The best books about Utah Canyon Country

Who am I?

Long ago, in college in Colorado, I discovered Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire—the classic that grew from journals he kept while a ranger at Utah’s Arches National Park. I’d grown up in the West, visiting national parks and revering park rangers. Abbey gave me the model—live and write in these wild places. After graduating, I snagged jobs myself as a seasonal ranger/naturalist at Arches and Capitol Reef national parks. I was thrilled. Since then, I’ve spent decades exploring and photographing Western landscapes. After working on 25 books about natural history, Native peoples, and conservation, Capitol Reef still remains my “home park” and Utah Canyon Country my spiritual home.  

I wrote...

The Capitol Reef Reader

By Stephen Trimble,

Book cover of The Capitol Reef Reader

What is my book about?

In The Capitol Reef Reader, I collect writing that best captures the spirit of Utah’s least-known national park in personal narratives, philosophical riffs, and historic and scientific records. Editing this anthology was a labor of love. I arrived in Capitol Reef in 1975 to work a season for the National Park Service as a ranger. I began reading everything I could find about the park’s cliffs, canyons, and characters, and I've never stopped. I'm endlessly intrigued by the challenge of responding to this place in language.

The Reader condenses this rich literature, featuring fifty writers, young and old, who have graced these canyons with their attention and imagination—along with my photographs from 45 years of wandering in the park.

The books I picked & why

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The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky

By Ellen Meloy,

Book cover of The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky

Why this book?

Ellen Meloy just might be my favorite Utah writer. She’s smart and witty. She’s laugh-out-loud funny. She’s self-deprecatory and never preachy. She gets her natural history right. And her writing is gorgeous. She died far too young, at 58, in 2004, and I miss her. As she wanders outward across Bears Ears National Monument from her home in Bluff, Ellen’s musings apply equally to the slickrock spine of the Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef. So I was determined to include her in my own book. I chose an excerpt from The Anthropology of Turquoise—a terrific piece on sensual canyon country wildflowers, “slickrotica.” In her book, Ellen follows turquoise to the ends of the earth, but she always brings us back to her home territory in the canyons. 

Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands

By Jonathan P. Thompson,

Book cover of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands

Why this book?

Former president Trump’s evisceration of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments kept all of us canyon country activists busy for years with protests and op-eds. The backstory leading to President Biden’s restoration of both monuments pretty much outlines the history of conservation in America. Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, as well as Capitol Reef, were part of an enormous Escalante National Monument proposed in the 1930s that likely would have prevented the tragic flooding of Glen Canyon by Lake Powell. Jonathan Thompson recounts these historic fights over public lands by focusing on San Juan County, home to Canyonlands National Park and Bears Ears—the first preserve proposed by Native nations—bringing us right up to the 2020s. Controversies abound, and Thompson is an engaging storyteller and careful journalist.

Searching for Tao Canyon

By Pat Morrow, Jeremy Schmidt, Art Tomey

Book cover of Searching for Tao Canyon

Why this book?

I just missed seeing Glen Canyon. I didn’t start exploring southern Utah until the early 1970s, as Lake Powell began to fill, drowning this most beautiful canyon and its astonishing tributaries. In these same years, Jeremy Schmidt and his buddies were searching for the best remaining slot canyons, returning with extraordinary photographs from places few yet knew about. Jeremy is a colleague and old friend, and so I’d seen a few of these photos. Here, finally, the three photographers have collected their pioneering work in a perfectly printed and designed book. Jeremy’s text contains some of the best recent writing about the Colorado Plateau. Their book carries us deep into the maze of sandstone cathedrals along the Colorado River and celebrates the adventure of exploring this glorious country in our youth.

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

By Wallace Stegner,

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

Why this book?

Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt famously described his first reading of Stegner’s book about John Wesley Powell: it felt like a brick had been thrown through a windowpane, transforming his view of a West he thought he knew. The same thing happened to me when I read the book while serving as a Capitol Reef seasonal naturalist in my 20s. No one else writes like Stegner, who was born on the frontier and grew into a scholar of that frontier. In this book, he takes us along on Powell’s harrowing 1869 river trip down the Colorado River. And then Stegner uses Powell’s growing understanding of our arid West to illuminate the very nature of that desert West. Utah Canyon Country lies at the heart of his story.

A Quick Trip to Moab: Insurrection in the Wilderness

By Kevin T. Jones,

Book cover of A Quick Trip to Moab: Insurrection in the Wilderness

Why this book?

Kevin Jones’s rollicking page-turner takes place in the San Rafael Swell, just north of Capitol Reef—my home territory. All these southern Utah canyons share the same wild beauty and face the same threats. Jones was famously fired as Utah state archaeologist for standing up for Native rights, and his deep love of cultural history and rock art elevate this thriller into the ranks of regional classics. In his yarn, a regular guy—our hero, Stan—stops along the highway with his dog, Speck. A desperate woman, Lily, hides there and needs help. As all three are swept into a chase through the Swell, pursued by armed anti-wilderness extremists, Jones’s characters thoughtfully ponder the future of public lands while racing for their lives. We’re with them all the way. 

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