Welcome to my article on Vermilion Cliffs! My name is Alex Hardgrave and I’m a full-time working mom from Texas. My wife and I have two boys – ages eight and five – as well as our brood of traveling cats. I grew up in Dallas, Texas with no history of camping or outdoor adventuring.
In 2016, our little family of four began traveling around the state trying to find hidden gems. The goal was to give our boys an opportunity to experience something outside of living in a city. Having no direction or experience of our own, we started with Texas State Parks. As we became more comfortable, we started venturing out more to other states.
Searching for “The Wave”, Arizona
A few years ago, we had the idea to do a trip through New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. I started researching places to visit and came across “The Wave”. I was completely captivated by the photos of these insane, bright colors and how extraterrestrial it looked. I had never seen anything like it.
I immediately started figuring out how to get there. I watched videos, read all the articles, looked up blogs and entered the online lottery. Needless to say, we didn’t win the lottery and the trip never came to fruition.
Fast forward to September, 2020. Our family had planned our first multi-week trip through New Mexico and up into Colorado, culminating in the Rocky Mountains. We made it as far as Angel Fire before getting early snow and ultimately deciding we needed to switch course. We set our sights on the Grand Canyon instead and began plotting our stops heading west.
We hit Albuquerque, Flagstaff, and Kanab over the next three weeks and started falling in love with the northern Arizona and southern Utah area. While we didn’t get the opportunity to visit Vermilion Cliffs on that trip, I knew we would be back and made sure it was on our list.
Fast forward again to March, 2021. I took a solo trip back through the same southwest states and set up camp in Kanab once again. Kanab was the perfect base due to its location. There is so much to do within a two hour radius and one of those things was Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.
I hadn’t heard of White Pocket prior to the trip but was immediately intrigued when I found out you didn’t need a permit and it had a lot of the same formations that The Wave did. I also knew that the park I was staying at had off-road vehicles I could take, which was going to be necessary.
Before I set out to White Pocket, I decided to make one last Hail Mary and enter the lottery for The Wave. Unfortunately, the rules had changed on how permits are drawn and the odds were not in my favor. I didn’t get the permit and even though I was bummed, I was still excited to get an opportunity to see something similar. White Pocket did not disappoint!
A Rollercoaster Journey to Arrive at White Pocket
My trip to White Pocket was a rollercoaster. While I would love to say that it was a straightforward day trip, that just wasn’t the case. I encountered nearly every problem imaginable while trying to get to White Pocket.
I got lost, I got stuck, I was told to turn around by a guide after nearly making it there, I got stuck again, I stayed too late at White Pocket and had to navigate the unreliable roads in darkness, and nearly ran out of fuel.
What should have been a four or five hour trip max turned into nearly 12 hours and I was alone in this foreign, unforgiving place. Even though I had every reason to throw in the towel, this place kept pulling me back in.
When I would get stuck and had the vehicle on three wheels trying to get myself unstuck with the recovery equipment I had onboard or when I had gotten so turned around that I was an hour from where I needed to be and still had no real idea of where I was going, I would be so distracted by the beautiful landscapes around me that I would continue pushing on.
All of those obstacles leading up to arriving at White Pocket made it so much more rewarding. I remember coming over the deep sand hill and getting a glimpse of the white cloud-like rock formations for the first time. I gasped! It was surreal to finally make it to this place that I had wanted to see for so long. I just sat down and looked around for a bit to take it all in.
White Pocket – My Highlight of Vermilion Cliffs
Vermilion Cliffs is vast and diverse. There are white rock formations, plateaus, deep sand, washboard trails, and of course, the Mars-like red rock formations. But I hesitate to say that it should be on everyone’s list.
It’s untamed and there are hundreds of miles of trails to get lost on. Vermilion Cliffs is not for the casual day hiker who likes an easy approach or someone who isn’t confident in their navigation skills. For those that are up for an adventure, and have the right equipment, the payoff is well worth it.
White Pocket was the highlight of my trip to Vermilion Cliffs, but if given the opportunity, I would have loved to explore The Wave. White Pocket is the lesser known version of The Wave and you don’t need a permit.
I was the only person there for a while until a couple came in as I was leaving. Having this magical place to myself was unexplainable. When you are walking around, you can hardly believe you are still on planet Earth. It’s like something out of a story book or satellite photos of Mars!
Top 3 Adventures at Vermilion Cliffs
Because the area surrounding Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona is so rugged, the options for taking adventures are quite limited. With that being said, a few of my top adventures/things to do would be:
- Hiking: There are plenty of options to go hiking at Vermilion Cliffs. With exception to the areas that are permit only, you can hike wherever.
- Off-Roading: Dirt bikes, side-by-sides, 4WD’s – this place is a Mecca.
- Bird Watching: At the south entrance there is a condor watching station and while I didn’t personally stop by, it would have been cool!
Where to Stay near Vermilion Cliffs
I recommend staying in Kanab, Utah while visiting Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. It’s close enough to make day trips to Vermilion Cliffs and has accommodation for everyone. If you have an RV or are a tent camper, you can’t find a better park than Dark Sky RV Campground.
If you prefer to stay in a nice hotel, there are several fantastic options to choose from in town. Although I didn’t look up Airbnbs for my trip, a quick search showed some really great and affordable options in town as well.
Best Places near Vermilion Cliffs
On the Arizona side, Horseshoe Bend or Lake Powell are stunning. If you go further into Arizona, obviously Grand Canyon National Park is a must see. Sedona and Petrified Forest National Park are also worth the drive.
There is honestly so much to explore in Arizona. I was surprised by how diverse the state is in terms of landscapes and what it has to offer. You have the Grand Canyon, the Coconino National Forest, Petrified Forest National Park, then the saguaros in Saguaro National Park that only grow in the Sonoran Desert, and cool historic locations like Tombstone in the south.
Need to Know Before you Go
First and foremost, make sure you have a capable 4WD and the right recovery equipment. You will want to be able to lower your tire pressure at certain points and will need not only a tire gauge but an air compressor to fill them back up. You will also want some recovery tracks and a shovel.
Make sure you not only download offline maps of how to get there, but also have a paper map. You should have a base understanding of navigation – like setting your odometer, using landmarks and knowing the direction.
Bring extra fuel and water, if you can. I carried three litres of water for myself and it wasn’t hot at all. In the hotter summer temperatures, you will want at least the recommended minimum per person for a full day of travel. If you have the ability to bring extra fuel, it’s a great piece of mind as the area is extremely large and there are no gas stations close at all.
Rent or purchase a satellite messenger/communicator. There is no signal out there and in the event you need help, your only options are try to find another human (unlikely as I saw a total of five people in a span of 12 hours) or send a message to someone who can help assist you. I have the Garmin inReach Mini and was able to let people know where I was (albeit a bit late).
Travel with a buddy. I didn’t take this advice and even though I was confident with my navigation skills, had base knowledge of how to drive on rough terrain and get unstuck if needed, and had a satellite communicator with SOS features, I was still in over my head. Having a buddy can help you keep your sanity, be a spotter for tricky driving and assist with navigation.