Many books have been written about the Ancient Puebeloans (Anasazi). There’s books about who they were, how they lived, and what happened to them. There’s also lots of guide books about visiting the remains of the cliff dwellings and other structures they built, inhabited and abandoned. I’ve picked out some of the very best books to recommend here.
The thousands of amazing sites spread across the Four Corners area make a good guide book vital to getting the most from your visit. Some guide books focus on sites that can be driven to while others focus on sites that are only reached by hiking. there are detailed hiking guides that provide valuable information for anyone interested in exploring the wilder parts of the area.
I’ve read and own many books on all aspects of the Anasazi and I can’t tell you how much pleasure I’ve gotten while learning from them. I’m a firm believer in owning some of these books.
I’ve organized these short book reviews according to the primary intent of the book. These are all books that I recommend. However, you should read each review carefully because some of these might not be right for you.
Table of Contents
Guide Books about backcountry and undeveloped sites
There are thousands of Ancestral Puebloan sites scattered across the Four Corners area. They range from minor depressions and small mounds of rubble to family sized units to small settlements to large cities. Many of the largest ruins have been developed for visitors but there are some amazing sites that can only be reached by hiking. I’ve divided the backcountry guide books into two geographic areas – Cedar Mesa and Four Corners.
Cedar Mesa Area Guide Books
The Cedar Mesa area of Southeastern Utah offers the best opportunities for hiking to undeveloped Anasazi ruins and rock art. You can find everything from roadside sites with paved access to multi-day backpacking trips into desert wilderness. The best way to develop a plan for learning more about this area is to invest in one of more guide books. The following books are ones that I use frequently and therefore recommend. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses which I outline below. If you are interested in visiting Anasazi ruins in their natural state you will want one or more of these guides.
A Hiking Guide to Cedar Mesa
by Peter Tassoni
195 pages, paperback, 9″x6″
This was the my first guide book for hiking in the Cedar Mesa and Bears Ears area. It covers Cedar Mesa, the associated canyons and Comb Ridge. Tassoni provides place names and directions for finding many of the most spectacular ruins in the area. He gives a lot of specific data, including GPS coordinated for many car parks, trailheads and archeology sites. Be aware that there are GPS errors in the book and many of his hike descriptions are a little off. However, in total the book does a good job of getting you to the best known sites in the area.
The content layout in the book is a little cumbersome with all of the GPS coordinates listed in a table instead of in the associated text. Consequently, you have to flip pages a lot but I consider this a minor annoyance.
In summary, A Hiking Guide to Cedar Mesa is a great book for the first time visitor to Cedar Mesa. It covers all of the popular trails and sites and gives good basic information for all hikers. Some of the maps are inaccurate and I recommend you get a good map as a companion to this book.
The Best Bears Ears National Monument Hikes
by Morgan Sjogren
148 pages, paperback, 7″x4″
This pocket-sized guide book is stuffed with information about 25 hikes in the Bears Ears National Monument. The book was published in 2018 before the size of the Monument was slashed by the Trump administration. There is no telling if the borders of the monument will be adjusted in the future but the hikes described are all on public land and will be great hikes no matter what.
The hikes are spread across SE Utah and most describe trails that will take you to archeological sites. However, some of the hikes are just to cool places with no ruins. For each hike the author provides info about finding the trailhead, length of hike, time required, hiking difficulty, map of the hike and more. The most popular hikes are all included.
Besides the hike descriptions, the book has sections that discuss most aspects of hiking and exploring in this area.
The Best Bears Ears National Monument Hikes is a good guide book for a first-time visitor who wants to add a hike to their visit of the area. While it’s not as in-depth as some books, it is handy and accurate and I do recommend it.
Cedar Mesa Hiking Guide: Utah Anasazi Canyons
by Joe Berardi
212 pages, paperback, 10″x8″
This book covers 37 hikes on Cedar Mesa and Comb Ridge. It’s a great source for learning about these hikes but its not always the best for precise directions. Some of the GPS coordinates seem to be off and some of his maps have notations that are hard to decipher.
The book begins with about 25 pages of background information that can be valuable in helping you to plan your hike. However, none of this content is unique. The book has good Topo maps of the hikes. Most of the hike descriptions are written in first-person which may or may not appeal to you.
I consider Cedar Mesa Hiking Guide: Utah Anasazi Canyons to be a very useful book but I like to cross check it with information from other sources.
Exploring Utah’s Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa: A Guide to Hiking, Backpacking, Scenic Drives, and Landmarks
by Andrew Weber
232 pages, paperback
This book has not yet been released so I can’t review it yet. However, Falcon Guides is a leader in publishing quality hiking guides so I expect it to be a good tool.
Exploring Utah’s Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa: A Guide to Hiking, Backpacking, Scenic Drives, and Landmarks is scheduled to be released in April 2021 and I’ll provide more information after I get a copy.
Four Corners Area Guide Books
While Cedar Mesa and Comb Ridge are home to most of the finest hikes to archeological sites, there are many other great backcountry destinations spread across the Four Corners. These books offer advice about hiking to sites throughout canyon country.
Non-Technical Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau
by Michael Kelsey
464 pages, paperback, 9″x6″
This review is based on a prior edition of this book. New editions are released every few years and the latest edition has many more hikes than this review indicates.
This book is both much more and much less than the the other guides listed here. It’s a guide to almost every canyon in the Colorado River drainage. It includes descriptions of hikes in 120 canyons in Utah, Colorado and Arizona. While some canyons have just a single hike associated with them, many have multiple hikes in a single canyon so the total number of hikes/trailheads covered is much higher.
This book was not written for beginning hikers but gives beginners much of the information they need. Kelsey includes maps and geologic cross sections for each canyon described. The author has a very concentrated writing style and he gets a lot of detailed hiking information into each page. This is a very dense book using a small type font and very little white space on the page. This can make it hard to read at times but only because you are getting so many details.
Kelsey primarily uses the metric system for reporting distances in the book. He provides a conversion chart but it’s cumbersome if you have to consult a chart for every distance. Another factor to be aware of is that Kelsey is an amazingly strong hiker and his personal hiking times should never be used as a guide. He attempts to provides hiking times for what he considers an average hiker but I have found that most actual hikers need more (even much more) time than his suggestions.
This book is a hiking guide and not an Anasazi guide so it discusses quite a few canyons with no archaeological sites. Where ruins exist, Kelsey points out a lot of them. His maps show where to look for ruins and rock art and his hiking descriptions often talk of ruins by name.
In summary, Non-Technical Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau provides detailed information about almost every canyon in the region. However, the information in this book can be hard to read and it may take you some time to get comfortable with Kelsey’s style.
Hiking Ruins Seldom Seen: A Guide To 36 Sites Across The Southwest
by Dave Wilson
224 pages, paperback, 6″x9″
This book describes hikes to 37 archeological sites spread across New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. Some of these are well publicized sites but others are less well-known. In addition to the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) the book describes ruins left behind by the Hohokam, Salado, Anchan and Mogollon peoples. The hikes vary in length from very short to multi-day backpacking trips.
Each hike description provides the info you need to reach the described site. The maps are useful but not adequate for navigation. Be sure you have good maps (and know how to use them) before you hike to any backcountry site. The author provides difficulty ratings and the USGS topo maps needed for the hike. In addition, GPS coordinates are provided for the ruins. However, as with all published GPS info don’t count on the coordinates to guide you to the site.
Hiking Ruins Seldom Seen: A Guide To 36 Sites Across The Southwest is a great book for learning about ruins and cultures that you might not be familiar with. However, with it’s large geographical coverage, there are only a few hikes listed in any one area.
Guide Books About Developed Sites
Most of the ruins scattered across the Four Corners area are in the backcountry and you’ll need one of the guide books described above to find them. However, many of the most spectacular and most significant sites are developed for visitors to drive to. Some are designated as National Parks and Monuments while others have development that is much less formal. A good guide book won’t just get you to these sites; it will help you to better understand them. I always carry one or more of these books when I travel through the Four Corners area.
Ancient Ruins and Rock Art of the Southwest: An Archaeological Guide
by David Grant Noble
304 pages, paperback, 6″x9″
If you are going to own one guide book this should be it. It features more than 130 notable sites spread across Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and even one site in Texas. The author is a noted expert on the native peoples of the Southwest and he shares a wealth of knowledge in this book.
This is much more than a guide book. Although it contains all the usual guide book info – driving directions, fee information, administrative contacts and other useful details. This book also has detailed information about structures, rock art and other site-specific details that will give you a much deeper understanding of the people who created these archeological treasures.
If you are interested in learning about the ancient people of the region Ancient Ruins and Rock Art of the Southwest: An Archaeological Guide is a must-have book. I highly recommend it.
Anasazi Ruins of the Southwest in Color
by William M. Ferguson and Arthur H. Rohn
296 pages, paperback, 8″x11″
This book is packed full with information and photos of most of the major sites in the Southwest. Unfortunately, it was published in 1987 and has not been updated. Consequently, new discoveries have made some of the information in the book out-of-date. However, it’s a really good resource for learning about these ruins.
This is a large and heavy book – 8″x11″ and nearly 3 pounds – so it’s not a field guide. The large format allows for the publication of larger photos and drawings which is very nice. The book covers all of the regions where the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) resided. Following the in-depth 75 page introduction, there are full sections on each geographical region in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.
This is much more than a guide book. Instead it’s a knowledge book that provides a depth of detail and information about each site that goes far beyond other guides. The authors have done tremendous research into each of the places they discuss and you will learn a lot from this book.
Anasazi Ruins of the Southwest is one of my core books that I refer to frequently. I’d encourage you to add it to your library.
The Anasazi of Mesa Verde and the Four Corners
by William M. Ferguson
203 pages, paperback, 8″x11″
From the same author as the book above, The Anasazi of Mesa Verde and the Four Corners is similar in many respects. It is also a large and heavy volume, measuring the same 8’x11″. It covers a much smaller geographic area in SW Colorado and SE Utah. However, this book covers far more sites than the book above.
Most of the sites in this book can be reached by car but some require you to search for them. This is a book “about the sites” as opposed to being a guide “to the sites”. Consequently, directions for finding the sites are rarely provided. However, you can locate most of these sites by using maps and other available information.
This volume was published in 1996 so some of the content is dated. However, it provides in-depth discussion of each of the sites it discusses. I find The Anasazi of Mesa Verde and the Four Corners to be a book that I refer to many times as I prepare for a trip. I usually take it with me as I travel in the Four Corners area.
Books about the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi)
There are probably hundreds of books about the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi). The mystery of how and why they built and abandoned the magnificent cities, villages and structures that we marvel at today has consumed many authors and researchers. Here are a few books I especially recommend to give you an introduction to these mysterious people.
Anasazi America: Seventeen Centuries on the Road from Center Place
by David E. Stuart
352 pages, paperback, 6″x9″
David Stuart is professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico and he wrote this book to encapsulate and expand on the material he presents in his “Ancient New Mexico” class at the university. It is meticulously researched yet presents it’s material in an easily read and understood fashion.
I think the best description of the book’s contents comes from the author himself. In the first paragraph of the first chapter he writes “This book reconstructs the rise and fall of the Chaco Anasazi of New Mexico. It is about how ancient farmers in the American Southwest gathered the knowledge and power to create the grandest regional social and political system in prehistoric North America during the tenth and eleventh centuries A.D., only to lose nearly all they had created in the twelfth.”
The book is centered around Chaco Canyon and the Ancestral Puebloans who created, inhabited and abandoned it. However, the book talks broadly about the people, where they came from and where they went and this discussion applies to all of the Four Corners area. Beginning with the very first inhabitants more than 10,000 years ago the book traces the native peoples up until modern time. The author skillfully blends archeological data, ethnographic data, historical records and contemporary sources to tell the story of the rise and fall of a great civilization. He further discusses how a new civilization rose in it’s place and what our modern society can learn from them.
I think this book is great and I’ve learned a lot from it. However, the book was written in about 2000 and revised in 2014 and a huge amount of information has been added to our understanding of Chaco and the Ancestral Puebloans since then. At a recent visit to Chaco Canyon a ranger told me that new discoveries are being made so fast that books are out-of-date before they can be printed. Despite this, I believe that Anasazi America: Seventeen Centuries on the Road from Center Place is a book that you should read.
In Search of the Old Ones
by David Roberts
270 pages, paperback, 8.5″ x 5″
Since it’s publication in 1997 this book has probably inspired more people to explore Anasazi country than all others combined. The book is a narrative of the author’s explorations of the Cedar Mesa area of Southern Utah and describes several of his hiking trips. Roberts is a very well-known mountain climber and he was able to tap into a network of local experts who helped him visit and describe the best of the area.
Some of the author’s musings on Anasazi culture and their unexplained disappearance from the region are no longer considered to be likely but, in all, there is great info in the book. Roberts struggles with the on-going issues of how to allow and encourage people to enjoy what remains without further degrading the experience. He wrestles with this throughout the book and it’s even more important today that we continue to try to find solutions.
Roberts is an excellent writer with a great ability to evoke the environment he is describing. In Search of the Old Ones provides an inspiring invitation to learn more about the mysterious Ancestral Puebloans and the spectacular canyon country they called home.
House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest
by Greg Childs
512 pages, paperback 5.5″x8.25″or hardcover 6.25″x9.5″
Greg Childs has spent his adult life exploring the history of the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) and along the way he’s accumulated knowledge and experiences.. In this book he tells stories of his personal explorations while trying to answer the question of “what happened to the Anasazi?” His accounts cover a vast geographical area and include a lot of his insights. While he weaves scholarly information into his writing, he is also working to tell compelling stories.
Some reviewers are put off by his writing style but it’s that style that makes the book readable and interesting to others. If you want some inspiration to get out and visit Ancestral Puebloan places then House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest should be on your reading list.
For many people hiking in the Four Corners area is geared toward discovering and exploring archeological and rock art sites. However, this is amazing country and the natural attractions – geology, wildlife, reptiles & amphibians, insects and more are attractions in themselves. The deserts and mesas provide varied habitats which result in all kinds of life. I always carry a book or two to help me interpret the landscape and it’s natural inhabitants.
A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country
by David Williams
240 pages, paperback, 6″x9″
Now in it’s third edition, this book is the best single volume field guide I know of. It covers most of the life groups you will encounter, including shrubs & trees, flowers & grasses, mosses & lichens, mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and insects & arachnids. Each entry has a drawing and full description for identification purposes. Information is included about life history, habitats and ecological or ethnobotanical significance.
While any single volume is inadequate for covering every living thing you might encounter, this book will likely include anything you are wondering about. While I don’t carry it on the trail, I always have my copy of A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country handy to help me learn about the interesting lifeforms I always encounter.
Ancient Pinon-Juniper Woodlands: A Natural History of Mesa Verde Country
by M. Lisa Floyd (Editor)
389 pages, paperback, 6″x9″
Pinon-Juniper forests cover most of the mesa areas in the Four Corners region, including all of Cedar Mesa and the surrounding areas. This excellent book includes 23 chapters each submitted by a noted expert in the subject area. This is not intended to be an easy reading book. Rather, it provides in-depth discussion of the components that make up this unique forest ecosystem. Although the book and writings are specifically centered on the Mesa Verde area, the forests are the same across all of canyon country.
Ancient Pinon-Juniper Woodlands: A Natural History of Mesa Verde Country is a book that will teach you much about the natural history of the woodlands that were critical to the Ancient Puebloans and remain important today. If you want to really learn about the ecosystem this is the book for you.
Books About Comb Ridge
Comb Ridge is a remarkable place. Anyone who has seen it understands that it must have been a dividing line in many ways in centuries past. Today, there are some great archeological sites to visit and the Cedar Mesa Area Guide Books reviewed above all include Comb Ridge hikes. Here’s a couple of books that aren’t hiking guides but they provide a fuller understanding of Comb Ridge.
Sandstone Spine: Seeking the Anasazi on the First Traverse of the Comb Ridge
by David Roberts, photos by Greg Child
190 pages, hardbound, 6″ x 9″
This is the story of an epic backpacking trip and Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) exploration. Hiking the entire length of Comb Ridge is an amazing undertaking and the book is laid out in chronological fashion beginning with the trip planning then following Roberts and two friends as they hike from where Comb emerges from the valley floor in the South to its terminus in the North.
The hike takes them through some of the most remote areas of the desert southwest. The fact that much of the hike took place on Navajo reservation lands insures that few will seek to repeat their travels. The information on supply caches and water issues should give pause to any experienced desert hiker.
The book deals with a number of broad topics, the logistics of such a hike, the discoveries they made along the way and the interpersonal relations that are a critical part of any long trip. This is not a guide book but Sandstone Spine: Seeking the Anasazi on the First Traverse of the Comb Ridge will give you great insights into the land and people of Comb Ridge. It might also inspire you to do more exploring on your own.
Comb Ridge and Its People: The Ethnohistory of a Rock
by Robert McPherson
264 pages, paperback, 8.5″x11″
Comb Ridge dominates the landscape as it runs north/south for 100 miles and presents an almost unpassable barrier along part of it’s length. This book traces the history of the peoples who lived and live here. From the Ancestral Puebloans to the Utes, Paiutes, and Navajos to the Mormon settlers to today’s residents, this book takes on the issues that define the cultural history of the area.
Comb Ridge and Its People: The Ethnohistory of a Rock should not be the first or only book about the area that you read. However, for those with a deeper interest in the land and people this will greatly expand your knowledge.
Good maps are critical for hiking and exploring in the backcountry. If you don’t plan to hike, maps are the key to discovering the places you want to visit. Highway maps will show you the major roads but won’t give you the detail that makes a difference. Here’s my suggestions for maps you should consider owning
DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer: Utah
64 pages, paperback, 11″x15″
The Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer is a staple for discovering the backroads and trails of canyon country. This book contains full-color topographic maps of the entire state. The maps have information on everything from cities and towns to historic sites, scenic drives, recreation areas, trailheads, boat ramps, and prime fishing spots. There are even backcountry ruins noted on some of the maps.
This map book is a great aid for trip planning and is invaluable while you are on the road. While a phone might help you navigate to a specific place, the Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer allows you to know how where you are relates to where you are going and where you want to go. This is a staple in my map collection.
Grand Gulch, Cedar Mesa Plateau [BLM – Monticello Field Office] (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map, 706)
by National Geographic
Approximately 4″ x 9″ folded, 26″ x 38″ flat, Scale = 1:62,500
I’m a big believer in having and using good maps and this is the best map available for the Cedar Mesa area. It covers all of Grand Gulch and most of the surrounding areas. Map coverage extends as far east as Butler Wash so most Comb Ridge hikes are on this map. It strikes a good balance between size, scale and detail and is a valuable tool for hikers. If you’re exploring the areas north of the map boundary you’ll need the Manti La Sal National Forest, Utah map in addition to the Grand Gulch map.
Learning to understand and properly use maps is one of the most important aspects of hiking in backcountry areas. Many canyon hikes are in places where there are no developed trails and it’s vital that you learn to use your maps. If you plan to spend time in the Cedar Mesa area this map is a must have.
Cedar Mesa / Comb Ridge 2016 Topo Atlas: Utah Anasazi Canyons
by Joe Berardi
106 pages, paperback, 8″x10″
Among the tools available for exploring Ancestral Puebloan lands is this book of maps which provides topographic maps for most of the Cedar Mesa and Comb Ridge area. The 106 page book is mostly maps of varying scale. Most pages are full-page topo maps with larger scale maps showing the full area and defining the individual maps which follow. In all, most of the maps you’ll need to explore this area are in this book.
I like this book but it has shortcomings. It’s great to have the topo maps organized and easily accessible. The book is small enough to be packable but I usually use dedicated maps when I’m hiking.. There’s very little text in the book and it’s not a guide to trails. That said, there are three pages listing the major hikes that should provide you enough info to find the sites they hold. It’s better as a compliment to any of the guide books described above than as a stand alone guide. This single book will give you most of the maps you need to explore the heart of Anasazi country in southern Utah.
The author self-publishes his books on Amazon using print-on-demand. A book is only printed after it’s ordered. Be aware that 10 pages of this book are filled with photos promoting some of his other publications. Consequently, there might be less content than you expect.