White Pocket & Vermilion Cliffs Photo Suggestions

The White Pocket (Arizona) is a superb photographic destination about five miles due east of South Coyote Buttes (Cottonwood Trailhead). The White Pocket is part of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. It was "discovered" by photographers 15-20 years ago. The name White Pocket actually refers to two areas. On the topo map there is a tall butte about 500 feet high that can be seen from miles around. I'll refer to this butte as the White Pocket Monolith or Butte. Conversely, photographers use the term White Pocket to refer to the area of white and coral colored cauliflower (aka brain) rock to the east of the White Pocket Butte. This area has many water pockets which accounts for the name, and is the area of photographic interest. The area is small, perhaps a square mile. No permit is needed for the White Pocket, and cattle can roam freely as of July 2015, although they are mostly fenced out.


The White Pocket photographs well at both sunrise and sunset. At sunrise the best light is blocked in some parts of the White Pocket by cliffs to the east, although the White Pocket Monolith lights up beautifully at sunrise throughout the year. The White Pocket Monolith is a good panoramic subject when shot from the southern side of the White Pocket at dawn. If you shoot from the central area at sunrise your view of the monolith will be blocked by a small hill. When water is present shooting the monolith from the pools just south of The Swirl also works well. The cliffs to the east of the White Pocket also get very good color at sunset and are worth photographing. It is possible to climb the cliffs to the east, just head for the central area. There is no trail and there is some exposure but the climb is not difficult if you pick the right route. I thought the climb might lead to some interesting overview shots but didn't find anything worthwhile the one time I hiked this.

The White Pocket has an upper and lower level. The lower level is to the west, the upper to the east. The lower level is best shot mid-late afternoon and is in shadow at sunrise and for an hour or so thereafter. The lower level includes the formation I call The Swirl which is probably the most popular White Pocket subject. The Swirl is best shot late afternoon. Near the winter solstice it is nicely lit on both the SE and SW sides, during the rest of the year only the SW side is lit at sunset.

The upper level gets good light a bit after sunrise and at sunset. There are two trees on the upper level, the first tree is clearly visible to the left (south) of the end of the short trail into the White Pocket. The second tree is a bit southwest of the first and cannot be seen from the trail. This tree is in an open area and gets very good light in August at both sunrise and sunset. In early July the second tree is in shadow at sunset. At the far north end of the White Pocket there is an area with many moqui marbles in a very good setting. This area is an excellent late afternoon location.

You can shoot at the White Pocket well into the "Blue Hour" since it is only a half mile back to your car from almost anyplace in the area. The Blue Hour is the hour after the sun sets or before it rises. The best photos of the White Pocket are taken just a few minutes after sunrise or before sunset, or in the Blue Hour. If you go to the White Pocket you should car camp overnight rather than try to drive in or out in the dark. Going with a guide is a good option, if you do so get a tour that is at the White Pocket at sunrise or sunset. I have car camped at the White Pocket about ten times and occasionally had company. There are no toilets or potable water at the White Pocket. If you car camp you can get a bit more privacy if you avoid the main parking area and proceed to the alternate about .3 miles to the north. See the Directions tab.

The White Pocket is an excellent location for night photography. There is little ambient light except to the east which has some glow from Page. The first tree faces south and is good foreground for the Milky Way if you get a night with little wind. The S Curve (location below) is also good foreground for the Milky Way. The Swirl faces north so star trails work well. If you shoot at night make sure you mark the location of your car with a GPS. The White Pocket is trailless except for the short path going in.

  Latitude Longitude Rating Comments
The Monolith 36°57'23.9" N 111°54'26.3" W **** Best at sunrise, shoot a reflection from the water pools near the Swirl, or from the south end of the WP. Worth climbing from the north side. West side has some hoodoos.
The Swirl 36°57'34.6" N  111°53'50.4" W ***** Best an hour or two before sunset. Good foreground for star trails.
Moqui City 36°57'43.2" N 111°53'48.3" W ***** Best moqui marble site I know. Shoot using a wide angle from ground level. Best late afternoon in spring/summer or to sunset in Fall/Winter.
The Tree 36°57'18.2" N 111°53'51.3" W **** Ponderosa Pine surrounded by Brain Rock. Good at sunrise and sunset.
The Second Tree 36°57'15.8" N 111°53'52.2" W **** Good at sunrise and sunset most of the year. In May, June not lit at sunset.
The S Curve 36°57'29.5" N 111°53'49.8" W *** Good sunset location especially near the summer solstice. Good foreground for Milky Way shots.
Cattle Trail? 36° 57' 25.3" N 111° 53' 48.1" W *** Hard to believe these indentations were made by cow's repeated passage. Other theories - wild horses, and dinosaurs?
Petroglyphs 36°57'43.2" N 111°53'40.5" W ** And a cowboy glyph from 1937. Best in the afternoon.

After a rainfall there are many shallow pools in the lower area of The White Pocket. These can be used to frame reflections of either the White Pocket Monolith or the Swirl. There are deeper pockets in the upper area which yield reflections of the two trees. Just after a rainfall you may not be able to access The White Pocket as House Rock Road may be impassable. After very heavy rains you may even find quicksand on some of the roads into the White Pocket. Quicksand is rarely more than knee deep but if you drive into it you will not be able to get your car out without a winch or tow.

When the potholes are full of water you may find hundred of tadpoles and tadpole shrimp in them. In early August 2011 I found hundreds of tadpoles and tadpole shrimp in the pools at The White Pocket. Desert tadpoles grow into toads, not frogs. While both are amphibians toads live on land rather than in the water. Toads spend their adult lives finding shelter in vegetation, under rocks, and in abandoned burrows. After a heavy rain male toads find a water pocket and begin croaking to attract a mate. I have heard toads croaking at The Wave in mid April after a heavy rain. Toad croaks are very load and toads may croak for hours till they mate. After fertilization eggs take a bit over ten days to hatch into tadpoles. Tadpoles then spend the next 9-12 weeks transforming into toads so that they can survive on land. Not many make it, often the pool dries up before the tadpole can mature. Desert shrimp have a totally different life cycle since shrimp survive only in water. After sufficient rain (seen by the shrimp eggs as sufficient water pressure) shrimp eggs, which may have been dormant for years, hatch into shrimp. The shrimp have a very short lifespan, they live, reproduce, and die over a period of just a few weeks. Tadpole shrimp and tadpoles are good subjects for video, especially if you have a macro lens with you.

Moqui City  Water Pool During July and August you will usually find water at the White Pocket. While the smaller pools will dry up within a day or two of rain, the larger ones, such as those created by rancher dams, will keep their water through the whole period. Look for pools that are evenly lit. If you shoot ground level from the edge of the water the pool will look more like a lake than a pool. The pool in the image to the left was only a few inches deep and six feet wide!

Other Vermillion Cliffs Locations

Hole in The Rock Arch

When visiting The White Pocket you should also consider seeing Hole in the Rock arch which is a short drive away. Hole in the Rock arch gets very few visitors so if you go there make sure someone knows where you are going. Bring plenty of water should your car get stuck. Also bring a shovel as the roads are very sandy. Loaner shovels are often available at the Paria contact station from March to November. Hole in the rock arch is best photographed in the afternoon, and can be reached by climbing up the scree on the right side. Be careful, you are a long way from help.

Joe's Ranch

There is an abandoned ranch here and a large water pond marked "Joes Tank" on the 24K "The Big Knoll" topo map. "Joe" in the name refers to Joe Hamblin, son of Jacob Hamblin, a famous Mormon explorer. Jacob Lake, and Jacob Hamblin Arch in Coyote Gulch were named after Jacob. I visited Joe's Ranch in a reasonably dry period and there was plenty of water in the pond so I expect there is usually water present. East of the pool there is brain rock interspersed with small trees. Between the ranch, the brain rock, and the water there are some good photo ops. Mid afternoon to sunset works very well.

Pinnacle Valley

There is an old line shack and a windmill here that photogrpah well at sunrise and sunset, and a photogenic hoodoo.

Soap Creek Tanks

An area of multicolored brain rock high on the Vermilion Cliffs above Cliffdwellers Lodge on 89A. An excellent location at both sunrise and sunset.

The Cowboy Hat

A nice hoodoo with good leading lines to the north. Unfortunately the Cowboy Hat is in a small depression so it doesn't get great light at sunset. There are many moqui marbles in this area, please do not remove them. I'm not sure if the hoodoo gets good light at sunrise, I suspect not. I shot it 1-2 hours before sunset.


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