The best books about exploration of, and water resources in, the American West

Arthur G. Sylvester Author Of Roadside Geology of Southern California
By Arthur G. Sylvester

The Books I Picked & Why

Men to Match My Mountains: The Monumental Saga of the Winning of America's Far West

By Irving Stone

Men to Match My Mountains: The Monumental Saga of the Winning of America's Far West

Why this book?

If I could return to any place and time in history, it would be to the American West in the years between 1830 to 1880. It was an exciting time of exploration, territorial acquisitions, invention, and discovery of all of the major mineral deposits (Comstock Lode 1859, Butte 1864, Mother Lode 1849), construction of a transcontinental railroad (completed 1869), and establishment of the world’s first national park, Yellowstone (1872). This book opened my eyes to the American West.


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

By Wallace Stegner

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

Why this book?

Stegner, one of my favorite writers, put running the rapids of the Colorado River at the top of my to-do list with his book about John Wesley Powell’s voyage of exploration down the Colorado River. It is one of the few books I have read more than once. More than a hair-raising story about exploration of one of the last unexplored tracts of the continental US, Stegner spells out Powell’s ideas about how to apportion Colorado River water among the several states it drains. Too bad his recommendations have been largely ignored.


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The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon

By Kevin Fedarko

The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon

Why this book?

When I finally got around to running the Colorado River rapids, it was in a wooden dory, with the legendary boatman Kenton Grua, “The Factor” as he was known, and the character at the center of this book. It is such an engrossing story because of knowing Grua and having been in his boat, “Emerald Mile,” that when I finished reading it, I turned immediately to page one and read the book all over again.


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Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

By Marc Reisner

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

Why this book?

Reisner’s book about western water history is must reading for people living in the western US. Because of what it relates about that history, I tell people thinking about moving to California, “Bring your own water with you in a bucket.” Written in 1986, Reisner’s apocalyptic missive is beginning to play out in these days of climate change and global warming. We are being told to phase out fossil fuels and turn to electric cars and all-electric homes just when two of the west’s major sources of electric power, Diablo Canyon’s nuclear power is being phased out, and Lake Mead’s water for Hoover Dam’s hydroelectric power generators is drying up. Where do we go from here?


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Salt to Summit: A Vagabond Journey from Death Valley to Mount Whitney

By Daniel Arnold

Salt to Summit: A Vagabond Journey from Death Valley to Mount Whitney

Why this book?

Imagine a solo cross-country hike in “the land of little rain” from burning desert floor at Badwater at -282 feet below sea level in Death Valley, the lowest point in the continental United States to chilly, windswept Mount Whitney, the highest point at 14,505 feet above sea level at the crest of the Sierra Nevada. I’ve seen but not hiked much of the country between the two points, and I cannot imagine trekking it all in one hike. Arnold’s book did it vicariously for me and will also for any reader looking for an out-of-the-ordinary hiking adventure.


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