The Grand Canyon is a source of inspiration for all river runners. It’s the ultimate bucket list trip, and as such, it has spawned more great books than any other rafting destination in the world. From the early explorations of John Wesley Powell to the daring speed record of Kenton Grua, the literature of the Grand Canyon is a genre unto itself. Here we’ve collected the best of the best. If you’re planning a trip to the canyon or looking for an armchair adventure, you’ll want to put a few of these captivating and informative Grand Canyon books on your must-read list.
Must-Read Grand Canyon Books: Epic Tales and More…
1) The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons | By John Wesley Powell
In 1869, a one-armed Major John Wesley Powell set out to map the Grand Canyon. No one had ever floated the Colorado River through Grand Canyon before, and Powell’s journal of discovery is an absolute classic of adventure literature. He writes with military precision about the progress and difficulties of his expedition, but the canyon also instills a sense of timeless wonder that he presents with artistic flourishes. If you are looking for an adventure, and want to travel into the unknown, then The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons is the book for you.
Of course, there’s also some debate about the accuracy of Powell’s journals and other writers have woven together multiple points of view to tell the “true story” of what really happened on that historic first descent of Grand Canyon. So if you just can’t get enough of this real-life adventure story, you can also check out Down the Great Unknown by Edward Dolnick and First Through Grand Canyon by Michael Ghiglieri.
2) The Emerald Mile | By Kevin Fedarko
The Emerald Mile is that rare book where you learn a lot during a page-turning adventure. The story follows veteran guide Kenton Grua who attempts the fastest time through the canyon during a record-setting flood in the spring of 1983. Along the way you gain interesting insight about Glen Canyon Dam, the rapids of the mighty Colorado, the conservation movement taking hold, and the colorful lives of characters who make the river their home. If you’re going to read one book about the Grand Canyon before your trip, this is it.
3) There’s This River…Grand Canyon Boatman Stories | By Christa Sadler
Take a seat alongside some of the best storytellers in Grand Canyon—the guides. A colorful cast of characters tell the tales of their often hilarious, sometimes dangerous, and always entertaining adventures. No one knows the river better, and this book is your insider’s guide to the tight-knit community of river runners. It’s like sitting around the campfire, watching shadows dance upon the canyon wall, while you listen to some of the best stories from the river. There’s This River is a must-read for those who enjoy the old-fashion art of storytelling.
4) Breaking Into the Current: Boatwomen of the Grand Canyon | By Louise Teal
Written by an early Grand Canyon rafting guide, Breaking Into the Current tells the stories of the phenomenal group of ladies who were among the first generation of women to work in the canyon as commercial river guides. Hear from women like Marilyn Sayre, Ellen Tibbets, and Martha Clark, who share their love for the canyon, passion for guiding and their experiences working in a profession dominated by men at the time.
5) Sunk Without a Sound | By Brad Dimock
In 1928, Glen and Bessie Hyde embarked on a honeymoon trip through the Grand Canyon. When they failed to return, an investigation into their whereabouts discovered their boat upright, fully loaded with supplies. Sunk Without a Sound looks into their mysterious disappearance. Part adventure story, part murder mystery, the twists and turns keep you on edge as you try to decipher fact from fiction. If you enjoyed Into the Wild, you’ll love this book. It has the same sense of idealistic youth embarking on a wild adventure through natural beauty with a tragic ending that’s shrouded in mystery.
6) The Hidden Canyon | By John Blaustein
In The Hidden Canyon, the incredible photographs of John Blaustein are paired with Edward Abbey’s iconic prose to give you an intimate sense of the Grand Canyon from the river (a view that most people never see). Through Abbey’s journal entries, we travel down the river together in wry, awestruck moments. It’s a memorable trip, and perhaps no book better captures the awe, beauty, and sheer wonder of a Grand Canyon river trip.
7) The Man Who Walked Through Time | By Colin Fletcher
Colin Fletcher was the first man to ever walk the length of Grand Canyon below the rim. First published in 1967, The Man Who Walked Through Time is the grueling personal account of Fletcher’s remarkable two-month odyssey and spiritual journey through the canyon.
8) The Grand Canyon: Between River and Rim | By Pete McBride and Kevin Fedarko
Fast forward five decades and photographer Pete McBride and Emerald Mile author, Kevin Fedarko, are the latest adventurers to tackle the 750-mile length of Grand Canyon between river and rim by foot. In addition to their 2019 documentary, Into the Canyon, this gorgeous coffee table book with photos by McBride and essays by Fedarko will take you along on their grueling and eye-opening journey through a wilderness under threat.
9) No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon | By Buddy Levy and Erik Weihenmayer
Erik Weihenmayer was first recognized as being the only blind person to summit Mt. Everest, but since then, he’s added kayaking the Grand Canyon to his list of astonishing achievements. No Barriers is not only a harrowing adventure tale that chronicles his journey through the canyon, but it’s an inspiring read about the possibilities of the human spirit.
10) The Grand Canyon Reader | Edited by Lance Newman
Both an English professor and river guide, Lance Newman has selected well from the accounts of early explorers, popular fiction and contemporary literature—by writers as diverse as John McPhee, Ann Zwinger, Edward Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams—for this choice anthology. Organized into sections on the rim, the river and people, The Grand Canyon Reader and its compelling stories of the great unknown that span five centuries are just the thing for Grand Canyon visitors.
Books About the Natural & Human History of Grand Canyon
11) Canyon | By Michael Ghiglieri
In Canyon, you’ll travel downstream from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek in the company of an experienced guide and ecologist. Ghiglieri mixes a travel account with high adventure, drama and a good deal of information on the history, geology and ecology of the Colorado.
12) Down the River | By Edward Abbey
Down the River is a collection of essays that document author and environmentalist Ed Abbey’s experiences exploring some of the West’s most treasured waterways, including the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. It’s also a heartfelt call to action to protect our national heritage and our lands at stake.
13) Running Dry | By Jonathan Waterman
Weaving history and tall tales, adventures on the river and conservation, Running Dry is an absorbing account of a trip on the Colorado River from Lake Powell to the Gulf of California. The book also explores the many demands and threats to the river’s fragile ecosystem through snapshots of local farmers, boatmen, park rangers and engineers.
14) How the Canyon Became Grand: A Short History | By Stephen J. Pyne
In How the Canyon Became Grand, an acclaimed historian explores the idea and allure of the Grand Canyon, and its transformation from worthless real estate to marvel of nature in the American psyche.
15) Downcanyon: A Naturalist Explores the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon | By Ann Zwinger
Naturalist Ann Zwinger, who has intimately studied every facet of the canyon through the seasons, interweaves geology, plants, animals and captivating stories of human history into this vivid account of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River from Mile 0 at Lees Ferry to Mile 278 at Grand Wash Fault. Whether you’re setting out on a Grand Canyon rafting trip, or want to experience the magic and wonder of the canyon from your coziest reading chair, Downcanyon will transport you there and guide you downstream.
16) River Notes: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado | By Wade Davis
River Notes is a hymn to the Colorado River, thrilling account of Wade’s rafting adventures in the Grand Canyon and vivid report on the state of the American West.
Grand Canyon Guide Books & Field Guides
17) Grand Canyon: The Complete Guide | By James Kaiser
If you’re going to get one Grand Canyon guide book, make it this one. As a photographer and national park guide book author, James Kaiser, has spent months of his life exploring Grand Canyon from rim to river. Through stunning photography, insider tips and detailed maps, Grand Canyon: The Complete Guide helps visitors have an unforgettable experience in the park.
18) Belknap’s Waterproof Grand Canyon River Guide | By Buzz Belknap and Lori Belknap Evans
If you are more the literal type, and don’t need a story to whisk you away beyond the story of the canyon itself, then Belknap’s Waterproof Grand Canyon River Guide is the book for you. It’s also the best book to bring while on your Grand Canyon adventure. There are sections to help you understand the geology, wildlife, rapids, and cultural history. Make notes in it as you go about the camps you stay at, favorite side hikes, or other noteworthy events and it’ll become an annotated guide to your trip. It’s a must-have that will enhance your journey through the canyon.
19) A Field Guide to the Grand Canyon | By Stephen Whitney
For the aspiring naturalist, this compact field guide—the only one dedicated solely to Grand Canyon—includes detailed information on more than 480 species of plants and animals found within the canyon, geologic history of the region, handsome full-page color plates, illustrations, maps and more.
*An earlier version of this post written by Tim Gibbins first appeared on the blog in 2017 and has since been updated.