Posted by: kerryl29 | July 12, 2021

The Desert Southwest: White Pocket, Part I

When we were done at Little Cut, early on the morning of the first day of the trip, we returned to our campsite, broke everything down and loaded up the car to begin the trek to White Pocket. As I mentioned in the introduction to this chronology, White Pocket, located within Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in north-central Arizona, was one of two “must do” locations on our otherwise extremely flexible itinerary for the trip. Jason had been there once before and desperately wanted to return. I hadn’t visited the location but had seen enough in the way of sample images of the area to want to correct that oversight. We weren’t certain how long we would stay on site. Our best guess was one evening and the following morning, but we were open to the idea of staying another full day if conditions and our initial experience on site called for doing so.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

What is White Pocket, exactly? It’s a series of rock formations, made up of Navajo Sandstone, that are truly remarkable and really have to be seen to be appreciated. Any written descriptions I might concoct would pale in comparison to the visual evidence. But I’ll try–sort of–anyway. Some of the formations are extremely pale (hence the “white” part of the location’s name) and kind of pillow-shaped. Others are remarkably colorful and have been carved into soaring, swirling shapes over geologic time. There are numerous shallow pools (that’s where the ‘”pocket” part of the name stems from) scattered about the area which fill with water on the rare occasions when it rains in this extremely arid environment. Some of the pools can withstand evaporation for many days, and we stumbled across a number of them, as you’ll see in some of the imagery below.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

The trip to the White Pocket section of Vermillion Cliffs isn’t a short one. Vermillion Cliffs is where an internationally known rock feature called “The Wave” is located–in the Coyote Buttes North section of the monument. Unlike Coyote Buttes North (and Coyote Buttes South, for that matter), White Pocket does not require a permit to enter. The journey to White Pocket is considered to be sufficiently difficult and onerous to make a permitting system unnecessary, at least for the time being.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

What does “difficult and onerous” mean? A drive of at least three hours on unpaved roads, some of which require four-wheel drive and high clearance. You start out on House Rock Valley Road, which provides basic access to much of Vermillion Cliffs, including The Wave area. This unpaved road is usually in decent shape and can be traversed with care by any vehicle, unless there’s been recent rain. But after 16-odd miles on HRVR, the initial turn off to White Pocket is reached and that’s when things begin to get interesting. The main threat is loose sand in numerous spots on the road, some of which can be quite deep. Vehicles without four-wheel drive are sure to get stuck in several spots along the way. High clearance is less critical, but still important. On the drive in, I got out of the vehicle on four or five occasions to direct Jason where to drive to avoid scraping the vehicle undercarriage on protruding rocks. There are also a couple of gates–unlocked, but they are routinely opened and closed by each vehicle that drives through, in either direction–that have to be cleared. For all of these reasons, visiting this area by oneself is probably not a good idea. Traffic in and out is light and if you get stuck–which is possible, even with the appropriate vehicle depending on the conditions–it’s not going to be pleasant.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

The drive after turning off HRVR is roughly 26 miles, so the total distance after leaving the paved highway (US 89) is a bit less than 45 miles. That is a long ride on unpaved roads, particularly of the non-HRVR variety. I would guess that it took us close to four hours to do the whole thing. There were a few spots that were decidedly sketchy, but I don’t think either of us were ever truly concerned that we wouldn’t be able to traverse the route.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Ultimately we reached a large unpaved parking area, surrounded by fence. A decent-sized dispersed camping area, with a number of juniper trees, is adjacent to the parking area. When we arrived there were something like eight other vehicles in the parking area, about half of them belonging to people camping with the others attached to parties present in the area on day trips. It was early in the afternoon–about 1 PM, I’d estimate–when we arrived. We picked out a spot in the camping area, and set up the tent.

White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

When the camp set up was complete, we decided to scout White Pocket itself, the nearest point of which was only about 1/8 of a mile from the camp site, accessed via a (very) sandy walkway. There are no trails at White Pocket; the vast majority of the time you are traversing a cairn-less rock face. The entire area connecting the bulk of the rock formations isn’t huge–I’d estimate a bit more than one-mile square. It’s virtually impossible to get truly lost in this area, but it is very easy to find yourself having to search for the appropriate route to get back to, say, the parking and camping areas, because they are completely out of sight, located behind a large sand dune, from most of White Pocket itself. Despite the lack of trails per se, there are appropriate (i.e. traversable) and inappropriate (ultimately non-traversable) routes at White Pocket and they can be far more difficult to find than one would initially expect. This is more a frustrating experience than anything truly dangerous, however. Ultimately, you should be able to find where you need to go.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

So, we set out to explore the area around 2 PM, a good four hours or so before we could expect what one might regard as traditional “good light.” There would be plenty of time to poke around and then make the short trip back to pick up equipment later, thus making the scouting session a lot less burdensome. And yet, I brought my gear with me. Why? I thought that, harsh light notwithstanding, some black and white imagery might well be in the offing at this time of day. While the sky was almost entirely clear on the drive in, I did see some evidence of partly cloudy conditions forming and I thought this subject matter might well call for black and white photography. (If anything, I underestimated the potential for black and white photography, arguably grossly so, as I will discuss specifically in a future “thematic interruption” entry.)

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

We basically explored the location from left to right, as you face the White Pocket formation area from the parking/camping area access. (In direction terms, this is roughly south to north.) We looked over some of the white rock areas first and then gradually made our way to the fascinating, colorful formations that lie more to the north and west.

White Pocket is quite desolate, but there are a few lone trees that pop up here and there that can make for fascinating subjects.

All of the images you see above this point in the narrative were made during this “scouting session.” (I think I made the right call re the decision to bring my gear with me.) Ditto the next four images immediately below, which were all made near the end of that session–roughly around 5 PM, just as the light was beginning to become genuinely nice, even for color photography, and as more and more cloud formations were blowing in from the west.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

The image including the pool, immediately above, was one of the two largest water pockets we saw while on site (the other is depicted in the black & white photo that’s third from the top, near the head of this post) and the story of how it was made will have to wait until I produce a future “Story Behind the Image” entry devoted to this shot. I think the experience is a useful example of overcoming some technical limitations, somewhat reminiscent of the experience I shared about the making of the Windstone Arch photograph at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

Jason had retreated back to the camping area while I was still photographing and, after I made the image immediately above, I joined him, following a bit of an adventure finding the route out from this location, deep in the northwest corner of the formations. After a very brief rest (and replenishing of water bottles), we set out again, with the intention of revisiting a number of the spots that we’d scouted earlier in the day but postponed photographing in order to view them in light better suited for color photography. I immediately headed back to the first area we had explored that afternoon and–in a bit of foreshadowing of that forthcoming thematic interruption piece that I mentioned earlier–found myself still thinking “black & white” despite the greatly improved conditions.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Not only was the light getting better, as the sun declined toward the western horizon, the sky conditions were improving as well.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Jason had headed off in a different direction when we started off on this part of the shoot but he found me again at this point, and mentioned that he’d discovered a very interesting rock pattern that he thought would make a good foreground and he wanted to show it to me. So we headed off in the same general direction we’d meandered earlier in the day, toward the basin at White Pocket that makes up part of the northwest part of the formation.

When we reached the feature Jason had found, I immediately saw the appeal; it was a great find on his part and we both hastened to take advantage of it.

White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

After making use of this inverted question mark swirl as a foreground, I backed up a few dozen feet and incorporated the sunlit slope including the swirl as a mid-ground.

White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Yet again, I saw the potential for a black & white rendering despite the excellent lighting for color photography.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

We continued on down the slope to another part of the plateau that we’d briefly stopped at earlier that day, to an area of rock formations that reminded me of a quilt.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Then it was on to a spot that I informally named the Candyland slope.

White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

And then it was down to the bottom of the basin for the final two images of the day.

White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Despite all of the spectacular cloud formations, sunset itself was essentially snuffed out by a thick cloud bank that blanketed the west and southwest horizon.

Even with the lack of a spectacular formal sunset, we were quite pleased with what we had been able to capture that day, as we trudged back toward the camping area in the twilight. We were hoping for good conditions the following morning for what would be round two at White Pocket.


Responses

  1. Stunning!

  2. This is really a spectacular collection of images from a place that few people will ever visit. The landscape is rich with textures and patterns.

  3. Kerry, thanks for the article. Black and white was the perfect choice for these images. Wonderful textures and patterns. I can’t wait to get there!

    • Thanks, Steve.

      Do you have defined plans for visiting White Pocket or are you expressing the general intent to visit the location at some point in the future?

  4. Such a different landscape. Love it!

  5. […] oversight I was guilty of during the first afternoon/evening at White Pocket was not paying enough attention to scouting locations for the following morning’s sunrise. So […]

  6. […] & white imagery. (Yes, again.) I want to discuss the subject in the context of my experience at White Pocket, which I’ve chronicled in the previous two posts. It’s no accident that many of the […]

  7. […] (as we took to referring to them) were located. But, after traversing the gnarly areas of the unpaved roads that connect White Pocket with House Rock Valley, we made a right turn on House Rock Valley Road, […]

  8. […] It was amazing how quickly it was pitch dark. We had no idea where the marked trail was. We were walking through open desert, with frequent vegetation, mounds of slickrock and, most notably, some fairly deep bowls, some filled with water, as had been the case at White Pocket. […]


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