Books and Maps for the Southwest

The following is a collection of books and maps that make up my “Library of the Southwest”. I wrote it for friends who might be traveling with me, and is meant as a fairly high-level overview for them to have as research and preparation.

I put Amazon links in the document itself, so you can click on them. With many of these you can get a Very Good or better used copy for pretty cheap. Many of them are good to check out from the library, too, of course, instead of or before buying.

Guide books

There are obviously many guidebooks that are useful, and having multiple sources is good since information is sometimes missing from one or the other. And sometimes the two contradict each other, so it’s useful to have a couple sources so you can triangulate to the what is probably more accurate.

All that being said, I already have several guidebooks, and you don’t really need to spend money on them unless you want to. I mention these below in case you want to read up on things and make a list of what sounds interesting to you.

Non-Technical Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, 7th Edition, Kelsey, Mike

This author is kinda crazy. He has apparently set foot on every square inch of the Colorado Plateau, multiple times. His books are packed full of information – literally packed. Narrow margins, massive paragraphs, and, uh, interesting writing style. Fairly necessary books to have for the region.


I have found these books to be fascinating, and understanding the geology – the overarching and in-your-face reason we’re going to Utah – helps me to appreciate and enjoy it more. These books often also have decent photography of the area, useful for saying “hey, I’d like to check that out on our trip!”

Carving Grand Canyon: Evidence, Theories, and Mystery, Second Edition, Ranney, Wayne

This is a pretty great book for understanding how the Grand Canyon was formed, including the most important bit of information: we don’t really know for sure how it formed, and much of what you were taught was probably at least slightly if not totally wrong.

Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau, Blakey, Ron, and Wayne Ranney

This book is neat because it tries to show what the land actually looked like at various points in history. When they say something like “this area was once below sea level and was covered by salt water” they show a “satellite view” of the region, with the oceans at that time and the current state borders superimposed. Really helps to understand the vast amount of time we’re talking about.

Anatomy of the Grand Canyon: Panoramas of the Canyon’s Geology, Hamblin, W. Kenneth

This is another good and very visual way to learn about the geology of the region.

There are several others that are slightly more hard-core geology, and I can list them if you want, but I have copies you are of course welcome to use while you’re here.


The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, Powell, John Wesley

Written by the man himself, Powell’s account of his trip down the Colorado River, with an intro from Wallace Stegner (more on him in a second). It’s neat to find the passage in his book corresponding to where we are – he started at the headwaters in Wyoming, and passed through all of Utah, so there are many opportunities to see the same territory he describes.

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, Stegner, Wallace

I thought that after reading Powell’s first-hand account of his trip down the Colorado that it was cool to step back and read this biography of Powell’s life more broadly.


In many cases these photography books also fall under “history” or “geology”, but the focus is more on photographs than information per se.

Revealing Territory: Photographs of the Southwest, Klett, Mark

Mark Klett was one of Kari’s professors – her main dude – and a friend of ours. He does landscape photography slightly differently! FYI, we’ll probably go to the place on the cover of the book!

Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan

This is one of several collection of photographs of the West made by some of the first photographers to every make photos out here.

I can mention some more if you’re interested. Some names to watch for: William Henry Jackson, Carlton Watkins, and of course Ansel Adams.

Canyons of Color: Utah’s Slickrock Wildlands, Nabhan, Paul, and Caroline Wilson

This is a great combination of photography and writing.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, Eagan, Timothy

This isn’t a photography book, really, but it’s about a photographer who spent a lot of time out here in the west.

General / Philosophy

These are good books to get a feel for the people, the land, how they interact. Terry Tempest Williams writes about that, and politics, often from and about her home base in Utah. Gary Nabhan is more of a southern Arizona / Sonoran desert guy, but the writing is a nice way to learn about people and plants and feel like you’re out there in it.

Desert Solitaire, Abbey, Edward

No bibliography of desert reading is complete without at least one Edward Abbey book. This one gives a fascinating description of the very early days of Arches National Park, including the nearly impossible sounding accounts of deserted roads and no visitors (these days they sometimes have to close the entrance because the park is completely full).

Gathering the Desert, Nabhan, Gary

Erosion: Essays of Undoing, Williams, Terry Tempest

This is a very new (2019) and relevant collection of essays about our public lands and the current politics surrounding their use and protection. I am mad because she stole the title of my current photographic project, and for exactly the same content. At least I was on to something!

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, Williams, Terry Tempest

Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, Williams, Terry Tempest

Haven’t actually read those two yet, but since they are Terry Tempest Williams, they are sure to be good. The paperback version of The Hour of Land has a Mark Klett photo on the cover!

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Diamond, Jared

This is a general book about ancient civilizations, and it’s a good / depressing book to read, but there is one chapter in particular about the American southwest that is useful to read for understanding man’s impact on the land.


There are a ton of maps, and I’m going to stay fairly high-level here. General principles:

  • I like to have some larger-scale “overview” maps, but…
  • Need to have very detailed maps for actual on-the-ground-navigation.
  • Good to have multiple maps of the same area, since they often differ on road numbers and other accuracy details.

Overview maps

At some point I decided that the Benchmark “gazette” style atlas was what I liked best. Other people like other brands, and Benchmark seems to be more for western states too.

Benchmark Utah

Benchmark Arizona

Detailed maps

For more detail it seems the National Geographic maps are pretty good and widely used.

In some cases there are BLM and National Forest Service maps that are really great.

Digital maps / GPS

There are other mapping apps that are more geared toward off-road use and work better than Google Maps, but cost money. Maybe they are amazing, but so far I’m happy with a combination of paper maps and my iPhone’s GPS and Google Maps.

Google Maps is always useful, just keep in mind that in many instances you need to plan ahead, since many of the most interesting areas don’t have cell coverage. Google Maps has an “offline maps” functionality that allows you to download some map data for offline use, so remember to do that at home before you leave.