The best books to accompany your wandering through California’s geology

Allen F. Glazner Author Of Geology Underfoot in Yosemite National Park
By Allen F. Glazner

The Books I Picked & Why

Up and Down California in 1860-1864: The Journal of William H. Brewer

By William H. Brewer

Up and Down California in 1860-1864: The Journal of William H. Brewer

Why this book?

The California gold rush of 1849 led to statehood in 1850. Brewer was charged with conducting a geologic survey of this new acquisition, and he led his band on a 14,000 mile trek while the Civil War raged, measuring peaks, finding fossils, cataloging fauna and flora, and visiting mining districts. All this is captured in elegant letters written to his brother. Although trained in agriculture, Brewer was a remarkable observer of nature with fine skills in interpreting the landscape. His uncomplaining accounts of sleeping on the snow in blankets and eating the same plain fare day after day will make modern backpackers cringe.


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The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life

By Craig H. Jones

The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life

Why this book?

Jones gives a modern account of the roles that the Sierra Nevada range has played in the history of California: barrier to transportation, source of gold, source of water, desert maker, provider of unique ecosystems, inspiration of water law and mining law, target of vacationers, hikers, and climbers, and inspirer of the national park system. This engaging book weaves the history of exploration and development of the state into the larger story of why the range exists, what it is made of, and why it is so odd that the Sierra Nevada, unlike most tall mountain ranges, lacks a low-density root to hold it up. Jones excels at explaining things that I never even thought to wonder about.


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The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions

By Peter Brannen

The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions

Why this book?

Although the content of this book is not specific to California, its underlying premise—that the Earth’s history comprises a series of recoveries between planet-wide catastrophes—is etched into the rock record. The sedimentary mountains of the Great Basin and eastern California owe their beautiful stripes to changes in environment, many of which were brought on by catastrophes such as gargantuan volcanic eruptions in Siberia 252 million years ago that erupted enough basalt to bury the lower 48 states under a half-mile of lava. These eruptions nearly sterilized the planet and brought the Paleozoic Era to a close.

The signs of these events, and of volcanic eruptions smaller than the Siberian event, but still large enough to give civilization a big smack in the head, are all over the Basin and Range. Brannen writes about these events with a great deal of humor.


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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?

In this slim book, the author recounts an off-trail walk/hike/climb from Badwater in Death Valley, the lowest point in North America, to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. A keen observer of nature, people, and history, Arnold’s accounts of places that I have been ring so true that I’ve added a number of new never-been-but-must-visit places and trust his harrowing accounts of places that I’ll never get to. He gets the geology right and recounts his adventures without condescending to his audience or shaming those who prefer to reach these places via trails or roads.


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In the Distance

By Hernan Diaz

In the Distance

Why this book?

Díaz’s remarkable twist on the western follows one of two Swedish brothers who, en route to a new life in America, boards the wrong boat in Portsmouth. He ends up in San Francisco and decides to walk to New York to find his brother. On the way he meets immigrants, prospectors, lawmen, Native Americans, soldiers, miners, and more, getting a bounty put on his head and gaining mythic status as a man-beast. Díaz mentions only a few real places, but his descriptions of the landscape are so clear that you know where the nameless places he describes are even if they are not real.

Once, trying to remember a particularly vivid scene from a movie, I realized that the scene was from this book. I can’t think of another book where that has happened.


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