Masthead: Kaweah Range

An Amateur Naturalist’s Bookshelf
George Durkee

There are a number of excellent books available to learn more about the natural and human history of the Sierra. Here are a few that I’ve found especially interesting over the years. I’ve marked, with an asterisk (*), those books that I feel would be particularly useful as part of a basic Sierra naturalist’s library.

Many of these books are available through the Yosemite Conservancy’s bookstore.

Book Reviews. In addition to the Basic Bookshelf recommendtions below, check our reviews of other Sierra- oriented books.

General Books

* Sierra Nevada Natural History, Tracy I. Storer and Robert L. Usinger, University of California Press, 1963.

I started carrying this over 35 years ago when I began backpacking — it is THE classic natural history guide to the Sierra. The book is an excellent general introduction to all aspects of the range: geology, wildlife, flowers, and human history. Drawings and photos help identify many of the common plants and animals. A sturdy cover and compact size make it the best overall guide to carry on hikes and strolls in the mountains.

The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada (California Academy of Sciences) by John Muir Laws, and
Sierra Birds: A Hiker's Guide by John Muir Laws

For field identification guides, these are great to carry. Both are beautifully illustrated with watercolors by the author. The bird guide is organized by dominant color of the bird, which makes finding what you've seen easy. They both include a brief description of where the critter might be found. These are excellent identification guides. To save weight, they necessarily leave out more in depth information on behavior, habitat and range. For something to carry on the trail, though, one or both of these are excellent choices.


* Field Guide to Animal Tracks, Olaus Murie, Houghton, Boston, 1958 (in print).

Critters do not always have the courtesy to show their beady little eyes as we hike through their territory; more often all we see are their tracks. Murie’s book is excellent for figuring out who crossed the path ahead of us.

California Mammals, E. W. Jamerson and Hans J. Peters, University of California Press, 1988.

Contains more detail on the range and habits of critters than is found in Sierra Nevada Natural History and, of course, includes all of California’s mammals. Good to have around when you want to follow-up on something you’ve seen or need more detail to identify.

Discovering Sierra Birds, Edward C. Beedy and Stephen L. Granholm, Yosemite Association, 1985 (out of print).

I’m not a very good birder. This helps me narrow down the choices from the dozen similar (to me...) species found in the Peterson bird guide, to the one or two that might actually occur in the area and habitat I saw the bird in. Although it lacks maps, it does give specific locations for sightings of each species and includes the rare sightings on record as well.


* An Illustrated Flora of Yosemite National Park
By Stephen J. Botti
Illustrated by Walter Sydoriak
Yosemite Association, 2001

Happily, I have been holding off on using the word "awesome" until something came along truly meriting the superlative. Stephen Botti and Walter Sydoriak have produced such a work. Twenty years in the making, it required the Yosemite Association to solicit donations to keep the project afloat and, finally, produce it. It is well worth the effort and the wait. Reminiscent of a 16th Century Herbal, An Illustrated Flora of Yosemite National Park has not only a dichotomous key of the 1,300 plants of Yosemite (and by extension, much of the Sierra), but illustrates each with a beautiful large drawing–over 1,000 watercolors and 300 pen and ink. There's also an index of Yosemite place names where you can look up the plants that occur there. In addition to the illustration, each plant description includes habitat, elevation, when it usually flowers and where you can commonly find it.

The Flora's large size and heft, alas, prevent it being used in the field. It is also a true work of art and you wouldn't want to damage it thumping around in your pack. And, of course, such an opus is a tad expensive but if you're a skilled naturalist–or are looking for an incredible gift for one–this is an invaluable addition to a naturalist's bookshelf

Sierra Nevada Wildflowers, Elizabeth L. Horn, Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, Montana; 1998.

There are a number of flower guides in print and many are quite good. Horn’s book was recently revised, has clear photos and covers a good selection of the flowers you’re likely to come across throughout the Range.

* A Sierra Nevada Flora, Norman F. Weeden, Wilderness Press, Berkeley, Ca 1986 (Third Edition).

This is for the "advanced amateur" botanist. It is not a picture guide to flowers—it has only line drawings of representative plants—but an actual flora of the Sierra using a dichotomous key to narrow down the plants to family and species. Small and compact, it can be easily carried on trips. A previous botany course or seminar would be helpful in using this book, but not absolutely necessary. After you’ve graduated from Sierra Nevada Natural History or any of the picture guides, this is the one to carry.


Exploring the Highest Sierra, James G. Moore, Stanford University Press, 2000.

Moore’s book is the result of a lifetime spent studying and mapping the geologic structures of the Sierra. It is an incredible achievement and an important contribution to a detailed understanding of the geology of the Sierra for the amateur naturalist. He includes terrific chapters on the work of the first scientists to study the range and then describes current knowledge about the creation of the Sierra: from the collision of tectonic plates to the retreat of the last glaciers. As an added bonus, Moore includes an appendix with detailed geologic comments for stopping points along several roads and trail in the Sequoia-Kings area: Highway 180 from Clovis to Cedar Grove; Highway 198 from Visalia and over the Generals Highway; the Mineral King road; the High Sierra Trail from Lodgepole to it’s intersection with the John Muir Trail near Mt. Whitney; and, the John Muir Trail from Mt. Whitney to where it leaves Kings Canyon in the Evolution Valley region, 100 miles north.

Although Moore concentrates his narrative mostly to the area of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, anyone interested in the geology of the Sierra would find this book useful for its explanation of the major granitic and metamorphic structures we see throughout the range. It’s large format makes it unlikely you’d want to slip it into your backpack as a field guide. It’s also probably of interest only to the serious amateur, though I think it’s photos and organization make it accessible to a beginner who might just want to skim some of the detailed sections.

Geologic History of Yosemite Valley: U. S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 160, Francois F. Matthes, 1930 (out of print).

Long out of print, I include this because it’s a classic. Excellent photos and drawings illustrate the formation of Yosemite. It includes an outstanding map showing the maximum coverage of the Pleistocene glaciers. Some of the material has been superceded by more recent research of course, but Mathes’s broader outline of geologic history is still useful. The book also has great photos illustrating the various signs of glaciers (erratics, glacial polish, moraines etc.). If you find it in a used book store (as I did), buy it.

Still in print, though, is The Incomparable Valley - A Geologic Interpretation of the Yosemite

by Francois Matthes; with 24 photos by Ansel Adams and available from the YA’s web store.

Human History and Exploration

There is an embarrassing, even shameful, lack of a good general book on the culture and history of Native Americans in the Sierra—or even California for that matter. However, the Yosemite Conservancy at least carries a wide selection of books for both adults and children on Native American culture, art and stories.

* Up and Down California in 1860-1864, William H. Brewer, ed. F.P. Farquahar: Yale University Press, New Haven, 1930 (still in print).

William Brewer directed the field work of the California Geologic Survey in the 1860s, organized by Josiah Whitney. The field party did the first mapping and often the first exploration by European-Americans of much of the Sierra. Great adventure with gnarly dudes.

The Mountains of California, John Muir, 1894, reprinted by Doubleday-Anchor books 1961 (in print).

Muir is, of course, the patron saint of the American preservation movement. He was a keen observer, a tireless mountaineer and a great scientist. His writing contains some of the most stirring descriptions of the Sierra ever written. In large doses, though, many people find it difficult to read his "flowery" 19th century prose. This is too bad, because I’ve always found his observations to reflect the same feelings I have when traveling in the Sierra. In any event, Mountains of California is an excellent introduction to Muir and his travels. You might also look at Linnie Marsh Wolfe’s Son of Wilderness or Michael Cohen’s more recent Pathless Way. The former an excellent biography of Muir and his writing; the latter an examination of Muir and the American transcendental movement of the late 1800s. Both are also well worth reading.

* Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, Clarence King, ed. F.P. Farquhar: W.W. Norton & Co., N.Y. 1935 (1872) (in print).

The first of the American swashbuckling mountaineers: “...but to coolly seat one's self in the door of death, and silently listen for the fatal summons, and this all for a friend,— for he might easily have cast loose the lasso and saved himself,—requires as sublime a type of courage as I know.”(King climbing in the Mt. Brewer area, being belayed by his climbing partner, Cotter). Great adventure writing (though perhaps pushing the envelope between factual writing and creative writing...) by one of the geologists to explore the Sierra with Brewer and the Whitney Survey team.

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