Desert Reading

Recommended Desert Reading List

Compiled by member Karen Rusiniak, updated October, 2010 and by Nick Blake July 2019 and February 2021.

Top Picks: Desert Survivors Board

Abbey, Edward - Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
Baldwin, Bruce - The Jepson Desert Manual: Vascular Plants of Southeastern California
Ingram, Stephen - Cacti, Agaves, and Yuccas of California and Nevada
Pavlik, Bruce - The California Deserts: An Ecological Rediscovery


Desert Classics

Abbey, Edward - Beyond the Wall. A fine description of 10 early hikes and float trips Abbey made mostly in the high deserts of the American Southwest. In "A Walk in the Desert Hills" Abbey tells of a solo hike across more than 100 miles with only his backpack. He shows the hidden beauty of slot canyons, how the Colorado looked beneath the flooded Glen Canyon before the dam and shares his discovery of petroglyphs and pictographs. Holt, Rinehart & Winston 1984. 

Abbey, Edward - Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. Ed’s beloved masterpiece that inspired a generation of wilderness defenders and brought conservation campaigns to the desert. A great book on the value of the desert. McGraw-Hill 1968.

Austin, Mary - The Land of Little Rain (1903). A classic collection of meditations on the desert that has been in print for over 100 years so you know it has to be good. Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1974.

Nabhan, Gary Paul - The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in Papago Indian Country A contemporary classic of environmental literature by an ethnobotanist who has lived with the Tohono O'odham of Arizona, long known as the Papagos, observing the delicate balance between these people and their environment. Bringing O'odham voices to the page at every turn, he writes elegantly of how they husband precious scant water supplies, grow crops, and utilize wild edible foods. University of Arizona Press.

Perkins, Edna Brush - The White Heart of the Mojave (1922) In 1920 Edna Brush Perkins set out with her friend, Charlotte Hannahs Jordan, on a journey into the Mojave. The Mojave at that time was considered to be a desolate, inaccessible region––part of the fading American frontier. Perkins’ describes the landscape and the people she encounters. This is ultimately the story of two women who enter Death Valley as a sort of middle-aged lark and emerge from the trip profoundly changed.

Van Dyke, John C. - The Desert (1901) In 1898 the author, an art historian suffering from asthma, took off, mostly alone, into the Colorado and Sonoran Deserts for three years. This profound book is valuable not only for its meditations on the desert but as an early warning against modernism. Peregrine Smith Inc, 1991.


Desert Natural History

Bakker, Elna S. - An Island Called California: An Ecological Introduction to Its Natural Communities, Bakker's survey of the ecosystems of California is lyrical, lively, and full of ecological anecdotes and now includes 3 chapters on the southern part of the state. Second edition, Revised and Expanded, University of California Press, 1985.

Baldwin, Bruce, et al. - The Jepson Desert Manual: Vascular Plants of Southeastern California, The definitive field guide must-have for the avid desert taxonomist familiar with botanical jargon. 128 color photographs and more than 1,000 line drawings. paperback University of California Press, 2002.

Bowers, Janice Emily - Flowers and Shrubs of the Mojave Desert For anyone who wants to learn about and ID the Mojave Desert wildflowers. Each plant has one page with an ink drawing and plants are arranged by flower color. Southwest Parks and Monuments Assoc. 1999

Dodge, Natt N. -  Flowers of the Southwest Deserts For anyone who wants an introduction to the common desert flowers of the Southwest. Each plant has one page with an ink drawing and plants are arranged by flower color and there are some photos as well. Includes background information on plant habits, uses by animals, native peoples and settlers. Southwest Parks and Monuments Assoc. 1985

Halfpenny, Dr. James - Scats and Tracks of the Desert Southwest This field guide by nationally renowned tracker and author Dr. James Halfpenny, helps you recognize what critters went before you and is a primer for reading the stories written in the sand. Illustrations by artist Todd Telander complement detailed written descriptions in this pocket-size guide featuring the tracks, scats, and other signs of 70 different species-from the elusive jaguarundi to the common crow. Falcon; 1st edition 2000.

Ingram, Stephen - Cacti, Agaves, and Yuccas of California and Nevada Features more than 60 species with a detailed text that is accompanied by 262 color photographs, 16 botanical watercolors, and 52 range maps. For novice and expert alike. In addition to being a useful field guide, there are sections on culture, conservation, ecology, and places to see the plants in the wild. The author traveled more than 30,000 miles, much of it on remote backroads, to search out, study, and photograph the cacti, agaves, and yuccas of California and Nevada. Cachuma Press 2008.

Jaeger, Edmund C.  -  Desert Wildflowers 764 species of the California deserts described, most with line sketches. Jaeger often gives interesting facts about the plants, ethnographic information, and tells where the scientific names come from. Stanford Univ. Press 1940 (1969)

Moore, Michael -  Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West: A Guide to Identifying, Preparing, and Using Traditional Medicinal Plants Found in the Deserts and Canyon West, There are few herbalists in the US as much respected by their peers as Michael Moore. This is THE classic field guide and reference on home remedies for medicinal herbs (more than 100 species) found in the New Mexico, Arizona, West Texas, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and California deserts. Museum of New Mexico Press, 1990.

Morhardt, Sia and J. Emil Morhardt -  California Desert Flowers: An Introduction to Families, Genera, and SpeciesThis easy-to-use guide to the most visible families of California desert flowers includes family and genus keys, and excellent, color photographs of nearly 300 species. With a wealth of diagrams it is an easy-to-use work that can serve equally well as a stand-alone guide to a casual day trip or, for more advanced botanists, as a practical companion to the Jepson Manual. Univ. California Press 2004.

Munz, Philip A. -  Introduction to California Desert Wildflowers First published forty years ago, this popular field guide has been thoroughly updated and revised. Includes 220 new color photographs and 123 detailed drawings and now identifies more than 240 wildflowers in informative species accounts and covers such popular destinations as Death Valley, Palm Springs, and Joshua Tree National Park. (California Natural History Guides), Univ California Press, 2nd edition 2004.

Trimble, Stephen - The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin A classic natural history of the complex and varied Great Basin ecosystems from salt playas to mountain islands, from creosote bush valleys to aspens glens. Univ. Nevada Press, 1989.

Nabhan, Gary Paul - Gathering the Desert With a judicious mixture of ethnobotany, folklore, history, sociology, and nutrition Nabhan creates a "persona" for 12 Sonoran Desert plants: the creosote bush, palm, mescal, sandfood, organpipe cactus, amaranth, tepary bean, chile, devil's claw, panicgrass, and wild gourds. He chose them from the more than 425 edible wild species found in the Sonoran Desert to demonstrate just how bountiful the land can be. The result is a series of essays that are very readable and enlightening while remaining more scholarly than popular. University of Arizona Press, 1986.

Pavlik, Bruce M. - The California Deserts: An Ecological Rediscovery A highly readable and beautifully illustrated exploration of the diversity of the California deserts that also takes the measure of the ecological condition of these deserts today and presents issues of conservation, management, and restoration. Many sidebars, photographs, and featured topics. Univ. of California Press 2008.

Sharp, Robert P. and Allen F Glazner -  Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Owens Valley, Through driving and walking tours, this book provides an on-the-ground look at the processes sculpting the terrain in this land of extremes. Illustrated with photographs, maps, and diagrams, each geological vignette weaves the tale of a particular scene, feature, or relationship in the landscape. Some sketches ponder questions that have puzzled geologists: what formed the turtlebacks in the Black Mountains and how do stones mysteriously slide on desolate Racetrack Playa? Others spotlight the role of volcanoes and earthquakes as landscape artists. Still others focus on less obvious but equally powerful geologic processes: boulders shattered by salt crystals and rocks blasted by windblown sand. Together, these snapshots introduce readers to eastern California's rich, dynamic geology. Mountain Press Publishing Company; 1997.

Desert Issues 

Bowden, Charles - Blue Desert. In the promised land of the Sunbelt, people come by the thousands to escape the crush of Eastern cities and end up duplicating the very world they have fled. Can the land remain unchanged? In Blue Desert, Charles Bowden presents a view of the Southwest that seeks to measure how rapid growth has taken its toll on the land. It shows us the Sunbelt's darker side as it has developed in recent times. Univ Ariz Press, 4th edition 1988.

Reisner, Marc - Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water Meticulously researched and very readable, this is the story of America’s water development and a history of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. An essential primer for anyone interested in Western water issues. Penguin Books, Revised edition 1993.

Wilshire, Howard G, Jane E. Nielson, Richard W. Hazlett - The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery Summarizes the dominant human-generated environmental challenges in the 11 contiguous arid western United States: America’s frontier. When discovered by European explorers and later settlers, the west boasted rich soils, bountiful fisheries, immense, dense forests, sparkling streams, untapped ore deposits, and oil bonanzas. It now faces depletion of many of these resources, and potentially serious threats to its few "renewable" resources. The importance of this story is that preserving lands has a central role for protecting air and water quality, and water supplies--and all support a healthy living environment. The activities discussed include forest clearing; farming and grazing; mining for aggregate, metals, and other materials; energy extraction and use; military training and weapons manufacturing and testing; road and utility transmission corridors; recreation; urbanization; and disposing of the wastes generated by everything that we do. Focus on how our land-degrading activities are connected to natural earth processes, which act to accelerate and spread the damages we inflict on the land. Oxford University Press, 2008.


Desert Hiking & Survival

Alloway, David - Desert Survival Skills Alloway's goal is to show how you can survive, when circumstances beyond your control, strand you in a desert environment. He covers survival in a logical and sequential manner, starting with "Intelligence: The Ultimate Survival Tool" and continuing with more specific topics such as survival kits, water, fire, shelter, tools and weapons, traveling, and wayfinding. Alloway is employed as an interpretive naturalist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in the Chihuauan Desert, has worked with the U.S. Air Force on survival skills, and is a veteran of search and rescue-all of which explains why his book is authoritative, comprehensive, well written, and entertaining. University of Texas Press, 2000

Nester, Tony - Desert Survival Tips, Tricks, & Skills Contains field-tested skills and tips from the authors 18+ years of teaching survival skills. Includes: How to cope with heat stress and methods for acclimating your body to extreme heat, locating water in seemingly arid regions, current information on scorpion stings and snakebites along with current treatments, equipping your vehicle for off road travel and leading causes of breakdowns in the heat, desert shelters for heat and cold, and improvised signaling devices. Diamond Creek Press, 2003.

Johnson, Mark - The Ultimate Desert Handbook : A Manual for Desert Hikers, Campers and Travelers A truly comprehensive handbook on desert travel and exploration packed with information that includes descriptions and histories of deserts around the world, a complete survey of the North American deserts, their indigenous peoples, plants, and wildlife; expert advice, including historical background and the latest technical developments in desert hiking, backpacking, camping, equipment, footwear, and clothing. Chapters on desert mountain biking, first aid, wildlife observation & photography, desert hazards and survival, finding & treating water from all manner of desert sources, as well as preparing and using desert vehicles and animal transport. Last but not least is the most thorough section on desert navigation ever published - from using the stars to map, compass, sextant, and the Global Positioning System - and easy-to-follow advice on everything from selecting a low-impact campsite to signaling and rescue communications. International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press, 2003.


Desert History and People of the Desert/Desert Biographies

Postcards From Mecca: The California Desert Photographs of Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves 1916-1936  Susie Keef Smith was seeking escape from a troubled home life and the havoc of childhood polio when she took a job as postmaster in Mecca, on the edge of California's Salton Sea. She and her cousin Lula Mae Graves set out to photograph the last of the prospectors, burro packers and stage stops in the remote desert to the east. They traveled by burro, foot and Ford though sandy washes and roadless canyons, armed with a .38 revolver and a large format camera.  Wonderful photographs and compelling true story of women who explored the desert on their own terms.  Highly recommended.  Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association 2019.

Hollon, W. Eugene - The Great American Desert Then and Now The granddaddy of all desert books, discussing the origins of the desert, the arrival of the white man, including Mormons and cattlemen, desert politics and predictions for the future, which interestingly, predict the current water wars. Oxford University Press, 1966.

Hogue, Lawrence - All the Wild and Lonely Places: Journeys In A Desert Landscape A thoughtful and evocative portrait of Anza-Borrego and of the people who have lived there, both original inhabitants and Spanish and American newcomers - soldiers, Forty-Niners, cowboys, canal-builders, naturalists, recreationists, and restorationists. Island Press, 2000.

Lingenfelter, Richard E. - Death Valley and the Amargosa, Land of Illusion Traces the history of Death Valley, tells the stories of its explorers, prospectors, and con men, and discusses the geography and development of the valley. Univ of California Press 1988.

Manly, William Lewis - Death Valley in '49 A survivor’s true account of death, despair, and heroism in Death Valley. At the height of the California gold rush in 1849, a wagon train of men, women, children, and their animals stumbled into a 130-mile-long valley in the Mojave Desert while they were looking for a shortcut to the California coast. What ensued was an ordeal that divided the camp into remnants and struck them with hunger, thirst, and a terrible sense of being lost beyond hope. An absolute classic.  This is the story of how Death Valley got its name. 1894

Moyer, Wendell W - Article on the beekeeper of McElvoy Canyon 1994.


Native Americans and the Desert

Barnes, F.A. - Canyon Country Prehistoric Rock ArtAn illustrated guide for beginners for understanding and appreciating the prehistoric rock art of Utah, the Great Basin and the general Four corners region. Wasatch Publishers, 2000.

Lightfoot, Kent and Otis Parrish - California Indians and Their Environment. An update of the Heizer and Alsasser book first published in 1980, based on recent archaeological findings. It explains how the California Indians interacted with the state’s varied landscape and describes the plants, animals and minerals that the California Indians used for food, basketry, cordage, medicine and more. It has a nice section on the southern deserts province. UC Press 2009.

Whitley, David S. - A Guide to Rock Art Sites: Southern California and Southern Nevada This unique full-color field guide is essential not only for the visitors to any of the 38 sites covered but also for anyone who seeks to understand why shamans in the Far West created rock art and what they sought to depict. As one of North America's foremost authorities on prehistoric art, Whitley is on the cutting edge of dating and interpreting the images as well as describing the cultures that created them. Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1996.

Coyote Press at specializes in Archaeology, History, Prehistory, Ethnography, Linguistics, Rock Art, and Native American Studies of Western North America.



Williams, Terry Tempest - Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape Beautifully illuminated with drawings and paintings by noted artist Mary Frank, Williams, one of the West's most intense and lyrical writers, invokes the lure and drama of the landscape. This is an incandescent meditation--in word and image--on the physical vastness and beauty of the desert and the spiritual place one woman finds for herself there. Pantheon, 1995.

Williams, Terry Tempest - Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert As a lifelong desert dweller, Terry Tempest Williams is intimately familiar with the multiple shades of red, and she explores many of them, among other things, in this tribute to the desert and canyon country of southern Utah that she holds so dear. In this collection of essays, poems, congressional testimony, and journal entries, she ruminates on the meaning of wilderness and the need to preserve it as a way to save ourselves as much as the land itself. Vintage, 2002.

Books by Members of Desert Survivors 

Cunningham, Laura - A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California. Combining the skill of an accomplished artist with passion for landscapes and training as a naturalist, Cunningham has spent more than two decades poring over historical accounts, paleontology findings, and archaeological data. Traveling with paintbox in hand, she tracked the remaining vestiges of semipristine landscape like a detective, seeking clues that revealed the California of past centuries. Through A State of Change, readers are given the pure pleasure of wandering through these wondrous and seemingly exotic scenes of Old California and understanding the possibilities for both change and conservation in our present-day landscape. Heyday Press, 2010.

Hart, John - Hiking the Great Basin: The High Desert Country of California, Nevada, and Utah. This is a book that packs a lot of worthy information into a small book that is easy to backpack and includes details on hikes (with accurate mileage). Many of the trips are in the less well-known areas of Nevada and Eastern California and will please those who like to hike without meeting anyone else. (Sierra Club Totebook), 1992.

Lawson, Cliff - A Traveler’s Guide to Death Valley National Park. Owned by the Death Valley Natural History Association the book runs 41 pages with maps, photos, and text. Stay tuned for Cliff’s book which he has been writing (very intermittently) for the past decade and which is set in the Mojave Desert about a hundred years in the future. He is also writing a history of China Lake, California, from 1958-1967. When these books are finished we will let you know. Cachuma Press, 1995.

Luchetti. Cathy - Men of the West. Depicts the frontier lives of cowboys, outlaws, settlers, mountain men, as well as Asian immigrants and Native Americans, drawn from more than 135 period photographs, personal letters, diaries, and journals. W.W. Norton, 2004, 2006.

Luchetti. Cathy - Women of the West. A revealing account of true life for pioneer women in the western United States between 1830 and 1910, based on 150 photographs and the journals of eleven women that include crossing the mountains and deserts of the west. W.W. Norton, 1982, 2001.