The ultimate desert reading list

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If 2021 has you inspired to learn more about the California desert or indigenous history and culture, you’re in luck! We’ve compiled some of the favorite desert reads of Columba Quintero, of the Native American Land Conservancy, Brendan Cummings, of the Center for Biological Diversity, Ken Layne of the Desert Oracle, and Geary Hund, of the Mojave Desert Land Trust.

From Columba Quintero, Native American Land Conservancy:

Bringing Creation Back Together Again: The Salt Songs of the Nuwuvi; a Multi-Disciplinary Dispatch by Kim Stringfellow, PhD and Mathew Leivas, Chemehuevi Elder

Lands of Promise and Despair, Chronicles of Early California 1535–1846; Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz

Before the Wilderness, Environmental Management by Native Californians; Thomas C. Blackburn and Kat Anderson

Playing Indian; Philip J. Deloria

In the Courts of the Conqueror: the 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided; Walter R. Echo-Hawk

As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice; Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Ms. Gilio-Whitatke is Coleville Tribe.)

Trust in the Land: New Directions in Tribal Conservation; Beth Rose Middleton Manning

The Morning the Sun Went Down; Darryl Babe Wilson (Mr. Wilson is Pit River.)

A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of the Southern Paiute Tribe; Clifford E. Trafzer

American Indian Medicine Ways: Spiritual Power, Prophets, and Healing; Clifford E. Trafzer

Columba Quintero is the Executive Director of Native American Land Conservancy, a non-profit that focuses on aboriginal territory of tribes in present-day Southern California. The Native American Land Conservancy protects and restores sacred sites and areas, provides educational programming for Native American youth and the general public, and conducts scientific studies on cultural, biological, and historical resources on sacred lands. For more information or to get involved, visit them at

From Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity:

“Here is a list of about a dozen books on the California Desert that I would recommend. Some are great reads, others document what the area was like at different periods over the last century. My list is heavy on very old books but if I were to recommend only one to start, it would probably be the Darlington book on the Mojave.”

The Desert: Further Studies in Natural Appearances; John Charles Van Dyke (1902)

The Land of Little Rain; Mary Austin (1903) (the audiobook read by Terry Tempest Williams is magical)

The Wonders of the Colorado Desert; George Wharton James (1906)

California Desert Trails; J. Smeaton Chase (1919)

Denizens of The Desert: A Book of Southwestern Mammals, Birds, And Reptiles; Edmund C. Jaeger (1922)

The California Deserts: A Visitor’s Handbook to the Mohave and Colorado Deserts; Edmund C. Jaeger (1938)

The Death Valley Expedition: A Biological Survey of Parts of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah; C.H. Merriam (1893)

Death Valley: A Guide Written and Compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (1939)

The Lives of Desert Animals in Joshua Tree National Monument; Alden H. Miller, Robert C. Stebbins (1964)

Scenes in America Deserta; Reyner Banham (1982) — This is by a British architect and is about the aesthetic appeal of our deserts, similar to Van Dyke’s book 80 years earlier.

The Mysterious Lands; A. H. Zwinger (1989) — A natural history/travelogue of the 4 North American deserts.

The Mojave: A Portrait of the Definitive American Desert by David Darlington (1996) — Both a history of the Mojave and a great account of the state of the desert in the window leading up to the California Desert Protection Act in 1994.

All the Wild and Lonely Places: Journeys in A Desert Landscape; Lawrence Hogue (2000) — My favorite book on the Anza Borrego desert.

The California Deserts: An Ecological Rediscovery; Bruce M. Pavlik (2008) — This is arguably the best of the relatively recent comprehensive natural history books on the California Desert.

Brendan Cummings is the Conservation Director for the Center of Biological Diversity, a non-profit committed to the belief that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature. The Center of Biological Diversity works to secure a future for all species hovering on the brink of extinction, because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society. For more information or to get involved, visit

From Ken Layne, Desert Oracle

Desert Wild Flowers; Edmund Jaeger

Desert Wildlife; Edmund Jaeger

California Desert Miracle; Frank Wheat — an engaging and suspenseful story of the California Desert Protection Act, creation of Mojave National Preserve, and more.

Desert Solitaire; Edward Abbey

Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians; Francisco Patencio, Cahuilla elder (1943, edited by Margaret Boynton, originally published by the Palm Springs Desert Museum)

Ken Layne is the editor & publisher of Desert Oracle, the pocket-sized quarterly field guide to the mysterious American Southwest and the newly published Desert Oracle: Volume 1: Strange True Tales from the American Southwest. Check out the Desert Oracle Podcast every Friday at 10pm on Z107.7 FM here in the hi-dez, or wherever you get your podcasts.

From Geary Hund, Mojave Desert Land Trust

Anything by Edmund Jaeger

California Desert Miracle; Frank Wheat

Desert Summits, A Climbing & Hiking Guide to California and Southern Nevada; Andy Zdon

Chuckwalla Land, The Riddle of California’s Desert; David Rains Wallace

Images of America, Joshua Tree National Park; Joseph W. Zarki

Song of the Dodo, Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions; David Quammen — an entertaining book which chronicles and explains species area relationship, habitat fragmentation and island biogeography. It also tells the story of Darwin and Wallace, the scientists which independently discovered evolution.

The Lives of Desert Animals in Joshua Tree National Monument; Alden H. Miller and Robert C. Stebbins — out of print but well worth tracking down a copy. Great color illustrations by Gene M. Christman.

Desert Bighorn Sheep; Mark C. Jorgensen — a beautiful pictorial and short narrative about desert bighorn sheep.

Geary Hund is the Executive Director of Mojave Desert Land Trust, a non-profit committed to protecting the Mojave Desert ecosystem and its scenic and cultural resource values.

We always advocate supporting your favorite independently-owned local bookshop, but that might not be an option for some of the more obscure titles. If you do shop with Amazon, might we suggest using and selecting Mojave Desert Land Trust as your charity of choice — Amazon will then donate .5% of your purchase back to us!