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

Who am I?

As a boy in southern California, I knew that the mountains were to the north, that they were big, and that they were somehow related to earthquakes. I loved chemistry and the outdoors and decided on the first day of college that geology offered a great way to be an outdoor chemist. I learned the craft of writing in high school as a sports reporter for the local paper. After I started as a geology professor at the University of North Carolina in 1981, Bob Sharp of Caltech and I founded the Geology Underfoot series to get people into the outdoors to discover geology on their own.  


I wrote...

Geology Underfoot in Yosemite National Park

By Allen F. Glazner, Greg M. Stock,

Book cover of Geology Underfoot in Yosemite National Park

What is my book about?

Few places in the nation rival Yosemite National Park for vertigo-inducing cliffs, plunging waterfalls, and stunning panoramas. Many of the features that visitors find most tantalizing about Yosemite have unique and compelling geologic stories—tales that continue to unfold today in vivid, often destructive ways. This book leads you to explore twenty-seven sites in and around the park. You’ll learn why Yosemite’s domes shed rock shells like onion layers, what geologic features allow sheer rock walls to be climbed, what happens when a volcano erupts under a glacial lake, how ice buried and sculpted the landscape, and why rocks seem to be almost continually tumbling from the region’s cliffs. 

Geology Underfoot in Yosemite National Park will help you read and appreciate the landscape the way a geologist does.

The books I picked & why

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

By William H. Brewer,

Book cover of 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.

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

By William H. Brewer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Up and Down California in 1860-1864 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1860 William Brewer, a young Yale-educated teacher of the natural sciences and a recent widower, eagerly accepted an offer from Josiah Whitney to assist in the first geological survey of the state of California. Brewer was not a geologist, but his training in agriculture and botany made him an invaluable member of the team. He traveled more than fourteen thousand miles in the four years he spent in California and spent much of his leisure time writing lively, detailed letters to his brother back East. These warmly affectionate letters, presented here in their entirety, describe the new state in…


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

By Craig H. Jones,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Craig H. Jones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Mountains That Remade America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From ski towns to national parks, fresh fruit to environmental lawsuits, the Sierra Nevada has changed the way Americans live. Whether and where there was gold to be mined redefined land, mineral, and water laws. Where rain falls (and where it doesn't) determines whose fruit grows on trees and whose appears on slot machines. All this emerges from the geology of the range and how it changed history, and in so doing, changed the country.

The Mountains That Remade America combines geology with history to show how the particular forces and conditions that created the Sierra Nevada have effected broad…


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

By Peter Brannen,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Peter Brannen,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Ends of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A book about one apocalypse - much less five - could have been a daunting read, were it not for the wit, lyricism, and clarity that Peter Brannen brings to every page.' Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes

Apocalypse, now?

Death by fire, ice, poison gas, suffocation, asteroid. At five moments through history life on Earth was dragged to the very edge of extinction.

Now, armed with revolutionary technology, scientists are uncovering clues about what caused these catastrophes. Deep-diving into past worlds of dragonflies the size of seagulls and fishes with guillotines for mouths, they explore how - against…


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

By Daniel Arnold,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Daniel Arnold,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Salt to Summit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the depths of Death Valley, Daniel Arnold set out to reach Mount Whitney in a way no road or trail could take him. Anything manmade or designed to make travel easy was out. With a backpack full of water bottles, and the remotest corners of desert before him, he began his toughest test yet of physical and mental endurance.

Badwater Basin sits 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley, the lowest and hottest place in the Western Hemisphere. Mount Whitney rises 14,505 feet above sea level, the highest point in the contiguous United States. Arnold spent seventeen days…


In the Distance

By Hernan Diaz,

Book cover of 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.

In the Distance

By Hernan Diaz,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked In the Distance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A young Swedish immigrant finds himself penniless and alone in California. The boy travels East in search of his brother, moving on foot against the great current of emigrants pushing West. Driven back again and again, he meets naturalists, criminals, religious fanatics, swindlers, Indians, and lawmen, and his exploits turn him into a legend. Diaz defies the conventions of historical fiction and genre, offering a probing look at the stereotypes that populate our past and a portrait of radical foreignness.

Hernan Diaz is the author of Borges, Between History and Eternity (Bloomsbury 2012), managing editor of RHM, and associate director…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in geology, survival, and backpacking?

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