Cottonwood Cove, South Coyote Buttes. A chilly trip to say the least

Richard Charpentier Arizona, hiking, Notes from Rich, Off Road Adventures, Photographing Arizona, Photography 6 Comments


Giving a perspective on the size of the Cottonwood formations

Back from the UT / AZ border once again.  And the last time for this year I think.

Months ago I decided to get a few more permits for Coyote Buttes South.  After the initial visit I had realized that more time was needed to cover the area.  Paw Hole and Cottonwood deserve more time.  Trying to get everything in on one day’s permit just doesn’t cut it.  So, I rounded up some permits for right after my birthday.  What better way to celebrate your 38th birthday then a visit to an amazing place.

Of course, as the trip date closed in I watched the projected temperatures closely.  Looked like I’d be in for some cold weather this time around.  At least I was prepared.

On this trip Sadira came along.  Her first time in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument.  I can safely say she enjoyed herself as well, and that like me, she froze her tail off too!  Ah, fun in the high desert!

Our first night up we made camp, unloaded the truck, and got food cooking a little early.  Long ride from Prescott, hungry, and slightly chilled.  But nothing compared to what was to come.


No HDR, no edits. This was shot right around the corner from the first photo in the post.

By the time dinner was wrapped up the sun dropped behind a ridge.  5 p.m. maybe?  There was still light of course, just a high ridge casting a shadow on camp.  That’s all it took to let us know how chilly things were about to become.

With dinner wrapped up we both dashed into the tent.  Each of us had brought books along for evening reading, and IPods with favorite shows and cartoons (the cartoons were for me of course).  Between us we had warm winter sleeping bags, multiple bag liners, and even an extra down blanket that Sadira brought.  Surely that would do!

The interesting thing about temperatures dropping fast is trying to figure out what to do with yourself in the early evening!  The books were useless.  You have to sit up and out of your sleeping bag a bit.  That didn’t work at all!  Quickly we were each zipped up tight in our sleeping bags just to stay warm.  Early bed time?  You betcha!

As the temperatures continued to drop into the evening the openings in our mummy bags continued to get smaller.  Just eyes and a nose poking out of my bag.  And I’m happy to say, I was warm!  The big problem arises when you’ve “gotta go.”


Amazing and delicate fins in the first formation we visited!

Yeah, going to bed early to avoid the chilly weather is common in winter hiking.  What’s also common is the need to meet nature’s call when you’re all snug deep inside your sleeping bag and half awake.  Getting out of the bag is the first shock.  Putting on your jacket which is now super cold is the second shock.  Exiting the tent….oh yeah, shocker!  And finally, answering the “call” is the final and cruelest shock there is.

Now, when you return to the tent and rewarm your sleeping bag you’re wide awake!  Good luck going right back to sleep.

Around 5 a.m. we were both awake.  Heck, in the tent for 11 hours you really want to get going……but we didn’t want to immediately.  The sun still wasn’t up, our water was frozen, and the tent walls were covered with ice crystals from our breathing through the night.

I think it got pretty cold!

Like the last trip to White Pocket with Tom, I decided to fire up the truck, turn the heat on high, and start water boiling on the stove.  Sadira joined me in the warm truck quickly, and we set about planning the day.  Cottonwood Cove!


Don't touch the fins if you visit this place. Super delicate! Just look, don't touch....isn't that what mom always said?

Unfortunately, we didn’t make sunrise at Cottonwood Cove.  Instead, we drank hot decaf, stayed warm in the truck, and waited for the sun to perform it’s warming act.  Amazing how the temperature changes within 30 minutes of sunrise!

Our hike through the dunes from the Cottonwood parking area was pretty uneventful.  Annoying dune hiking, shoes full of sand, and a slow pace.  Yup, just like I remembered the last dune hiking I did.  Sadira found the hiking interesting as well, and we both wished for a rock path out to our destination.

For this trip we decided to visit the main section of Cottonwood.  There are 3 distinct areas, the largest being to the West of the parking location.  My last visit to Cottonwood I visited the smaller formations to the East.  And I still haven’t gone North to the large group of Teepees that call to you when you pull in.  Gotta get in “dune hiking” shape before I head out to those!

With approximately a .5 mile hike through the dunes we arrived at the main area in Cottonwood.  You can’t miss it when you pull in, and the first picture in this post documents our arrival.  The thing you don’t realize when you first park there is the extent of the formations hidden just behind what you’re seeing.  Cottonwood is not a small place.  It takes hours to take it in, and you still haven’t seen it all to be sure!


Decided to use Topaz Adjust on this shot for fun. Cottonwood is a vast formation!

We worked in a counter clockwise pattern around the formations at first, still sticking to dune hiking.  Ah, what I wouldn’t give for a White Pocket like experience where once you’re in the rocks, you’re in the rocks.  Even with the continued dune hiking we were having fun, and warming up at the same time!

We reached the Northern section of the formations in about 30 minutes.  Of course we both stopped often to take photos and say, “Oooooh……..ahhhhhh…….wow!”  The place would get anyone to do that you know!

Reaching what I thought was a pretty well defined northern border I decided it was time to find a safe way UP into the formations.  By safe, I don’t mean safe for me.  I mean safe footing where I didn’t harm any formations.  Amazing little fins were everywhere, and a big part of the visit here is to leave it the same for the next adventurers!  The old saying, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints,” does not apply well here.  In the dunes you can leave footprints, but don’t leave footprints on these delicate formations!


So many animal tracks in the sand!

Finding a reasonable way up I invited Sadira along.  She wasn’t too confident with the path I chose, it was pretty steep.  So I descended, and we looked for an alternate route.  Fortunately we found one pretty quickly and we were both rewarded with amazing views.  Cottonwood is much larger than you first think it is!

Looking northwest I saw a huge sea of slickrock.  I know somewhere out there is the infamous Wave formation of North Coyote Buttes.  Looking west and south there were hoodoos, brain rocks, and interesting red rocks in the distance.  Southeast more formations as well.  And back to the east the smaller formations near the truck.  Yeah, a couple of days in Cottonwood if you want to see it all!

We literally hiked for hours in Cottonwood.  Rock walking, dune walking, and a mix back and forth.  Amazing colors, amazing formations, and a quiet morning and afternoon.

One thing that blew me away was a section that reminded me of White Pocket.  The big difference though was the coloring.  In White Pocket you had lots of white rock bedding, and then the blending swirling colors beneath the “brain rocks.”  In Cottonwood you had similar “rock patios”, they weren’t white.  They were yellow, red, purple, magenta, and more.  Just amazing what a few miles distance implies for these formations!

In total, we remained in Cottonwood Cove from 8:30 a.m. to about 2:45 p.m.  A fantastic day, and in the end a little frustrating, but I’ll tell you more about that in another post.  I leave you with this thought though about the frustrating part.  There’s a formation called “The Control Tower.”  I had the GPS coordinates and everything!  And I could not find it.  I’m beginning to think it’s a Photoshopped fabrication…….

Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!  🙂


No edits, as shot.


This formation is absolutely not the Control Tower


Ok, even the small boulder is cut through by yellow and a purplish color that goes with the rest of the formation!!!


Minor lightroom adjustments on this one. Extremely cool formation!


A side trip into Wirepass as well? Say it ain't so!

Comments 6

  1. Post

    Thanks Jason. Sorry you couldn’t come along, but there will be a next time. I’ll tell you, at least you didn’t freeze! 🙂

    I’m really digging the striations and fins the more I look at them. Barely sorted shots yet. Had to get to the gallery to print for our upcoming show. Don’t think any of these images will make the show…..maybe next month. 🙂

  2. Brrrrr was right! The early bed time and the shockingly cold late night potty runs were something weren’t they? Winter camping is mighty different from summer camping. Of course in AZ, it seems to be extreme in one direction or the other no matter when you’re camping…at least the rest of the winter is going to seem pretty tame now.

    And for the record, the way you chose up into that rock formation wasn’t TOO steep, Sadira just happens to still be recovering from falling and hitting her then head multiple times in the last month and is working on regaining her own balance. ahem. I think this trip and all the hiking has helped move me towards some better footing though.

    It was a wonderful trip…some amazing and inspiring sights, and I can’t wait to go back!
    .-= sadira´s last blog ..Getting Away… =-.

  3. Post
  4. Pingback: The Airstream Chronicles Continued › I suppose it’s because I have something to share

Leave a Reply