In 1956 and 1957, Abbey worked as a seasonal ranger for the United States National Park Service at Arches National Monument, near the town of Moab, Utah. Abbey held the position from April to September each year, during which time he maintained trails, greeted visitors, and collected campground fees. He lived in a house trailer that had been provided to him by the Park Service, as well as in a ramada that he built himself. The area in this period remained a wilderness habitat and largely undeveloped with only small tourist numbers and limited access to most areas of the monument. During his stay at Arches, Abbey accumulated a large volume of notes and sketches which later formed the basis of his first non-fiction work, Desert Solitaire. These notes remained unpublished for almost a decade whilst Abbey pursued other jobs and attempted with only moderate success to pursue other writing projects, including three novels which proved to be commercial and critical failures. Eventually Abbey revisited the Arches notes and diaries in 1967 and after some editing and revising had them published as a book in 1968.
Although Abbey himself rejects the label of nature writing to describe his work, Desert Solitaire was one of a number of influential works which contributed to the popularity and interest in the nature writing genre in the 1960s and 1970s. Abbey cites as inspiration and refers to other earlier writes of the genre, particularly Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Mary Hunter Austin, the style of whom Abbey echoes in the structure of his work. However Abbey's writing in this period is also significantly more confrontational and politically-charged than preceding works, and like contemporary Rachel Carson's Silent Spring also seeks to contribute to a wider political movement of environmentalism which is emerging at this time. Abbey himself would go on to admire his other nature writing and environmentalist contemporaries of this period, particularly Annie Dillard.