Desert Trip – Monument Valley, Page Arizona, and White Pocket
Colorado’s mud months in April/May are the perfect time to explore the desert. The weather is often ideal and it is nice to escape Colorado’s rainy May. Last year we went to Canyon Country down in Escalante. This year, we planned a trip through Arizona’s Northern Desert – Monument Valley over to Page Arizona and finally to White Pocket.
Monument Valley is a stunning region filled with massive rock monoliths and buttes in the Navajo Nation. Driving through Moab and downward to Monument Valley, we arrived in the later afternoon. Our campsite at the “View Campground” certainly lived up to its name with outstanding views of the famous mitten monoliths. Outside of the view, however, the campground was quite lacking – tent sites were in a crowded, exposed, sandy, and windy area. Katie cleaned our tent of ~1 inch of sand multiple times!
After setting camp, we drove around the valley floor for a few hours amongst the monoliths. While watching the sunset we cooked sheltered by the campground registration building (there is no cooking shelter to seek refuge from the blowing sand here). That evening I woke to briefly photograph the rising Milky Way in the East, then again for sunrise. Fortunately, we had had such an amazing view from our tent I didn’t have to go too far!
In the morning, we broke camp and went on the only hike in the valley – The Wildcat Trail. This trail was awesome and intertwined between the mittens. Blowing sand is less an issue since the trail is on the valley floor. As a plus, the tour bus passengers were nowhere to be found! After a quick lunch, we were off to Page.
Page Arizona is at the center of some amazing scenery – including, Lake Powell, Antelope Canyon, Paria Canyon, Vermillion Cliffs, and the famous Wave. I have been here a few times before and we went back to camp on Lone Rock Beach on the shore of Lake Powell. Arriving on a sandy beach in a windstorm doesn’t facilitate pitching a tent, particularly since we didn’t bring our stout, Patagonian Wind-proof, tent. In order to avoid a marriage-ending fight – we opted to sleep in the car (we’re still married and our tent isn’t broken!).
That evening we watched the sunset at Horseshoe Bend – which is a stunning view of the Colorado River making its way through a switchback flanked by 1000 foot tall cliffs. Several years ago, I was mostly alone at this wonderful vista – but tonight we were accompanied by ~800 other people and tour groups. Katie was almost harmed by a selfie attempt – as the “photographer” nearly stepped on her and our dogs! Needless to say, these aren’t the only crowds we’ll see in Page.
The next day, we had a reservation to tour the Antelope Canyons. Since they are on Navajo Nation land, you need a Navajo tour guide to enter the canyons (we used this company). Already anticipating a large crowd in the canyons, we were still blown away by the sheer number of people – as hundreds of tourists were packed into the slot canyon. Although photographically beautiful, it was an entirely unpleasant experience. On the “photo tour” they would clear the canyon room and throw sand in the light beams to accentuate them. We were lined up in 2 rows, the first on their knees, and the 2nd row photographing over them. The guides would then ‘offer’ us a countdown of how many seconds we had to photograph. Nonetheless, I am glad I was able to photograph the epic light beams – and mostly that I’ll never have to go back. Unfortunately, Lower Antelope Canyon was similarly crowded. 5 years ago I was the only one in the canyon and could wander without a guide – today it is just as crowded as Upper Antelope.
After reuniting with our dogs and a night of drinking beer lakeside to unwind, we awoke the next morning without plans. Since the weather had calmed and it was a warm and sunny day – we decided to rent a boat and tour around Lake Powell. The employees gave us a route and also said we could land onto a beach if we wanted. Lake Powell is a stunning lake with many beautiful side canyons and miles of undeveloped slick rock shoreline. Heeding the advice to picnic on a beach, we found an isolate stretch of sandy beach to land.
After enjoying our lunch and running around with our dogs a little, we returned to the boat to find it beached as well! We tried for a long time to get our boat free, but it proved unsuccessful. Fortunately, the rental company is used to this and sent out a tugboat to free us from the sand. Back at the Marina fuel dock, Jethro decided he’d had enough of boating and jumped for the dock. He mistimed his jump and landed in the oily water. Not adept at swimming, Katie jumped in to rescue him from under the dock (she’s a better dog parent than me, it’s true). We settled back to our comfortable Lone Rock Beach for one last evening.
Buckskin Gulch & White Pocket
We awoke excited to put the chaos and crowds of Page behind us. On the way to White Pocket, you pass the trailhead to Buckskin Gulch, which is the longest slot canyon in the world. Never to skip out on an epic day hike, we hiked from the Wire Pass trailhead for another 1.5 miles past the confluence with Buckskin. Our dogs loved exploring the canyon as much as we did – which at times narrows down to ~ 3 feet. After stretching our legs with a 6-mile hike, we were off to White Pocket. The road to White Pocket requires a 4×4 vehicle and it is helpful to air down the tires for better deep sand traction. We had no issues getting there safely, but did hear that a group of tourists got their rental AWD-SUV stuck the day prior.
White Pocket is a truly unique landscape made of petrified sand dunes. Words don’t really serve it justice, nor do pictures. Katie and I believe it to be one of the most interesting and weird places we’ve ever visited. Fortunately, due to its remote nature, it is still off the beaten path and not crowded – which after our time in Page was a breath of fresh air. Given the explosion of eco-tourism in the Utah/Arizona desert, it would not surprise me if White Pocket becomes more crowded and requires permits in the future.
We camped near the trail access to White Pocket and explored the area for sunset. Sunrise the following morning was spectacular as a weather system started moving in. Given the difficult access, we opted to relax during the day and leave after sunset for more photography – the benefits of a supportive wife!
This trip proved again that an escape to the desert is essential during Colorado’s mud months. We enjoyed our time visiting some iconic sites in Monument Valley and near Page, which were beautiful but much overcrowded. White Pocket is incredibly unique and offers isolation that we prefer. Overall, we had a great time but agreed that we much preferred the area around Escalante for ease of exploration away from tourists.
Monument Valley: You don’t really need more than a night here. Camping was convenient, but somewhat awkward. Dogs aren’t actually allowed in the campground but they made an exception for us, as it wasn’t posted anywhere online.
Page: We loved the Lone Rock campground. You don’t need 4WD here, just be cautious driving onto the dry sand. We had to dig out a French couple from sand drifts. Book antelope canyon tours well ahead of time, they fill up quickly!
Buckskin Gulch: There is a pay day permit available for hiking (overnight hikers need a lottery permit). We almost hiked in from the trailhead for “Buckskin Gulch” which is ~ 3 miles to the slot canyon. From Wire Pass trailhead, slot canyons are reached at 1.5 miles. As always, check the weather and DO NOT hike this if there is forecast for rain in the watershed. The choke we encountered was easy to downclimb, but it’s always a good idea to check up to date conditions of any canyon.
White Pocket: Definitely need 4WD here and a good understanding and equipment for getting out of sand drifts (luckily we didn’t need to use either of these!). There are no facilities here, so plan accordingly. Water can be found at the Paria Contact Station, where basic maps are also available. For driving directions, I used the directions here.