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Whether you’re participating in our 2023 Read Around the USA Challenge, or simply found your way to our website researching books set in your home state or your next travel destination, you’ve come to the right place!
Below you’ll find a list of highly-rated books set in some of the Rocky Mountain and southwest states, including Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Books set in the southwestern states of Nevada and California will be included on August’s list. Books set in the Rocky Mountain states of Idaho, and Montana will be included on October’s list.
Our curated recommendations strike a good balance between historical fiction, contemporary novels, and non-fiction books about the American southwest. The list is broken down by state, and you’ll also find a brief description of each state’s characteristics before the corresponding books.
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Books Set in Arizona
When Spanish explorers first arrived to (and claimed) the region that includes present-day Arizona, California, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico in 1540, it was already inhabited by several different tribes. It eventually became part of Mexico, then in 1848, the United States gained control of the land by winning the Mexican-American War. Sixty-four years later, Arizona became the 48th state in 1912. Today, 22 tribes, including the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, and Apache still reside on reservations within Arizona.
According to a study by Arizona State University, the population of Arizona increases by 300,000 people each winter when ”snowbirds” from around the country relocate to condo communities and RV parks throughout western Arizona. Drawn by the warm, sunny weather and year-round golf, these snowbirds typically stay for 5-6 months at a time.
Each year, five million people visit the 277-mile-long Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. But it’s not the only place to sightsee in Arizona. Saguaro National Park, the Petrified Forest, Hoover Dam, Havasu Falls, and the O.K. Corral in Tombstone are also fun spots to visit.
Books Set in Colorado
Colorado is perhaps best known for the Rocky Mountains, which draw visitors from around the world each year for sightseeing and adventure sports. Residents of this state discuss elevation perhaps more than anyone else. Colorado is home to 58 peaks above 14,000 feet of elevation, referred to as the fourteeners or 14ers, and many locals make it their mission to climb all of them. Additionally, the capital city of Denver is one mile above sea level, so you’ll see the number 5280 (the number of feet in a mile) everywhere you go.
East of the Rockies, the foothills give way to the start of the Great Plains. Covering 2/5ths of the area of the state, this region of Colorado is the most productive, thanks to flat land, fertile soils, and strong yields in cattle, poultry, sheep, corn, wheat, hay, sunflowers, and sugar beets.
Before the building boom of the 1980s and the population explosion in the 2000s, Denver was considered a sleepy “cow town.” While it’s now the 19th most populous city in the US with a vibrant arts and culture scene, it still celebrates its roots for two weeks each January with the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo.
Books Set in New Mexico
The origin of New Mexico parallels Arizona as they were both “discovered” by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in 1540 as he searched for cities made of gold. While he didn’t find gold, he started the colonization of the region for Spain, despite the presence of indigenous people groups. Like Arizona, the formerly tribal land was controlled by Spain, then Mexico, and then the US after the Mexican-American war.
For more than 1000 years, Pueblo people have lived continuously at Taos, Pueblo. Their influence can be seen in the art produced in the region. Both the Taos and Sante Fe regions are known for their vibrant arts community, from local artisans to internationally known artists like Georgia O’Keeffe.
The landscape of New Mexico is diverse, from the Rocky Mountains in the north to the 119 caves that make up Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands National Monument, the world’s largest field of gypsum sand dunes, in the south.
Books Set in Utah
Geographically, Utah is known for its world-class skiing and its dry, arid red rock canyons. Its capital, Salt Lake City, is tucked right up against the towering Wasatch Mountains and is named for the Great Salt Lake - the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere.
Utah is synonymous with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are often referred to as Mormons. Between 1847 and 1900, Mormons journeyed across the country via wagon train and handcart to found about 500 settlements in the Utah Territory as a way to escape religious persecution. For four decades, the US Congress refused applications for Utah statehood, until the Church officially renounced the practice of polygamy (plural marriage between one man and several women) in 1890. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, in 2022, Mormons still make up approximately 65 percent of Utah’s population and hold 9/10th of the seats in the state legislature. As a result, this religion has a huge influence on life in the state, as is reflected in several books on the list.
Books Set in Wyoming
Nicknamed the Equality State, Wyoming was the first US state to allow women to vote and the first to elect a female governor.
This western state has the smallest population in the US, despite being the 10th largest in total area. But what it lacks in people, it makes up for with its stunning natural beauty, including Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Additionally, around 85% of the state is considered rangeland - land dominated by a mix of mostly native grasses, forbs (broad leaf plants / wildflowers), and shrubs. These rangelands are not only an important part of Wyoming’s history and culture, but also continue to influence Wyoming’s ecosystem and economic base.
You are welcome to choose any book that you’d like to read for the challenge, but we hope that this list of books has given you a good starting point.
Members of our email list and Facebook group, Read with the Book Girls can log ratings for their monthly challenge reads. The logs provide us with data for the “BGG Reader Ratings” that are added to descriptions for future years. We’d love you to contribute your rating after you’ve finished your read this month. You can find the links to the logs in your Friday emails each week throughout the month of the challenge.
Can you send me a printable list with the book titles but not descriptions?
This was a big request last year that we weren’t able to add to our plates in 2022. New for 2023, readers who support Book Girls Guide through our Buy Me a Coffee membership site will receive special monthly printable journal pages as a thank you bonus. The voluntary members (we call them our BFFs) help cover the cost of running the challenges so we can keep them free for everyone.
We’re so excited to be able to offer this fun perk this year!
The new pages will be pre-filled with every book title for the month, and include space for you to mark your interest level, make notes about whether you’ve requested the book from the library (or any other notes you’d like), and then fill in your rating. We’ll also include blank lines in case you have other books on your TBR (to be read) list that meet the prompt. We’d love you to sign up here!
That said, you’ll always find the most updated version of our recommendations with descriptions each month at no cost on our website. We do update the list and descriptions regularly based on reader feedback. But, we know some of you wanted to print the list to take to the library or bookstore, and we hope this helps.