An Armchair Tour of Utah

Utah_border_signI am a devout armchair traveler. I love poring over maps and guidebooks and photo-rich coffee table books of places I will probably never be able to visit. I read histories and quick facts of places all over the world, and many of my favorite fiction titles are favorites because I fell in love with the setting.

Back in 2010, Sheela Chari wrote a post on our blog about reading and writing in Boston. I loved the post so much that I kept wishing others would post about their hometowns or favorite destinations as well. And then I realized I could share my own home state with kids who are armchair travelers, too. Join me as I take you on a tour of the great state of Utah through books (and a few websites, too).


Have you ever seen dinosaur fossils still embedded in rock? You can in Utah! Several times I’ve stood before the “Dinosaur Wall” inside the Quarry Exhibit Hall at Dinosaur National Monument. It’s just inside Utah near the Colorado border. And you can find out more about the Dinosaur wall at the National Parks Service website.

But you can also read more about Utah’s dinosaurs in Dinosaurs of Utah: and Dino Destinations by Pat Bagley and Gayen Wharton or Dinosaurs of Utah by Frank Decourten.

Also check out the middle-grade picture book, Dinosaur Mountain: Digging Into the Jurassic Age, by Deborah Kogan Ray.


In Utah in 1869, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads joined together to create the first transcontinental railroad. You can read a fictional account of the journey in The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West by Kristiana Gregory. And check out more about it at the Golden Spike National Monument’s website.




Did you know that the Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere? Did you also know that the only things that can live in the lake are some varieties of algae, and only brine shrimp and brine flies can tolerate the salty water enough to feed on the algae? I live close enough to the lake that sometimes I can smell the briny waters…which isn’t always the nicest smell in the world. But the stark beauty of the lake takes my breath away, especially at sunset when the colors light up the sky behind Antelope Island, the largest of the lake’s islands. Though geared for younger readers ages 6 and up, you can read more about this lake in The Great Salt Lake by Mary Schulte, or check out more on the web. (Oh, and yes, there really are wild bison on Antelope Island! I’ve seen them myself and they truly are amazing to watch.)


Utah is home to five national parks, seven national monuments, two national recreation areas, and six national forests. It has some of the driest snow on earth, making some of the best powder for skiing at one of its fourteen ski resorts. From the western deserts to eastern mountains, from the northern forests to the Southern red hills, there is enough natural beauty in Utah to keep you busy for a lifetime. Read more about Utah in some of these fiction and nonfiction titles:

Utah (2nd title in the From Sea to Shining Sea series) by P.J. Neri

Utah: The Beehive State (Guide to American States series) by Janice Parker

Utah: The Beehive State (Blastoff Readers series) by Blake Hoena

Ghost Horses: A National Parks Mystery by Gloria Skurzynski and Alane Ferguson

The Maze by Will Hobbs


Salt Lake City was founded by Mormon pioneers in 1847, and they settled much of the rest of the state, too. Some great historical fiction can take you back in time to the pioneer era of Utah. The most well-known and well-loved is The Great Brain series of books by John D. Fitzgerald. Also try Charlotte’s Rose by Utah native A.E. Cannon or All is Well by Kristin Embry Litchman.

Before the pioneers, however, Utah’s native population flourished. It was home to five Native American tribes. One, the Shoshone, is highlighted in the fictional novel, The Legend of Jimmy Spoon by Kristiana Gregory.



Ever heard of a television? Well, it was invented by Philo Farnsworth, who was born right here in Utah. Read more about him and his invention in TV’s Forgotten Hero: The Story of Philo Farnsworth by Stephanie Sammartino McPherson.

Utah is also famous for its infamous outlaw, Butch Cassidy. Yep, he was born here, too. See the book Butch Cassidy by Carl R. Green and William R. Sandford for more about him.


During World War II the U.S. government relocated thousands of Japanese-Americans to internment camps. One of these camps, named Topaz, was located in Utah near the small town of Delta. Over 11,000 people were processed through this camp between 1942 and 1945, when the camp was dismantled. Not much is left of the site now except the barbed wire fence and the restored recreation hall, but visitors are welcome to tour the site and some of the buildings that were sold and relocated to nearby areas. Though not a proud moment in American history, I am grateful to the authors of the following books who have shared information about this internment camp and the effect it had on those who lived there: Journey to Topaz by Yoshika Uchida and Children of Topaz by Michael O. Tunnell.

Also see the historical fiction novel about two boys on both sides of the Topaz fence, Missing in Action by Dean Hughes.


If you keep a close eye on children’s literature, you may notice that there are a lot of Utah authors. And I mean A LOT. We also have more than our fair share of children’s and YA authors showing up on the NYT Bestsellers List. I’m not sure why that is—it must be something in the water here—but I’m proud of the many talented Utah writers I call my friends and neighbors.

Though there are many books by Utah natives I could highlight, I thought only one would be appropriate here: Palace Beautiful by Sarah DeFord Williams. The book is set in Salt Lake City and the author lives in Utah as well. It follows two timelines in history, so you can see Utah’s capitol city during the 1980’s and during the Flu Epidemic of 1918. This is a beautifully written book and a great place to end our armchair tour of Utah.

I hope you enjoy your visit to my homestate. And please leave a comment if you know of a middle-grade book about Utah or set in Utah that I may have missed. Happy armchair travel, everyone!


Elissa Cruz enjoys living between the mountains and a big, salty lake in Utah.  When she is not busy with her husband and five children, she is busy writing middle-grade fiction or helping other children’s authors in her capacity as ARA for the Utah/Southern Idaho region of SCBWI.

Elissa Cruz
  1. Palace Beautiful is one of my favorite MG books–so nice to see it highlighted here again.

  2. This is fabulous! Visiting Utah has been one of the highlights of my life, and I adore the Great Brain series. Thanks for pointing out other books featuring this great state!