White Pocket Towers
Location/Hike: Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, White Pocket
The White Pocket formation in the Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness is an absolutely amazing and unique sandstone formation. While the chaotic variation of colors and lines in the sandstone is not as symmetrical as “The Wave” formation just to the west, they are just as visually appealing and create just as pleasing, if not even more varied, photographic opportunities. I would postulate that the only reason this formation is not as popular and travelled as “The Wave” is the difficulty associated with accessing the site. Due to the absolutely other worldly and varied photographic opportunities that White Pocket presents, and the difficult roads that keep most folks from making the trek, I rate it an 8 out of 10 (from a photography perspective).
The White Pocket formation is located in the Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness area. It really sneaks up on you, or at least it did me. You drive on what seems to be an endless dirt / sand / rock “road” (and I use that term loosely, it is more of a path) through miles of flat and ordinary enough Juniper / Pinon landscape that is covered in red sand and cactus; just what you would expect to see in an old western movie, full up with the occasional cow and dilapidated ranch house. Then you are there and wow, there is this “White Pocket” formation that looks completely alien when contrasted against the surrounding scenery.
The name “White Pocket” is an old nickname given to the formation by local farmers and ranchers. The ranchers call areas of land that retain water from rain “pockets” of water, and this pocket has obviously distinctively white rock formations; so it makes sense that this is how the nickname came to be, and to stick. That also seems to be backed up by some physical evidence at the site as there are what appear to be some old retain walls / damns made out of concrete. The purpose of these damns looked to be to hold more water, apparently for grazing cattle and passing ranchers. All seems to add up and make sense to me. This is the information that was passed to us by our guide anyway.
We approached the area from the south. We headed north on House Rock Rd, from Highway 89A, and then got on the maze of dirt roads to the east from there. Once on the gravel and dirt it took us about 2.5 hours to drive in to White Pocket, of course this included stopping to help pull one Ford Explorer out of the dirt. If you are interested in Google Maps (KML etc) of these roads there are some great ones located at the below link:
After driving on these roads with a guide I would highly recommend not doing it yourself unless you come prepared and have experience driving in sand. I know there are some other sites / folks out there that say a regular car can make the trek, but to me that introduces an unacceptable level of risk. I would only make the treck myself if I had the following:
-- High clearance 4WD vehicle (BLM website states 12 inches is high clearance, that seemed reasonable to me)
-- Compressor to deflate and inflate tires. It is important to deflate the tires to the proper pressure for driving through the sand and then reinflate them once you are back on the black stuff.
-- At least one full size spare (2 would be very comforting). Of course this would need to come with the ability to jack up, and stabilize, your vehicle on uneven and very soft terrain; so I would add.
-- A full size industrial jack
-- Pieces of Wood / Carpet (or you could go high rent with something like a MaxTrax MKII)
-- Portable Jump Starter (let’s face it, for most of us a car that we would take off roading may not be the shiniest / newest car out there)
-- Satellite Phone and/or SPOT
At the end of the day it is all about the amount of risk you are willing / able to take. I generally like to mitigate the risk factors under my control to the extent that the likelihood of physical harm to me and/or my travel companions is nearly eliminated. Of course we could all live in a bubble and never leave home too. But again, I’m not saying my way is the correct / only way to drive out of White Pocket; I’m just trying to relay under what conditions I would feel comfortable making the trip myself in the future given that I have witnessed the conditions there first hand.
We were able to spend one night at White Pocket. That meant one sunset and one sunrise on a very short summer night. I would recommend getting there at least 2 - 3 hours prior to sunset to allow for scouting time and late afternoon shooting, remember it took us about 2.5 hours on the dirt roads; and that it with someone that had driven them many times.
I would also plan on getting up at least 2 - 3 hours prior to sunrise to allow for additional scouting and long exposure work (if you are in to that sort of thing). At White Pocket it was amazing how much the pre dawn and post sunset lighting really changed the colors of the formations. While this time of day can create dramatic light for most any landscape scene, I found the change in the sandstone colorations to be vast, amazing and unique.
If you stay the night at there, don’t sleep in! You worked so hard to make the trip, make it worthwhile. I was out there with a couple of folks that slept in and were regretting it on the long drive back to civilization.
If you make the trip yourself and have more than one night to spend, I would recommend it. But I would think that after 2 nights at White Pocket you might be ready for a change of pace and weather.
As of the summer of 2014 there is no permit required. Again, think this is due to the fact that access is so difficult. This should also reaffirm in your mind that it actually is difficult to access White Pocket.
Recommended Camera Equipment
Usual Suspects: Backpack with Camera, tripod, cable release, extra memory / battery, lens hoods.
Filters: Per the norm, soft GND filters are very handy to have, particularly if you are shooting at sunset, or just after as the white sands can be quite a bit brighter than the dusk sky (which is an unusual sight as normally the sky is brighter than the land subject matter). I played around with the Singh Ray LB Color Combo (Polarizer) and liked the effect it had as well, but by no means would I consider it a requirement (unless there is water...which would be rare, but awesome!)
Lenses: I mainly used my 14-24mm lens, and at 14mm. I was out there with another photographer that left his wide lens in the truck and was disappointed. He trudged back to get it, but just a caution; don’t leave your wide lens in the truck.
Recommended Other Equipment
I would recommend bringing the sand / off road equipment for your vehicle (if you choose to go it alone) as listed earlier in this guide. Other than that just the normal stuff.
Oh yeah, and when you hear there is no water at White Pocket; there is no water at White Pocket. It can be hot and you will get dehydrated quickly. So bring plenty of water.
Keep an eye on the weather. From what the BLM, and other, sites say the roads can be completely impassable when wet. I’m sure they would dry out fairly quickly, but I would factor that extra time in to the realm of possibility if you are heading out there and there is a degree of likely that rain main happen.
A headlamp is helpful to assist with focus in the wee hours.
Again, the link I shared earlier has some great map info, you can find it again here.
White Pocket GPS Point: (36.954372,-111.897835)
Recommended Photo Opportunities
I would recommend shooting anything in the golden hours just before sunrise and after sunset. I know it sound cliche, but that is when the lighting worked for me. I spent the daytime scouting out what shots I wanted to take, and what route I wanted to travel, during the golden hour. That gave me the time to make the most use out of the limited dawn / dusk lighting.
Along with that timing aspect of the photos, that yes is pretty standard, I would recommend paying attention to the chaotic geometry of White Pocket. There is so much contrast, and not just in terms of color but shape and form as well.
I think I hit it pretty good above. The road is indeed difficult. It can be hot. And there is no water.