rock Valley Road, is unpaved and unmaintained, and the other, even more minor roads are often just tracks of sand like what you see here.
Much of Coyote Buttes is within a BLM permit Area where permits are required for day use. Overnight camping is not allowed. White Pocket, however, is outside of that permit area, so if you can get to it, you're free to explore and camp near the trailhead.
Starting from the White Pocket Trailhead: You're Not on a Trail for Long....
As far as I know, the name "White Pocket" refers to both the large mesa you see here from the trailhead and to another area of rock formations not visible from where I was standing when I took the picture.
At the time, Sueanne and I had no idea what was out there. Our trip to White Pocket was a spontaneous adventure we took while we waited to use our coveted permit for The Wave the next day. After we'd left the permit lottery at the ranger station, Sueanne had looked over our map of Coyote Buttes, saw the name "White Pocket" and said a friend of hers had mentioned it. The friend had said it was "awesome." So we decided to go check it out for ourselves. We had the right vehicle to do it and plenty of supplies, not to mention Sueanne's off-roading skills and our combined curiosity for out-of-the-way places.
So, obviously we made it. The drive took us about two hours from the White House Ranger Station on Highway 89, including a few stops to check out the road ahead, to make a second run at a spot where we almost got stuck, and to take a closer look at something interesting along the way. When we got to our destination, we grabbed our day packs loaded with water and our cameras and started trudging up the soft sand toward whatever was out there.
I was wearing trail runners, and I had to empty the sand out twice before we even got to the end of the soft trail, which was less than a mile.
A White Mass of Rock Will Appear Above the Sand Dunes as You Get Closer....
To me, it looked like a massive cumulo-nimbus cloud ... like a huge storm was building on the not-so-distant horizon. At this point, Sueanne and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows and open mouths. Then we both smiled and started trudging faster.
Your First Glimpse of the Incredible Palette: We Hadn't Expected THIS!
Coming to the End of the Trail: From Sand to Slickrock
And Welcome to White Pocket: Tah-Dah!!
Rock or Custard? Anyone Got a Big Spoon?
Exploring and Scrambling: Spend a Day or a Long Weekend
There's so much to see at White Pocket, from the swirling and twisted sandstone formations with reds, yellows, pinks and oranges, to the bleached-white irregular polygons of "brain rock," to fascinating pockets and unusual shapes. Some petroglyphs are to be found out there, too, and their much more recent cousins, cowboy-glyphs, along with old ranchers' reservoirs from days past, remnants of broken-down fences and, in the months between October and March, natural pools in the rock.
And there's plenty to see if you look up and beyond at the vast landscape that surrounds White Pocket. On a clear day—which many days are—you can look out across the Grand Staircase and even see a bit of Bryce Canyon's pink cliffs in the far distance.
Sueanne and I visited in early October, when the daytime temperatures were comfortably warm, the sky brilliant blue with hardly a cloud in sight, and the nights very cold. Except for two men with big cameras and tripods, who disappeared early in the day, we were the only ones out there. The only humans that is.
"Brain Matter" Rock
White Pocket is a Geological Wonder ... and Mystery
I know very little about geology, but I find it fascinating when someone can explain millions or even billions of years of history to me, written in the rocks and landscape, especially when I'm standing there, looking at it. Sueanne and I didn't have that luxury when we were crawling and scrambling all over White Pocket, and, as it turns out, it's not easy to find much geological information about it now that I'm sitting here at my computer.
As the author of the Cedar & Sand blog says, "White Pocket Confounds," and then he goes on to describe and explain some of the forces and processes that MAY have resulted in this mystical place, referring to retired petroleum geologist Marc Deshowitz's article, An Earthquake-Induced Flash Flood Event within the Early Jurassic Navajo Sandstone, White Pocket, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona.
Deshowitz basically describes a huge sand-slide triggered by an earthquake, which really ripped things up and tossed them around on its way downslope to its final resting place, filling a large pond or oasis. Then, some say, the still-soft sandstone layers were buried under an ocean for 100 million years or so, turning to rock under all the heat and pressure.
All I know is, this place is so cool!
Fascinating Formations, Big and Small
What Laid THIS Egg?
"E.T. Rock:" What do you think it looks like?
"Cone Head" Rock
So Much to See, Near and Far
After exploring every possible nook, cranny and angle of the most awesome part of White Pocket, Sueanne and I scrambled and sand-skied our way down into the valley and wandered across to the mesa and other nearby formations, trying to identify all the critter prints along the way. And there were many, including a variety of rodents and lizards, some bighorn and possibly pronghorn. One thing was for sure, those were mountain lion prints we both saw.
Photographing White Pocket
It's easy to get good pictures, but if you want amazing photos, you'll need to think outside the box and stick around a while.
I'm not the best photographer, nor do I have the best equipment (I was using a basic Kodak point-and-shoot when I took these photos), but when you're surrounded by a natural wonder like White Pocket, you really can just hold up the camera, click and get good shots.
However, if you really want to capture the essence of this magical place, you'll want to be there at sunrise and sunset too and maybe when the sky isn't quite so cloudless. The two men in the picture above said they'd been there for three days, taking thousands of photos.
Here are some examples of amazing White Pocket photography by....
Camping Near White Pocket
The ultimate in primitive camping!
If you want to spend more than a day at White Pocket, you can camp right near the parking area, which is outside of the BLM management area. There's sufficient flat ground available to pitch a tent, and you probably won't have much, if any, company.
There are also many places to camp along BLM roads 1017 and 1066.
Although it doesn't show White Pocket, here's a map of the roads in the area to give you an idea of how things are laid out.
And then there's State Line Campground, which is 9.3 miles down House Rock Valley Rd. from Highway 89 -- one mile south of the Wire Pass Trailhead. This is a very small, free campground -- only four, first-come first-served sites -- that's patrolled but does not have a camp host. Like almost all of the camping to be found in this area, there is NO WATER, so bring a lot ... at least two gallons per person per day. You always want to have more than you need, of course, not less.
See the BLM website for a little more information about camping in or near the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, including White House, Lee's Ferry and State Line Campgrounds.
Sueanne and I camped "at large" just off of House Rock Valley Road, a few miles from Wire Pass Trailhead.
Cautions and Precautions for a Trip Out to White Pocket
- There's no water, no food, no nothin' out here except jaw-dropping scenery, a lot of sand, landscape and sky, and more critters than you might expect. So bring more water and food than you think you'll need, layers of clothing (because even a hot day can turn into a very chilly night when you're in the desert), and your camping and emergency gear, even if you aren't PLANNING to spend the night.
- Be prepared to deflate your tires some to prevent getting stuck or to get yourself unstuck from deep sand. Below, you'll see a handy gadget for deflating your tires when you're in the backcountry, and also one for putting that air back in while you're on the road.
- You'll need to practice Leave No Trace camping in this area, which includes packing out all your trash, food scraps, and toilet paper too (Nope, you can't just burn or bury it). So go prepared with the proper bags.
- July, August and early September is generally considered "monsoon" season in this part of the country, when heavy rains and thunderstorms can occur daily, producing flash floods in washes and otherwise trickling or dry creek beds. These conditions can render roads in this area impassable and even dangerous, so check the weather before you go.
- Temperatures can change drastically in the desert throughout the year and even throughout the day. From mid-May to mid-September it can be -- and usually is -- brutally hot. A blast furnace, more like. And a warm day when you're comfortable in a t-shirt can turn into a night below freezing, with little to no humidity to hold in the heat of the day.
So always bring plenty of layers -- a down jacket and a shell are a good idea, even in summer -- a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, and long sleeves and pants to protect you from the sun. Even when the air is cold, the sun is stronger than you might think out there. I've gotten burned badly in the winter, myself.
- Wildlife -- even mountain lions -- isn't a big safety concern in my view, but do be aware that there are rattlesnakes and scorpions around and keep an eye out. And never stick your hand under or into a crack in the rock before getting a good look first.
Things You Might Want to Take Along for the Drive
Be prepared when you turn off the beaten path.
The desert is an unforgiving place, so you definitely want to go prepared, just in case you need to spend a bit more time out there than anticipated. And there are also some things you can bring along to avoid trouble. Here are a handful of things I recommend for a trip to White Pocket and other exploring in the area.....
For Dealing with the Deep Sand
If you've done your fair share of off-roading, you already know that sometimes you need to let some air out of the tires to avoid getting stuck in soft sand or mud. This is a handy gadget that will allow you to do that fairly quickly when you're already out there. We had ours in the truck with us, just in case. And we did need it on the way out.
And this will put their air back in your tires, powered right from your cigarette lighter in your vehicle.
Bring LOTS of Water
Take more water than you think you'll need. I generally bring at least two gallons per person per day for both drinking and cooking.
If you like to go pretty far off the beaten path pretty often, you might consider this type of gadget, which will allow you two-way satellite communication in conjunction with your Smartphone. It's pricey but, in my opinion, worth it. My hiking friends and I have used this device on numerous occasions in the backcountry.
The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger unit is another option that's less expensive; however, the SPOT allows for just one-way communication unless you go with the SPOT Connect.
Pack It Out
Last on my short list but not least is something a lot of people don't like to deal with, but when you're camping or traveling in an area like Coyote Buttes and nature calls in that "other way," you really do need to pack it out. The BLM rules say you need to pack out your TP, but some folks really adhere to Leave No Trace and pack out everything.
These are what I've used....
Want Directions to White Pocket?
Okay, but better take a map, a GPS, a good 4WD, and plenty of provisions in case you get stuck.
I'll give you directions from Kanab, Utah:
Take Highway 89 forty miles to the east.
Between mile markers 25 and 26, just before a guard rail and wide curve, turn right (south) onto House Rock Valley Road (BLM 1065). The pavement will soon end, and House Rock Valley Road may become impassible when wet.
Continue 8.4 miles, past the Wirepass Trailhead to the state line. This is the border of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah and Arizona's Vermillion Cliffs National Monument.
Keep going south for another 8 miles after the Wire Pass Trailhead and look for the Lone Tree Reservoir road on the left.
When you get to this intersection, you have a choice to make, because there are two ways to get to a place (in the middle of nowhere) called Poverty Flats before you continue to White Pocket.
Note: You can also access House Rock Valley Rd. from the south, from Route 89A before you get ascend North Kaibab Plateau (which forms the northern rim of Grand Canyon). From there, heading north on House Rock Valley Rd., it's 9.3 miles to the House Rock Valley Rd / Lone Tree Reservoir intersection.
Turn left at the Lone Tree Reservoir intersection and follow this road to the east for 2.5 miles to the Paw Hole trailhead. From here, the road becomes even deeper sand, so 4WD will be absolutely necessary, and you may need to let some air out of your tires to avoid getting stuck.
Continue another 3 miles to Poverty Flats.
At the House Rock Valley Road/Lone Tree Reservoir intersection, you can continue another 4 miles south on House Rock Valley Road to the intersection with BLM road #1017.
Turn left (east) on 1017 and drive 3 miles to the junction, keeping to the northeast, and then go another 3 miles to Red Pocket.
Heading northeast for another 2.5 miles, you'll come to the ranch at Poverty Flats and the Windmill.
From Poverty Flats to White Pocket:
Here, you'll find the fork in the road to either Cottonwood Spring or White Pocket.
Once you're at the Windmill, drive northeast between the windmill on your left and some buildings on your right. You'll see a large water tank on a knob a few hundred feet away.
Keeping up your speed to lessen the chance of getting stuck, follow this "road" (loosely speaking) to the east and then north for 1.8 miles until you come to a corral and fence.
Here, the road will turn right and briefly follow along the fence.
Continue for 4.3 miles to the very sandy parking area for White Pocket. A juniper tree will be there waiting for you.
Take the Right Maps with You When You Go
Directions alone just don't cut it.
You can purchase a waterproof topographic map, custom centered on White Pocket from MyTopo.com, or even get a huge 5-foot x 8-foot wall poster map.
Or download and print a free Poverty Flat topographic map from TopoQuest. (Poverty Flat is the name of the specific topo map you'll need for the area where White Pocket is located, but you can also purchase the adjoining maps from this page.)
Want to Go on a Guided Tour to White Pocket?
If you really want to go to this out-of-this-world place but don't want to go it on your own or don't have the vehicle to do it, you can go with a tour company. I've never gone to White Pocket on a tour, but this 9-hour excursion with Dreamland Safari Tours does look good...
- White Pocket Tour| White Pocket Guide| Vermillion Cliffs AZ
Our White Pocket Tour with Wire Pass Slot Canyon in the Vermilion Cliffs, Arizona, guides you to two world-class photography destinations as a great alternative to the wave.
- Paria Outpost & Outfitters
Another guide service that can take you to White Pocket.
Learn More About White Pocket
- Secrets of the West: White Pocket
An excellent trip report, translated from German to English, by Steffen Synnatschke and some of his wonderful photos.
- A Photographer's Guide to White Pocket
An extensive article about White Pocket, along with a camping gear list, a photography equipment list, and tips for getting the best pictures of this very photogenic place.
- White Pocket Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
A trip report and lots of great photos from "Natural Born Hikers," who hired a guide through Overland Canyon Tours to see White Pocket.
Questions & Answers
© 2013 Deb Kingsbury