White Pocket, Arizona Photography – Better than the Wave? Road Conditions?

by | Aug 23, 2013

White Pocket Pictures, PhotosPeople are often drawn to the Paria Plateau / Vermilion Cliffs / Coyote Buttes Area by dazzling photographs of the Wave on the border of Utah and Arizona. Indeed, the  permit and lottery system, devised by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to protect North Coyote Buttes, seems to have been born as a direct result of increased visitation caused by the viral nature of photographs of the Wave and associated blogs and forums during the mid to late 1990’s. Further contributing to the popularity of the Wave was a German documentary and the appearance of photographs of the Wave on default Windows screen savers. Once established, restricted access to the Wave seemed to only fuel the demand for permits. More recently social media has pushed this demand higher than ever.

Given the popularity of the Wave, the Lottery for the Wave, and the long odds of getting a permit, many unlucky photographers are left wondering if there are similar formations nearby that offer world class scenery as captivating as that of the Wave. Certainly the Wave can’t be that rare? Well actually it is. That exact configuration of geographic anomalies is probably found nowhere else on Earth.

But there is another one-of-a-kind geologic freak of the Navajo Sandstone within 25 miles of the Wave. White Pocket, while being both visually different and similar to the Wave, is no less striking. Many photographers say they like it better. White Pocket seems poised to be the next photographic phenomenon in this area to go viral. And so far there are no permit restrictions here. Instead it seems that a natural filter, rather than an artificial one, holds visitation to a manageable level. There is a veritable offroad gauntlet to get to the trailhead at White Pocket, but once you are there you rarely have to share it with more than a handful of people, if anyone.

Below is a side by side comparison of various aspects of the Wave and White Pocket.

The WaveWhite Pocket
World Class Landscape Scenery / Photography 1-101010
Permit required?YES, a complex and cumbersome lottery system allows only a total of 20 people per dayNO, Open visitation
Hiking DistanceVariable 6-8 miles, 6 mile minimumVariable 1-2.5 miles, 200 meter minimum
Hiking Difficulty, 1-10Moderate to Difficult, 7Easy to Moderate, 3
Offroad Driving Difficulty 1-10, Miles roundtrip to pavement2, 16 possible but NOT RECOMMENDED for rental vehicles8, 50 4WD, High Clearance, and Sand Driving techniques REQUIRED. IMPOSSIBLE / IMPRACTICAL in nearly all rental cars.
Acreage of best Scenery (Variety)5 (Wave itself is less than 1)20
Lighting Window, Sunset / Sunrise3-6 hours, Sunsets and Sunrises are impractical to unsafe.6-10 hours, and because camping is allowed Sunsets and Sunrises here are feasible.
Dinosaur Tracks?YESNo
Camping Allowed?NOYES, the parking lot / campground is a 200m stroll from White Pocket.

White Pocket AZ Pics, Photos, Ice Cream ButteAs you can see both are top-notch photography destinations, but White Pocket does not require the aggravation of a convoluted permitting system like the Wave, which for many people can eat up hours or days before and during their vacation.  The hiking is much shorter and easier at White Pocket as the parking lot is only 200 meters from the beautiful sandstone.  The lighting window is longer at White Pocket as well, and because camping is allowed, Sunsets and Sunrises here are fully feasible here. The permit restrictions (midnight to midnight) and daunting nature of hike in the dark at the Wave make sunrises and sunsets either impractical or unsafe. Plus since the Wave is in a depression, Sunsets and Sunrises really don’t make sense. White Pocket also offers a much wider expanse of Sandstone at 20 acres and has a multitude of features and nooks and crannies to explore. For this reason it has more variety than the Wave. Included in the Wave’s 5 acre estimate are nearby features separate from the Wave, that most people don’t even know about or are to afraid to venture off trail to access. The actual size of the Wave itself is only about a half an acre, or smaller. White Pocket also has a nearby Rock Art and Alcove Site, but the Wave does have neat Dinosaur tracks absent at White Pocket.

There is one main difficulty in visiting White Pocket, Road Conditions. This two track is replete with large rocks and sand pits that stretch for miles. It is nested within a maze of dirt roads that criss-cross the Paria Plateau, easily one of the most isolated places in America. Although some travelers are well prepared driving a proper high-clearance 4WD,  bring GPS and maps, have emergency satellite communications, and have the necessary experience to drive in deep sand, these are few and far between. Usually they are local or regional visitors in their own vehicles.

Tourist to White Pocket, AZ Burn Rental Car to the GroundFor tourists with little to no sand driving experience, no navigation tools, and no satellite communication device, who are wondering whether a rented Ford Escape (or any other rented “SUV” or crossover) with little clearance, bad tires, a weak engine, and All Wheel Drive (AWD), which is NOT 4WD, will make it to White Pocket, the answer is a definite NO. For every one of these that make it, ten others fail and waste their time or get themselves in a desperate situation. For those that actually ask, the BLM does not always do an adequate job of explaining the risks associated with White Pocket Road Conditions.

The risks for the uninitiated far outweigh the cost of a guided tour. Tows from this area can cost well over $1000, that is IF one is lucky enough to find even a bar of cell phone signal, which may require considerable hiking in deep sand. Hours or even days could be wasted waiting to get help, and if you don’t bring enough water or food or decide to hike off for help in the wrong direction, it could potentially cost you your life. There have even been people who burned their brand new rental to the ground spinning tires and revving engines in the brush, potentially threatening to burn the whole area. DON’T be this person. This is NOT a good place to be stuck or to learn how to drive offroad in deep sand for the first time. Countless times a year our guides encounter people in trouble who decided to do it themselves in a rental. Some are out of food and water, some are desperately lost, and some are so stuck only a tow truck will get them out. Because I have a heart, myself and my guides usually spend all kinds of time helping them at considerable cost. Some of the dimmer-witted even return to get stuck again or don’t immediately seek pavement.

The only solution for tourists to get to White Pocket safely, reliably, and efficiently is with a guided tour.  Although as a tour operator I seem biased, it is still the truth. Ask anyone in the area who has been there and they will tell you the same thing. It simply is the wise choice. Guided tours create win-win situations for everyone, whereas doing it yourself is lose-lose.

Below are links to all our tours that include White Pocket. The first two are daytours, and the last is an overnight tour, which is the only way to shoot sunrise and sunset in this very remote location. Thanks for considering our advice!

White Pocket Tour

South Coyote Buttes Tour

Overnight White Pocket Photography Tour

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