An outdoor library: Colorado Plateau collection

Well, here’s a similar list. But books I’ve accumulated over the years, or recent additions in some cases, I am finding invaluable out here on The Colorado Plateau.  Some of the books are repeats from the previous list; others are additions.

In either case, these are books that are worth reading or using for reference.  And don’t want to buy the book at first? Don’t forget about one of my favorite pieces of gear: A library card!



First, the two books I’ve mentioned before, but with updated companion volumes:

 “The bible, huh?”
“Old Testament. The beginning of everything. When we thought we could make deserts bloom, and the water would always be there for us. When we thought we could move rivers and control water instead of it controlling us.”

Water is critical in the American West. And Cadillac Desert is an excellent book for understanding the nuances of this important, and vital, resource.

And if you are looking for a bit of an updated version of this book, consider reading  Where The Water Goes as an 21st-century addition to what Cadillac Desert covers if in a more shaggy dog storytelling style. 


If you want to read an outdoor person’s perspective of my generation answering this book? Read Cabal as a thought-provoking book that questions Abbey’s standing in our modern outdoor writer pantheon.


  • The shadow of John Wesley Powell looms large in the American West. His exploration of the Colorado River still boggles the mind 150 years later. But his views of the American West due to his expedition may be far more critical as a warning to heed in our hotter and drier times:

When all the rivers are used, when all the creeks in the ravines, when all the brooks, when all the springs are used, when all the reservoirs along the streams are used, when all the canyon waters are taken up, when all the artesian waters are taken up, when all the wells are sunk or dug that can be dug, there is still not sufficient water to irrigate all this arid region.  –John Wesley Powell, 1893. Speech to International Irrigation Congress in Los Angeles

And a book about this expedition and the formation of Powell’s ideas: Beyond the Hundredth Meridian by Wallace Stegner.   Not just a dry recitation of the facts, but also a look into the insights Powell had about the future of the West. Solid, unadorned, but engaging prose that ages well and will continue to have relevance in the years ahead.


  • I love Rock Images. Always peek into the past; a story told long ago that the amateur historian in me wants to interpret. Where did these symbols come from? Who made them? What do they mean?  I don’t think we’ll ever wholly have the answers.  But Indian Rock of the Southwest is still a  “go to” reference work even if written nearly 40 years ago. At less than $10 used, an invaluable work. And one I have behind me as I type this article. As the description states:

    This comprehensive view of carvings and paintings on stone by Native Americans from 200 B.C. through the nineteenth-century surveys the Rock Images of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, northern Mexico, and west Texas, providing an incomparable visual record of Southwest Indian culture, religion, and society.


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Rock Images in Moab … Moab is an area that saw both Fremont and Ancestral Pueblo cultures. A border zone. Not a set border as would think of it in today’s terms, but more of a cultural boundary that is a bit more nebulous. Sometimes you’ll find Fremont Rock Images; sometimes Pueblo. All within a few miles of each other. And you might even find Archaic period Rock Images millennia old…or more recent Ute drawings. … Today I went to the Owl Panel above Kane Creek. I’ve never seen an Owl petroglyph before. Well worth the easy scramble to get up there. In addition to the Owl, a “Big Man” is also present on the panel. And, much to my surprise, a Thunderbird! Long a symbol of the Southwest. And present on this panel. For comparison, I’ve included the Thunderbird emblem of the 45th Inf Division from WW2. Based out of Colorado, New Mexico, and OK. The division later picked up many people from the Northeast. Including my grandfather. … No surprise a panel is located here. The area itself is a major thoroughfare and has much Rock Images. And off this area are more canyons. Canyons with Rock Images of major archaeoastronomical importance. And the canyons themselves connect to another well-known panel on the other side. …. A perfect hike in between town errands and getting back to work. … #moab #utah #moabutah #hiking #rockart #petroglyphs #thunderbird

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  • All I knew, deep and safe, beyond mere intellect, that there is nothing like a wilderness journey for re-kindling the fires of life. Simplicity is part of it. Cutting the cackle. Transportation reduced to leg- or arm-power, eating irons to one spoon. Such simplicity, together with sweat and silence, amplify the rhythms of any long journey, especially through unknown, untattered territory. And in the end such a journey can restore an understanding of how insignificant you are – thereby set you free.   

Words from Colin Fletcher written at a crossroads in life. Comfortable and famous as an author, but realizing the years continue to march on. Time for one more wilderness journey. And then what?  “River” is a book I tend to re-read every few years. And reflect upon in different ways as I get older. In my twenties, I yearned for the adventurous spirit detailed in the book. While n my thirties I too wondered about needing something to get back to who I am. And in my 40s? Acceptance of who I am and (perhaps) finding the balance I’ve bee seeking for far too long.   More so than the seminal The Man Who Walked Through Time, I find River is a book that speaks to me more with each passing year.


  • The Ancestral Pueblo world continues to hold a fascination for me. A civilization of thousands of people with a trading network extending far into the North American continent. And something I did not learn about at all during my so-called education. The People of Chaco is a one-volume classic that covers this fascinating world and nearby. And does not discount oral tradition of the Chacoan descendants.  Fascinating!   


  • Water defines the desert. Too little water and crops fail, plants die, and societies collapse. Too much water? Floods happen, and destruction occurs. A narrow niche for thriving, or even surviving, in the desert, exists. “There are two easy ways to die in the desert: Thirst or drowning.”  Read The Secret Knowledge of Water for more eloquent thoughts on this subject.


  • “I’ll never stop wandering. And when the time comes to die, I’ll find the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is.”   Evert Ruess’ romanticism, travels and vanishing somewhere in the heart of Utah over eighty years ago still grabs hold of the public imagination. Finding Everett Ruess is an insightful, eloquent, and even-handed look at the mystique of Ruess.  The author explores the facts, the myth, and the controversies of this figure that still looms large in Utah lore.

  • Grand Obsession is a title that works on many levels. Harvey Butchart became the legendary master of the Grand Canyon; the first person to walk the length of the canyon as it existed at the time. But his obsession may have cost him any close relations outside of a small circle of fellow Grand Canyon acolytes. Balancing a need for outdoor adventure while maintaining a career, family, and friendships is not easy. The book poses some questions about if Harvey Burchart, and by extension other passionate outdoor aficionados, succeed in finding this balance.


This book collection is by no means complete, but it should give most people a place to start for their reading about The Colorado Plateau.

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Harvey Halpern
5 years ago

I’d add the following to your reading list:

Raven’s Exile by Ellen Meloy, All My Rivers are Gone by Katie Lee, Utah Place Names by Steve Allen, The Telling Distance by Bruce Berger, Images of a Lost World by Tad Nichols

Joan lind jarvis
Joan lind jarvis
5 years ago

Love the book recommendations. Just ordered two used copies of Indian Rocks: one for my son and one for me. Thanks.