White Pocket, Zion, & Mojave

For my second trip in the Xterra, I eventually settled on a drive out to a place not too many photographers have heard of – White Pocket in Arizona.  White Pocket is located a little east of the famous Wave formation and the general Coyote Buttes area of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument on the Paria Plateau along the northern edge of Arizona.  North and South Coyote Buttes both require a permit by lottery, but White Pocket is open without limitation.  What prevents this area from being trampled is the rugged 4×4 road leading out there.  This keeps all but the hardiest travelers away.  Another photographer I spoke with at White Pocket told me about helping rescue some stranded tourists with a flat who had tried to take their rental car out there, but did not have any tools and didn’t even know how to change their spare.

While talking about the trip with my brother Scott, we realized it would work out perfectly for him to drive down from Utah and meet me along the 15 to join in on the trip.  We met up in Hurricane, UT and left his car at a hotel.  It was still over an hour and a half to the east to the dirt road turnoff into the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.  We hit the conditions of the road to White Pocket perfectly with just slightly damp sand and only a few patches of snow along the way.  This road is notorious for deep sand, but the moisture held it together perfectly and I never once felt like we were sinking in at all. I was enjoying the road and the drive so much that I didn’t stop and document it at all.  By lunchtime we made it to the parking area and continued to the more secluded second parking area.  The view from our lunch spot was a pretty dramatic contrast to my lunch at my desk the day before.

The rest of the day was spent exploring the north half of White Pocket closest to the northern parking lot.  Unfortunately, we had mostly clear weather with no clouds to add dimension to the sky or break up the lighting on the ground.  The small patches of snow integrated in the White Pocket landscape almost made up for the poor lighting though.  The large and small details of White Pocket are pretty amazing on their own, but to add selective snow to the equation brings a whole other dimension to things.  We hiked around for a few hours, but I could tell it was going to get really cold, really quickly, so we set up camp and made dinner before sunset.

Once the sun was down, things really started to cool off, from the 40s down to the 20s.  Even though I warned him that it would be cold, Scott didn’t bring enough gear for temperatures this cold.  So in the tent went Scott to try and stay warm in the sleeping bag while I got my gear together to hike back to the formations for a few star trail photos.  Two hours in the 20 degree temperature yielded me three photographs.  Fortunately, I brought my binoculars and a pad to lay on to stargaze while waiting for the camera.  I think my star binoculars will always join me when shooting night shots.  When I eventually returned to the tent, I discovered that Scott was still awake and still very cold in his bag.  I gave him an extra jacket and settled in for sleep myself.  I was wearing an undershirt, a long sleeve shirt, a down jacket, another insulation jacket, fleece lined pants, and expedition thick dry hiking socks all inside the sleeping bag and while I was not cold, I was not really warm either.  Scott, on the other hand, was still very cold and did not get any sleep at all that night.  Lesson learned, always bring lots of extra jackets and clothing.  Oh, and don’t use summer sleeping bags during the winter.

The next morning I slept through sunrise and missed checking out the sunrise light on the formations.  It didn’t seem like much had happened though because the sky was crystal clear when I eventually stuck my head out of the tent.  We decided to not brave it out in the cold another night and hit up a hotel our second night.  Before packing up though, I spent a few hours exploring the southern half of the formations while Scott attempted to nap in the car.  The southern half is about twice as large in both area and the size of the features compared to the northern section.  I didn’t really have time to cover the whole area, but I got a good overview of what White Pocket has to offer.  At this point I gave up on getting any really epic shots of white pocket, and treated this visit like a scouting trip.  We then broke camp and took a different, but just as rugged (fun), dirt road route out of the area.

Since Scott had never been to the eastern side of Zion National Park, I decided to take him and shoot sunset up there.  The slick rock and dramatic canyons and faces of the eastern side of the park have always been my favorite. I still haven’t explored deeper inside this beautiful area, but it is surely worth a trip by itself.  The warm sunset light wraps around the textured mountains, while ridges with isolated trees catch the last glimpses of the day’s light. There are only sporadic turnouts, but this keeps the crowds down.  If you do take a turnout, exploring just a bit off the road by foot will quickly bring you back to the feeling of isolation you came to the park for in the first place.  We topped off a good sunset with dinner at the Zion Lodge and returned to the hotel where Scott’s car was parked for some warm beds.

Scott departed for home early the next morning, and after a bit more sleep I hit the road as well.  I had the entire day, so I decided to make a detour through Mojave National Preserve.  I entered the park from the north, and after a few minutes of driving I saw a dirt road that cut off the paved road up towards the hills.  Not knowing where it went, I decided to take a chance and go exploring.  The road took me up and through a very lush desert landscape with more vegetation than most people would expect in the middle of the desert.  There are many old mines throughout the park leaving us lots of great dirt roads from which to explore from.  After checking out a few areas on foot with my Macro lens, I headed along the continuation of the dirt road and eventually got to the main road.

While cruising along at a pretty slow speed on the bumpy road, I was surprised with a three second sighting of a Bobcat crossing the road ahead of my car.  Unfortunately, my gopro had stopped recording, but the sight will forever be imprinted in my mind.  The shape was very distinct, and I verified at the visitor center that it was indeed a Bobcat.  This was my first wild feline siting, and one I won’t soon forget.

On my way out of the park I decided to take another dirt road route which led up to another mine, this one large enough that it was fenced off for safety.  The continuation of the road turned into a maintenance road for a buried high pressure gas line.  This made for a unique road that did not follow the natural terrain contours, but which followed the perfectly straight line of the pipe up and over any obstacle.  The most fun section was a hill with a very steep slope (shown in the second to last photo).  While the photo doesn’t make it look too steep, I was struggling for grip for most of the climb up – even with my rear lockers on in first gear low.  I had a huge smile and a big feeling of relief when I crested the top. Definitely the largest and steepest slope I’ve attempted with the Xterra so far.

While I didn’t get the White Pocket photos I had originally envisioned, it was another great trip in my new truck.  I got a good sense of the area and what the roads are like heading out there. I also figured out a lot more of the packing and logistics for this kind of road trip and became much more comfortable driving in a variety of conditions.