Back in 2014 during a visit to the Zion National Park Visitor Center, I opened up one of those fancy coffee table books with the slick pages touting the top scenic destinations in southern Utah. As I typically do, I thumbed through the pages mentally checking off those I’ve seen, while evaluating the “Wow factor” of those I haven’t. Most of the glossy, full page photos were of places I had heard of before, many within the National Parks as well as some outside of the park system, like The Wave. But then, I flipped to a full spread on a place I’d never heard of before….White Pocket. It looked like some cosmic ice cream truck driver was tripping through the Milky Way when his truck overturned, spilling out giant sized mounds of peach, raspberry, lemon gelato and vanilla soft serve ice cream on top of a field of vermilion sand dunes. I stared at that photo, thinking “I’ve got to get there somehow,” a destination that’s haunted me ever since.
But research revealed getting there is easier said than done. The “features” (and I use plural, because there are many) are located down a long, difficult road that requires not only 4WD, but also high clearance. I felt pretty confident in the Tracker’s 4WD capabilities, but as for high clearance, well, “high” is relative. There’s a reason why I call it the “Little Tracker.”
The first fifteen miles of the twenty-five mile drive are just typical rough, pot-holed, wash-board gravel roads. But oh….that last ten miles! Deep, loose sand with ruts that eat Trackers for breakfast. Couple that with the fact that I hate any kind of driving where I feel like I’m not in complete control, or I can’t slow down, pull over, or easily turn around. In short, visiting White Pocket would translate to “white knuckles.”
Last spring, fellow blog friends Pam and John, Gaelyn and Bill made this trip with no problems. But they have a high clearance Jeep. Pam sent me wonderfully detailed directions, including visual landmarks…things like “You will eventually come to a ranch area. It looks a place the cowboys stay during the season. Go straight through the middle.” These types of directions are extremely helpful, otherwise who drives through the middle of someone’s ranch?? I ask Gaelyn’s opinion. Her friend Bill lives nearby and has lots of experience with these backcountry roads. She says “the roads are never good, but you’ll be fine.”
Like Kanarraville Falls, I’ve tried for two years now to drum up interest among companions with no success. It’s too far from the “main camp” near Zion for a day trip, and no one else seems to share my affection for tent camping these days. Seems like once most people take up the RVing lifestyle, they go soft. 😉 So this will be yet another instance of “Going it Alone.”
This calls for a whole new level of “preparedness.” I already carry some safety gear in the Tracker such as a tow strap, battery cables and some extra fluids, but I will need to step it up a notch for fear of getting “stuck.” If I have a phobia, it’s getting stuck. Such a metaphor for life… I add to my arsenal with a shopping spree at Walmart; a shovel and some floor mats for traction. Throw in my Mr. Buddy heater, an extra green propane cylinder along with my camping gear. I load up all my Lynx leveling blocks and add a 5 gallon container of water to wet down the sand, a tip I got from a Ranger at Lee’s Ferry who used to work at Great Sand Dunes NP, and I am set to go.
White Pocket is located in the northernmost part of Arizona, near the state line with Utah. There are two entrances to reach House Rock Valley Road, the first gravel road you take to reach the turn off onto the unmarked Pine Tree Road toward White Pocket. One can come from the north off Highway 89 near Kanab, or from the southern route, Highway 89A near Marble Canyon. Since it’s a much further, rougher road from the north, I decide to base myself at Lee’s Ferry in Marble Canyon (thanks to some excellent advice from hiker buddy Chris.) I’ll leave the Winnie parked there in the campground while I attempt the 4WD road.
I take my time packing my camping gear. I tell myself “no need to rush, with no cell signal, it’s going to be a loooong night.” But truth be told, I am procrastinating due to a bit of apprehension. I go over my list several times, have one last conversation with the Lee’s Ferry Ranger, and then it’s time…
The first fifteen miles have me feeling good. I have my Hawaiian Hula cassette playing in the Tracker, which always calms my nerves. I am finding all the landmarks that Pam has described, and my confidence is high. But then I come to the final ten miles. I pull over to engage the 4WD and lock in my front hubs at the first sign of soft sand. But once it gets started, there is no stopping for ten grueling miles. I can feel the rear of the Tracker dragging bottom in the sand, so I have to drive like a bat out of hell to maintain momentum…the very contrary thing my mind tells me to do. “Slow down! Slow DOWN!! SLOW THE F*#$ DOWN!!!” But no, I have to speed up in order to maintain a steady speed, or I’ll be stuck there forever.
The road has a lot of big rocks and curves, so it’s like driving an obstacle course…careening through the sand, banking curves, dodging cedar trees. Just about the time I decide I don’t have the guts for it, and begin looking for a place to safely turn around, I meet a man coming in a truck camper from the opposite direction. It’s the first time I have slowed down in miles, but I have no choice, as it’s all “single track.” My hands are visibly shaking. I tell him I am giving up and turning around. He asks, “Why would you want to do that? It doesn’t get any better, but it doesn’t get any worse. You may as well keep going!” So I did…
There’s only one other car in the parking lot when I arrive…a group of Asians. Only one of them speaks English. I ask if they weren’t scared driving that road. He says, “No, I have five people to push!” Good point.
It’s a beautiful evening with an incredible sunset, the sun dropping low in the sky under wispy cloud cover. By time I pitch my tent, the Asians have left and two older men with a car load of camera equipment have arrived. We are the only two tents in the area. There is a late-rising thumbnail moon, and the stars are more brilliant than I remember ever seeing. I try taking some photos using the Tracker as a tripod, but once again my nighttime point and shoot photography falls short.
Unfortunately, I awake to cloudy skies the next morning. Rain is in the forecast for the following day, but today was supposed to be “partly cloudy.” They should have dropped the “partly.” But the three of us head into the site in hopes that conditions improve. With only one other tent in the area belonging to the two photographers, I am surprised to see the Asians come marching in single file, all wearing bright red rain jackets and carrying large tripods over their shoulder. They have spent the night further down the road.
The cloud cover thickens, and the Asian says it’s going to rain. I say no, the forecast says not until tomorrow. His red raincoat proves to be a wise choice.
I had planned to spend a good part of the day exploring further, but it suddenly occurs to me that the heavy cloud cover and beginning drizzle might discourage other tourists. Heavier rain is predicted for tomorrow. I don’t want to be the last car at the end of the road, in case I get stuck with no one behind me!
The drive out is just as harrowing as the drive in. I planned to attempt some photographs of the crazy road on the way out, but that is out of the question. I never slow down all the way out. With only two cars behind me, there is no time to lose.
I arrive back to the Winnie without incident by around 2:00pm. I don’t typically drink so early in the afternoon, but I toss back a couple of glasses of “relief” while watching the rain clouds roll in from across the canyon…
(Note: A special thanks to Pam and Gaelyn, and an added shout out to Adam and Jenny at YourHikeGuide who sent me a map of the area in pdf format. Your words of encouragement were greatly appreciated!)