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A ten-day photo trip to White Pocket and Bryce Canyon in November 2015 rekindled my interest in photographing the spectacular landscapes of southern Utah and northern Arizona. As I write this, I have been living in my travel trailer while photographing numerous iconic landscape hotspots along the Utah/Arizona border. I was based in the small desert community of Kanab, Utah for about three weeks. From Kanab, I took short overnight photo trips where I camped out on location to photograph numerous scenic areas within two-hundred miles of Kanab.
Surely everyone knows the famous “Wave.” It is on the bucket list of every landscape photographer I know, and for good reason. It truly is spectacular and you see many published images of it to prove that point! Every morning at 9 am, a lottery is held at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah. Permits are issued to ten lucky participants that allow them to visit the “Wave” the next day. While I frequently was not available in the morning to participate in the drawing because I was photographing somewhere else at dawn, whenever I was in Kanab at 9 am, I always participated in the draw. Unfortunately, during March, you can expect fifty or more parties to be in the draw and one party might be as many as six people. They don’t issue permits to ten parties, but rather to a total of only ten people. Another ten people received their permit to visit North Coyote Buttes online a few months earlier. Having little luck in lotteries during my life, I failed to draw time and time again.
Indeed, the only lottery I ever won was the one I did not want to win – the Viet Nam draft – where I was picked lucky #11.
Although I failed to be selected for a permit to the Wave day after day, all was not lost. In the North Coyote Buttes area lies two more wonderful places to photograph – White Pocket and South Coyote Buttes. The Wave is located about 30 miles from Kanab in a wilderness area called North Coyote Buttes. White Pocket is a much smaller area a little south and east of the Wave. White Pocket does not require a permit which allows unlimited visitation. South Coyote Buttes does require a permit and the drawing for it takes place at 10 am in the same office where the Wave drawing is done. Fortunately, during March, nearly everyone who fails to draw a permit for the Wave goes someplace else. On most days, ten or fewer people tried to obtain a permit to South Coyote Buttes, so no lottery was held and everyone got a permit.
In fact, often I could buy a leftover $5 permit for the day of the drawing and then pay another $5 for my next day at South Coyote Buttes to get a lot more time photographing and exploring the area. I drove to the Cottonwood parking lot on the southeast side of South Coyote Buttes to spend the afternoon photographing there. Then I drove down the sandy lane a mile or two where it is legal to camp. Well before sunrise, I picked up the tent and drove back to the parking lot and hiked into South Coyote Buttes in the dark to be ready for the first golden rays of sunshine. I spent the entire day exploring South Coyote Buttes and photographing when the light was superb. During the middle of the day, I explored to find new subjects that I could return to when the light improved later in the day. And since White Pocket is only a couple of miles from the Cottonwood campground at South Coyote Buttes, I spent the following full day at White Pocket.
Because it does take about two hours to drive to South Coyote Buttes or White Pocket, I maximized my time by spending a night camping on BLM land near South Coyote Buttes and the next night camping out in the parking lot at White Pocket. By camping nearby, it is easy to photograph both areas at dawn and it also allowed me to do some night photography. I spent about five full days photographing South Coyote Buttes and another five at White Pocket. Altogether, North and South Coyote Buttes and White Pocket form a nice triangle that is loaded with spectacular eroded rocks in all hues of red, orange, and yellow.
As I explored the areas, often I turned a corner and was spellbound by some fantastically colorful and magnificently eroded rocks.
North and South Coyote Buttes and White Pocket are all world class photo destinations for landscape photographers. All three offer exquisite and unique opportunities for making fine landscape images. Here is what I learned about each place.
Time to Visit
All three places are remote. You must be prepared for the unexpected and cannot rely on help. Cell phones don’t work here, but GPS devices are helpful. I know of four people who have died hiking to the Wave. One fell off a cliff while hiking at night and three died from heat related problems. Hot temperatures over eighty degrees must be considered carefully for your own safety. Therefore, to reduce the risk, I think the best time to photograph and really enjoy these areas is between October and April when highs are typically below 75 degrees. While I was there in March and also November, I enjoyed wonderful hiking temperatures in the high fifties and low sixties. Avoiding hot summer temperatures is a wise and safe choice.
No matter what the temperature, always take plenty of water. Should something unfortunate happen, most of us can afford to miss a few meals, but water is a necessity. I always had a liter of water on me while hiking and a couple more gallons in the car. For both South Coyote Buttes and White Pocket, you are nearly always within two miles of the vehicle, so it is easy enough to return to replenish the water bottle. The Wave is more than three miles from the car, so you must carry more water.
All three areas require driving many miles on rough dirt roads. White Pocket and South Coyote Buttes also require navigating dirt lanes with deep sand in spots. Any vehicle can make it to the Wave trailhead, as long as the road isn’t muddy which makes it impassable. A 4WD vehicle with high clearance is highly recommended, though. In my case, I have a 4WD GMC Silverado pickup truck which performed beautifully. All of the guidebooks I read to learn about driving to White Pocket and South Coyote Buttes stressed the treacherous access roads. At first, I was nervous to drive my truck into White Pocket, but I found the warnings to be overdone (probably a good idea to make things sound worse than they actually are) and the track wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. Of course, I have plenty of experience driving on horrible backcountry roads. When entering a sandy segment, I give the truck extra gas to keep it moving. As I approach a rocky spot where a sharp stone might puncture a tire, I quickly slowed down to reduce the risk. By the way, sandy roads are easier to drive when the sand has been packed down with rain.
Drought makes the sandy tracks far softer so the potential for getting stuck is greater.
Before going to any of these sites, be certain to pick up the free detailed map from the office where the lotteries are conducted before driving to them. The staffers at the visitor center recommend that you drive East of Kanab, turn right on House Rock Valley Road, and follow it south to reach the trailhead parking lot for North Coyote Buttes or the dirt lane (1017) that leads you to White Pocket and South Coyote Buttes. The northern portion of House Rock Valley Road is incredibly rough, but it does make since to use it for the North Coyote Buttes trailhead that is only about eight miles from HWY 89. However, for both South Coyote Buttes and White Pocket, it is far better to head south out of Kanab on HWY 89A, enter House Rock Valley Road on the south end and drive north. It is longer in total miles, but a much easier drive on smoother roads.
To Reach White Pocket
Drive north on House Rock Valley Road after leaving HWY 89A. Drive past the California Condor viewing site on the right and look for an old corral several miles after the viewing site on the left side of the dirt road. BLM dirt road 1017 is right across from the corral on the east side of House Rock Valley road. This road is in quite good shape, but don’t expect adjoining BLM roads to be so good—they aren’t. All of the side roads are worse and some are dreadful, so don’t make a wrong turn! Drive east on 1017, pass 1066, and look for 1087. Make the left turn, drive around another corral and follow it north. Pass 1088 on
the right and look for 1086. Follow that a few more miles north until you reach the parking lot at White Pocket. From the parking lot, it is only a ten-minute hike on soft sand into the rocky site where incredible images abound.
To reach the Cottonwood Parking Lot at South Coyote Buttes
Head east on 1017 like you did for White Pocket, but this time turn sooner by making a left on 1066. Follow that to 1081, and finally follow 1082 all the way to the Cottonwood parking lot. Follow the signs carefully in all cases and the map you got at the BLM office in Kanab. Unfortunately, there are a few other lanes in the area with sand traps waiting to suck in (literally) the unwary. Be sure to avoid driving on them! As long as I stayed on the recommended route and didn’t attempt any shortcuts, I never had any trouble at all driving the dirt lanes. I did take a shortcut between White Pocket and South Coyote Buttes once, and made it! But after that experience, I always took the longer route. Though I never used it, I did have a shovel in my car in case sand needed to be moved.
I did not go to another separate area of South Coyote Buttes called Paw Hole. I will on my next visit, but I hear it isn’t as good as the Cottonwood area. Apparently, it is easy to drive in to Paw Hole on 1079, but the track after Paw Hole that connects to 1081 is treacherous and not recommended because it requires driving uphill in really deep sand! The combination of uphill and deep sand should be avoided!
General Photo Strategies that work Everywhere
Since few animals and almost no flowers are present from November through early April, I never carried long lenses or a macro lens while photographing. The three Canon lenses I used include a 16-35mm f/2.8, 24-105mm f/4, and a 70-200mm f/4. Low light early and late in the day and the night sky all require a good tripod. I used a Gitzo 1325 with a Kirk BH-1 ballhead. My two cameras both have L-plates on them to attach them easily to the tripod either with a horizontal or vertical orientation. I used Canon 5D Mark III and 1DX bodies because both have full-size sensors with low noise for night shooting. Polarizers on my lenses were sometimes needed to reduce glare, or more often, darken a blue sky. I use flash a lot, so I did have four Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites when I needed them to light up large objects or objects far away. Most folks could get by with one Speedlite. To bring out the colors in the red rocks with flash, I prefer to color the light emitted by the Speedlites with a set of Honl CTO filters that are stored in a Honl carrying case. I attach the gel filter to the Speedlite flash head with the Honl Velcro Speedstrap and prefer the ½ CTO most of the time.
Shoot at dawn and dusk when the sun is low in the sky and the light is wonderfully golden continues to be superb advice, even though less colorful midday sunshine can be made more golden with software.
During midday, shooting patterns that are completely in the shade is productive. Focus stacking is widely regarded as a macro technique, but it works perfectly for landscape images too. Shooting a landscape where the foreground is only two feet away and the background is at infinity is simply impossible to get everything sharp unless focus stacking is employed. Stopping down the lens to f/22 doesn’t cover the depth and the overall image sharpness diminishes due to the negative effects of diffraction at such a small aperture size. Instead, use f/8 and manually focus on the closest spot where sharp focus is desired. Then manually turn the focus ring to make the lens focus a little further away and shoot another image. What increment do I use between shots in a focus stack? I manually change the focus on the lens using the tiniest increment that I can manually set. If I am focused only two feet from the foreground, but wish to get everything sharp all the way to infinity, then I may have to shoot twenty shots, changing the focus a little in each image. Conversely, if the closest spot needing sharp focus is already near infinity, then only two to five images are needed. Continue doing this until the spot furthest away is finally in sharp focus and shoot the final image. Be sure to photograph your hand before the start of the stack and after the final image to identify precisely where the stack begins and ends. Run the stack through Helicon Focus, Zerene Stacker, or Photoshop to combine all of the sharp portions within each image in the stack. I shot hundreds of sets of focus stacked shots. It works really well for landscape images and should be a regular part of your photo tactics. And shooting so many sets of stacked images doesn’t
have to be confusing if you mark the beginning and end of the stack series by photographing your hand.
Then I load each individual stack of images into their own folder. For example, at White Pocket, I shot 39 focus stacked sets of images. Each is put into its own folder…..WP#1, WP#2, WP#3 and so on.
On dark nights, both South Coyote Buttes and White Pocket offer starry night opportunities. During the day, look for attractive rock outcroppings or gnarled trees that isolate nicely against the sky. At night, set the exposure to ISO 3200, f/2.8, focus on a flashlight illuminated foreground, and use twenty seconds or so to expose the stars. During this long exposure time, it is a simple matter to use flash or a flashlight to paint the foreground with light.
Let’s discuss individual opportunities for each segment of the Golden Triangle!
his relatively small area can be fully explored in a few hours if you aren’t stopping for images. The rock formations at White Pocket are off white in color, but the underlying rocks that emerge throughout the area are wonderfully orange or red. Many features here look like orange cupcakes dripping with white frosting. The patterns created by erosion over millions of years are remarkable. Many pockets are found in the landscape that were created by water slowly dissolving the stone. And these pockets fill with water after a hard rain, providing gorgeous reflections of the enchanting landscape. Of course, White Pocket doesn’t get a lot of rain, so often the pockets are dry. During my March trip, there were no opportunity for reflections. During November, there were plenty of pools of water for reflections and I used them whenever I could. October is the wettest month in this part of northern Arizona, so an excellent time to visit White Pocket is immediately after a heavy rainfall. Though I have not experienced it, snow on red rocks such as those in North and South Coyote buttes is spectacular, but that isn’t the case at White Pocket since so much of the rock is white already.
You really can’t get lost at White Pocket. A few high distinctive cliffs near White Pocket make it easy to know where your car is parked. The circular area is surrounded by a sea of sandy soil. If you stay on the rocky outcrop, there is no way to leave the area and get lost. However, I did explore some photogenic colorful isolated rock formations to the west out in the sandy areas. Also, a huge nearby rocky outcrop to the northwest is excellent in dawn sunshine. I explored this spot one afternoon and discovered some splendid eroded hoodoos on the opposite side. White Pocket offers captivating erosion patterns that are perfect for focus stacking techniques.
North Coyote Buttes
This is the home of the world renown Wave. Keep in mind the Wave is merely one small feature found in the rather large area. There are plenty of other subjects to photograph besides the Wave, but the Wave is certainly impressive. The Wave itself is shaded until late morning. I found 10am to be an excellent time to photograph it. As you arrive at the Wave, keep in mind there is a second Wave about 300 yards to the west of the main Wave that most visitors miss. Be sure to find it and photograph this as well. The second wave photographs best in late afternoon just before the sun sinks below the mountains on the western horizon.
As you know, getting permits to see the wave is difficult. I tried the draw about 15 times in person (there is another drawing online for ten slots as well) before finally getting a pick on April 1. I dropped my book when my number was called and wondered out loud if this might be an April’s Fool joke. So I had my chance and made the most of it. I hiked the three miles in at first light and stayed until the sun set behind some mountains. I knew when that happened, I had about 1 hour and 15 minutes to hike out before needing a flashlight and GPS to guide me. The wave is truly fabulous and focus stacking works well for capturing incredible patterns. I wish I had some clouds to work with, or best of all, some pools of water for reflections of the Wave, but I only had blue skies all day long, though still a fabulous place to photograph.
Many are afraid of hiking to the Wave for fear of getting lost. It is really rather easy as long as there is daylight. When you get your permit, you also get a photo map that leads you to the Wave and back.
Simply follow the pictures and the suggested route drawn in the images. It really is quite easy as long as you don’t wander far from the trail!
South Coyote Buttes
The Wave at North Coyote Buttes gets all of the attention and greatly overshadows South Coyote Buttes. For most, South Coyote Buttes is considered a poor door prize and few take advantage of it. Because I did so poorly in the lottery, I spent several days there. While the Wave and the second Wave are spectacular, the rest of North Coyote Buttes pales in comparison to South Coyote Buttes. Overall, the colors are more spectacular, the eroded rock formations more bizarre, and the lack of other hikers makes it even more remote. And much of the best scenery is only about .75 miles from the parking lot.
Distinctive rock outcroppings make it easier to keep track of where you are, but I did carry a Garmin GPSMap64s to avoid getting lost and marked the Cottonwood parking lot as a waypoint so I could find my truck. South Coyote Buttes offers tremendous opportunity for spectacular images and will test your vision and compositional skills. I found it difficult to explore the first couple of times I visited because I stopped to shoot so many images that I could not get anywhere. What a problem to have! Be sure to find Weird Rock (a.k.a The Control Tower) at N36° 57.803’ W111° 59.360’. This incredibly sculpted rock graces many a front cover to guidebooks of the area and photographs handsomely in the golden light of sunset or against the starry night sky. Just to the north of Weird Rock lies Cottonwood Wash. Hike up this usually dry drainage all the way to the end. In the late afternoon, many nice shots of the cliffs and nearby sculpted rocks are available. To the north, you’ll see a couple sets of conical colorful hills called the Teepees. They are farther than they look, but make outstanding images early and late in the day. From a high point, look to the East, and you’ll see a massive rock hill two miles away. That is White Pocket!
You can hike to White Pocket in about one hour across the sandy soil, or drive to it using a circuitous road network that takes 1.5 hours! How many places do you know that are quicker to walk to than to drive to?
Enjoy the golden triangle! Use Kanab for a base, try for the lottery to the Wave at 9am, if unsuccessful, then go for the South Coyote Buttes drawing at 10am. If that doesn’t work, go to White Pocket, the Toadstools, Stud Horse Point hoodoos, slot canyons at Page or Horseshoe Bend, Bryce Canyon, Zebra or Peek-a-boo slot canyons at Escalante, or the Wahweap Hoodoos near Big Water. There is plenty to keep you busy.
If you don’t have the skills or vehicle to get you safely into and out of White Pocket or South Coyote Buttes, plenty of guides are available in Kanab to help you out. I met Will James who owns www.dreamlandtours.net while getting my permit for South Coyote Buttes. He is a fine fellow who offers overnight camping trips to White Pocket. If you only take a day trip, you won’t be at White Pocket at dawn or dusk when it photographs the best. Arizona Highways Photo Tours (www.ahpw.org) offers in- depth photo workshops at White Pocket, so that is another excellent option. Also, if you score a permit for either North or South Coyote buttes, you can also hire a guide. For both North and South Coyote Buttes, you must get the permit first. Then you can hire a guide to join you.
Have a splendid time enjoying the fabulous landscape photo opportunities offered by the Golden Triangle and other incredibly superb photo places nearby! I spent eight weeks intensively photographing here and still have much more to do.