Our early winter journey to the Arizona Strip takes us through Page, Arizona, and on to the northwest corner of the state via U.S. Route 89. The Strip is the region sandwiched between the Colorado River and the Utah state line.
Few secrets remain in the American West. We all have our stash of treasures, places we guard for personal solitude and the sensitive ones we guard for their protection. In 1986, a friend turned me on to his best kept secret on the promise I would never whisper of this place to another soul. I found Coyote Buttes North using his hand-drawn map.
I kept my word. Two decades later I casually mentioned to the ranger at the Paria Contact Station that I was going to spend the day in Coyote Buttes. “Oh no you’re not!” He plunked a binder thick with travel brochures from around the world onto his counter. My secret place is famous! It has even been given a name, The Wave, and the number of daily visitors is tightly regulated.
I have tried over and again to get a permit through the online lottery system to visit The Wave. It is hopeless. If you are as frustrated as I am, let me turn you on to hidden White Pocket. The landscape is similar to coveted Coyote Buttes North, but permits are not required. The price you pay is getting there on a remote, sandy, four-wheel-drive road.
White Pocket is a curious name. Perhaps it references the swath of sandstone bubbling out of the piñon-juniper and sage-blackbrush flats. Here one can wander at whim all day on ancient dunes. There is no defined route. Climb dunestone hummocks with characteristic polygonal cracks. Wildly contorted stony swirls are polychromatic: rust, apricot, ocher, butterscotch and tawny yellow. Walk ever so cautiously, careful not to step on paper thin, gravity defying rock fins. Allow curiosity to dictate your way in fanciful White Pocket.
A wide, sandy path bears west from the parking lot, elevation 5,670 feet. An informative placard explains that this region was once covered in shifting sand and complex dunes. Today’s cross-beds are solidified windblown deposits. It is less than 0.2 mile to the rock and there ends any notion of a trail.
The dominant elements at White Pocket are globular mounds of white Navajo Sandstone, the most prominent rock layer exposed by uplift and erosion on the Colorado Plateau. You are walking on exhumed desert sand dunes.
Enter the stony dunefield and explore the perplexing, intricate labyrinth. Weave here and there, propelled by wonderment. Cracks and fissures are produced by tensile stress and exposed by weathering. These features make scaling even steep pitches easy.
Frozen curlicues and whorls, cell patterns, fins, and cross-bedding are mesmerizing. The bizarre nonsensical pandemonium was formed before the sand became rock in a process called soft sediment deformation.
White Pocket is simply strange, strengthening its appeal. This area is a maze, so be sure to get lost. Every dead end yields a mind-altering vista.
The highpoint of White Pocket, what regulars call The Butte, is magnetic. Climbing the north slope is not for everyone. However, circumnavigating the escarpment yields even more mind-boggling features.
Follow the fence line west to the monolith. The barbed wire barrier is collapsed at the east wall.
Upon reaching the north slope, if you feel like doing some climbing, ascend the red cross-bedding using nature’s stone switchbacks. Friction up the grey sandstone pitch. There are plenty of climbing features; sticky shoes are helpful.
Pass by an unexpected and undisturbed live sand dune. Top out on the east-west running ridge of ocher towers. The drop on the south side is precipitous. The summit of The Butte is just out of reach beyond this breach. It may be possible to scoot around one of the towers and into the bowl to the south. Then scale what looks like an improbable pitch to the summit. It is very exposed.
We settle for circumnavigation. Descend the north slope and cut west through a weakness in the ridge. The landscape is dazzling. Walking south, simply follow the shifting, natural sidewalk. The west side is characterized by massive fins and row upon row of stone scallops.
The angular south end has butter-smooth vertical walls streaked with color. A Utah-blue sky holds the land in place.
There is a petroglyph panel at the northeast corner of White Pocket proper. Walk to the bluff located north of the trailhead. The panel is on the outside wall of a ground level alcove just before the fence line. Etched into desert varnish are bighorn sheep, deer with elaborate racks, small anthropomorphs, and sharpening grooves or counting slashes. Soot ceilings indicate this was a dwelling site.
Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango. http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com.