In the otherworldly White Pocket

A stunning geological feature located in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in northern Arizona, White Pocket, is almost as if Mars and Moon had a baby, writes Ashwin Rajagopalan
Last Updated 17 February 2024, 22:47 IST

It’s easy to imagine that you’re in a Star Trek set. I almost started looking out for spaceships and Mars rovers. The best way to describe White Pocket is ‘otherworldly’. Except Kieran, our guide for the day had a better description for this surreal spot — “It’s almost as if Mars and Moon had a baby.” You don’t need a spacecraft to land at White Pocket, located in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in the US. All you need is a 4WD (Four-wheel drive vehicle) to access this unique geographical spot that has been shaped over millions of years.

Little Hollywood

‘Greatest Earth on Show’. American towns and cities never miss the mark on clever marketing slogans. Kanab (three hours from Las Vegas and about seven hours from Los Angeles) used this line on their welcome signs to showcase this Southern Utah town’s unique location. It’s almost in the heart of the Grand Circle area with iconic tourist destinations like Zion National Park, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument all within easy access. Locals still call it Little Hollywood; Kanab and its surrounds were once a filming location for popular Western movies like Stagecoach and Mackenna’s Gold as well as long-running TV Series like Gunsmoke and The Lone Ranger.

The Little Hollywood Movie Museum in Kanab takes you back to a time when the town hosted Hollywood A-listers like Clint Eastwood. It’s a different type of action that has made Kanab a magnet for adrenaline seekers these days. 

Adrenaline high 

While it was White Pocket that brought me to Kanab, it wasn’t the first spot I visited. My Kanab adventure started in a Utility Task Vehicle (UTV ) that navigated sand dunes and rocky paths before taking me to two unique locations. My first thrill-a-minute drive with Roam Outdoor Adventures — it’s fun to get behind the wheel and kick up a sandstorm, brought me to the Great Chamber, easily one of the most photogenic spots in the American Southwest.

Even the UTV can’t navigate the last mile. You have to walk up a sandy incline — it’s almost a one step forward two steps back type of trail. But the gravity-defining walk is totally worth it.

Wide-angle mode

We reached the Great Chamber (aka Cutler Cove), a stunning dome-like rock formation that encapsulates a tall sand hill at around 3 pm, the perfect time for photography and for the brilliant shades of orange and tan to play out. The next stop was Peekaboo, a great example of a slot canyon. A slot canyon is a long, narrow channel or drainageway with rock walls that are usually eroded into either sandstone or other sedimentary rock. The light that filters through creates incredible images (that have been used as desktop wallpapers). Most locals and tour guides push you to use wide-angle mode for the best images at both these Instagram-friendly spots.

Otherworldly appeal

If there’s one reason I will come back to Kanab, it’s to relive one of the most magical days I’ve spent in the US. You need a whole day to visit White Pocket; I was tempted to hire an SUV and do a self-drive trip but I’m glad I didn’t do it on my first trip. It’s about 2.5 hours away from Kanab and the last part of the journey is through unmarked trails; it’s why a group tour with seasoned operators is a great option. The guides don’t just guide you to the most Instagrammed spots but also offer fascinating insights about how this landscape evolved. There are few places on planet Earth that can transport you to outer space. That’s what makes the multi colour patterns of white, yellow, red, orange and pink quite unique. There are mushroom-like protrusions, bulges that resemble a human brain and rock patterns in almost unimaginable shapes.

A geologist’s delight

Kieran is a geology expert in his own right and tells us about how geologists love visiting White Pocket. There are different theories that attempt to break down this unique landscape. This includes a theory that the area was liquefied in an ancient earthquake which distorted the sandstone layers while they were still soft, before they were buried under the oceans for 100 million years and turned to stone under the enormous heat and pressure.

Kieran tells us that White Pocket is comprised of Navajo sandstone that got its start as towering dunes back in the early Jurassic period. The dunes became saturated with groundwater as they combined with more and more sand. Over time, the groundwater minerals cemented the sand grains together, turning the dunes to stone. Most geologists concur that there was a big event, perhaps a major ground disturbance that caused layers of sediment to separate, fold and become sheared while the sand was saturated with water and before it had turned to stone. A process they call soft sediment deformation. I spent about four hours walking through White Pocket and its unique formations. It’s quite a compact location and given its slightly inaccessible location, it’s never too crowded. As I headed back to Kanab after an eventful day, I flipped through all the images and videos that I captured through the day. Almost none of those images captured the raw beauty of White Pocket. Even at a time when we chronicle our lives on social media, some things are best experienced up, close and personal.

(Published 17 February 2024, 22:47 IST)

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