And while California has often been described as a “land of superlatives” – oldest, largest, most beautiful, etc. – that are mostly true, there are many surprises. True, golden beaches that have inspired songs of sun and surf do exist, but only along the southern quarter of the 1,250 mile coastline. Up north, Pacific waves clash violently against shorelines that are draped in thick fog. In fact, it’s easy to spot the tourists in San Francisco. Just look for the ones freezing in their shorts because nobody informed them of how cold and windy it can get in the summers. While Southern Californians hit the beaches in the summer months, Northern Californians make their way inland toward the mountains where the weather is typically warmer.
And many visitors are rather astonished by just how diverse the Golden State really is. Fewer than half of California’s 36.5 million people were actually born there. And of the 100 largest American cities in which minorities make up the majority, half of them are in California. It’s a good thing, too! The state’s dynamic ethnic mix ensures a constant trove of special events. With no established culture to assimilate into, immigrants have preserved their own. Pretty much every Californian city has its set of ethnic neighborhoods – from Koreatown town in Los Angeles, to Little Italy in San Francisco, to the Armenian and Hmong neighborhoods of San Jose, Oakland, Fresno, and San Diego.
Geographically, too, California is a mesmerizing smorgasbord of landscapes. Every feature of North America’s physical beauty is reflected in this singular and most populous state – glistening snowcapped mountains, scorching dry deserts, misty redwood forests, verdant wine valleys, and sandy beaches fringing America’s most breathtaking coastline. In a day, the agile traveler can bite off a broad slice of this array of unique realms. Seriously, where else can you drive two hours and witness the scenic ascent from the lowest point in North America – 282 feet below sea level at Death Valley – to the highest peak outside of Alaska – 14,495 feet above sea level at Mount Whitney? From valley to peak, you can witness gloriously the stairstep cactus, chaparral scrub, dry grassland, forest belts, alpine meadows, and arctic sedge. It is no surprise then that California is the most visited state of the world’s most powerful nation.
California is a major tourist destination, ushering in about 30 million visitors a year, including more than 10 million international visitors. The major calling cards are the southern beaches, Hollywood, Disneyland, Palm Springs, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite National Park, San Francisco, and the Napa Valley wine country.
Culturally, the city of San Francisco offers the very best in music, theatre, ballet, and the arts. It has its fair share of landmarks and tourist sites, too, including the famous Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, the prison island that housed Al Capone. And the wharfs and marinas offer great seafood.
Los Angeles is more glamorous, however. Retrace the hand and footprints of celebrities at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood or follow the Walk of Stars. Luxury shopping can be done at Beverly Hills along Rodeo Drive. Malibu, Santa Monica, and Orange County digs like Huntington Beach and Newport Beach offer the surfing and swimming beaches that must have inspired the show, Baywatch. Anaheim is home to world-famous Disneyland, whereas more serious thrill-ride seekers can visit Magic Mountain in Valencia. Further inland is Palm Springs, where golfing, shopping, gambling, and spas are the main draw.
San Diego is famous for its zoo, where cute Panda cubs can be observed as they play around with each other. Sea World always has a good dolphin show or two. Otherwise, the beaches are ripe for swimming and surfing.
Between Los Angeles and San Francisco, you’ll find coastal towns such as Monterey, Santa Cruz, and Santa Barbara with some beautiful beaches.
North of San Francisco is Napa Valley, one of the great wine-growing regions of America. Over five million tourists visit to sample fine California wine, relax and rejuvenate at the many spas and wellness centers, and indulge in some of the best gourmet restaurants in the country.
Sierra Nevada in the central-east features Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park – great destinations for alpine skiing, camping, hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, and other outdoor adventures.
The Mojave Desert in the southeast is home to Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Park. Both are desert parks that draw campers, hikers, rock climbers, and the geologically-intrigued.
California is the third largest state in the U.S. and resembles an arc in shape. The San Joaquin or Central Valley sits at the center of the state, hemmed in by the formidable Sierra Mountains in the east. This Central Valley is one of the most fertile regions in California, as it is irrigated by the Sacramento River from the north and the San Joaquin River from the south, both of which drain the Sierras as well.
The entire western seaboard is enclosed by a series of rumpled mountains known as the Coast Ranges, which is part of a chain running from Oregon to Los Angeles.
The spine of Sierra Nevada flanks the Central Valley and dominates the east. It extends north toward the Klamath and Shasta-Cascade ranges and is capped by volcanic cones that rise as high as 14,000 feet. Some of these cones are still active, such as Mount Tehama.
Both the Sierra Nevada and Coastal Ranges are connected at the tail by the east-west Transverse Range, which makes up the southern fringes of the Central Valley. South of the Transverse Range is the Peninsula Range, which runs south all the way to Baja, Mexico.
In the southeast, the vast Mojave Desert occupies 20% of the state with its mountains and dry valleys.
At the other end in the northeast sits part of the Great Basin, which originates from Nevada in the east. This region is volcanic plateau and lake-studded.
Offshore, there are two island groups: the larger Channel Islands in the south and the rocky Farallon Islands in the north-central.
The California’s coastal landscape is one of the most spectacular in the world. Low mountains run parallel against almost the entire length of the coast aside from a few structural depressions, namely the lowlands of the San Francisco Bay and the Salinas Valley.
The northern coast is more violent than in the south. Waves crash against the shorelines. The trees are bigger and the fogs, storms, and heavy rains pay regular visits during the winter.
South of San Francisco, the coasts are just as interesting. Big Sur has world-famous jagged cliffs that present a grand front. The Santa Lucia Mountains ascend abruptly out of the ocean only to meet up with steep-sided canyons. Between the cliffs along coastal Highway 1 are numerous small, sandy beaches that are a must for those who enjoy good scenery and beach fun.
The mountains disappear into rolling hills south of Santa Barbara and the sea carves out some nice bays with beaches that are popular with surfers.
The Sierra Nevada is another beautiful feature of California. It runs north for much of the state, separating the mountainous deserts of the east from the fertile Central Valley. The Sierras peak at 14,000 feet atop Mount Whitney, which is the tallest mountain in the U.S. outside of Alaska. In the winters, Whitney’s peak is covered with snow measuring 30 feet deep.
One of the highlights of the Sierra Nevada is the region between Lake Tahoe, which is North America’s largest alpine lake, and Mount Whitney. This region features high snowcapped peaks and thunderous waterfalls such as the Yosemite Falls, which cascades over 2,425 feet in distance.
Above the Owens Valley on the east end of the Sierras, you’ll find an escarpment that soars nearly 10,000 feet high. It is bordered by the White Mountains in the east, which continues on north into Nevada.
Deserts – Mojave, Colorado, Great Basin
The southeast region of California is made up of three distinct deserts. Each desert has its own personality and own set of breathtaking vistas. These deserts are only about 5 million years old. They were formed by the Sierra Nevada blocking the passage of clouds bearing rain and precipitation from the Pacific Ocean.
The Mojave Desert is the most prominent of the deserts. It spans a region that includes below-sea-level salt flats, rippled sand dunes, wind-formed canyons, volcanic craters, and snowcapped mountains that glow like gold when the sun shines through.
The Mojave, however, is of interest to tourists mainly because of Death Valley in the north and the Joshua Tree National Monument in the south. Death Valley provides more drama. Its 3000 square miles scorches on a summer day at temperatures as high as 54° C (130°-F), but is below freezing at night in the winter. Death Valley reaches as low as 282 feet below sea level and is one of the few places in the world with a mean elevation below sea level. Joshua Tree National Park is less threatening. Barker Dam Lake and campgrounds make it a great recreational destination for rock climbers, hikers, birdwatchers, and campers.
The Colorado Desert is another desert of California. It lies south of the San Jacinto Mountains and sprouts blossoms of sagebrush, cacti, and palms over thousands of square miles.
The Great Basin, meanwhile, is found north of Death Valley. With its high-elevations, temperatures are even more extreme than in Death Valley. It is bitterly cold in the winter and a furnace in the summer.
California’s weather in the south is sub-tropical and its reputation as a sun-drenched paradise is deserved. The climate is Mediterranean-like. Summers are bright and sunny while the winter is mild and occasionally rainy.
There are mainly four climatic regions in California: coastal, desert, mountain, and valley. Many are surprised to find that Los Angeles and San Francisco, two cities that are only 400 miles apart, have climates as different as night and day.
In San Francisco and all along the Pacific coast, winters are mild and summers are cool. This is primarily a result of the thick fog that blankets Monterey. It comes as a surprise to many that summers can be cooler than spring or autumn. Be sure to avoid being one of those tourists caught in shorts and sandals in San Francisco. This city happens to be the only one in the northern hemisphere with average winter temperatures are higher than that of summer. Of course, Oakland and San Jose, only a drive away from San Francisco are warmer year-round. It’s not unusual to find yourself freezing in San Francisco and then wither in intolerable heat that same day in San Jose.
While temperatures increase gradually as one moves from northern California to southern California, rainfall decreases gradually in the same direction. The North Coast is hit with some of the heaviest rainfall in the U.S. during winter. San Francisco, for example, gets 22 inches while Crescent City gets 75 inches a year. The South Coast, on the other hand, is pretty dry. San Diego gets less than 8 inches of annual rain and sears unbearable in summer. Practically-speaking, it means you should avoid swimming in Northern California where the average water temperature is 5ºC. Save it instead for San Diego or LA.
Inland, the climate is more “continental”. This means it’s hot in the summer and cold and moist in the winter. In the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada, in fact, winter is met with fog, frosts, and even blizzards. These same mountains suck up all the moisture sweeping in from the ocean, causing the dry hot deserts in the southeast.
Native Indians had occupied California for millennia before the first Europeans arrived. Many of them lived semi-nomadically, moving between the valley and the mountains depending on the season. Early observers noted that the California Indians were a more peaceful race, not particularly warlike. They had no reason to be. Food was abundant. They grew small crops, fished for salmon, shellfish, and acorns, and hunted for deer, elk, and waterfowl.
The English explorer, Sir Francis Drake, was the first European to land on Californian soil. In 1579, he sailed up the Coast from the south and landed on a beach near Point Reyes and claimed it for Queen Elizabeth I. The English, however, never returned to stake their claim, and King Charles III of Spain ordered an expedition to colonize California in the 1760s. His soldiers marched north and established three forts at San Diego, Monterey, and Santa Barbara. A mission was later established in 1776 in San Francisco, and the towns of San Jose and Los Angeles were also founded not too long afterwards.
During the late 1700s and early 1800s, roads were built along the coast, and the Indians were beaten and forced into labor. Many of them perished as a result of disease, homicide, and malnutrition, and their population dwindled from 200,000 to just 20,000 by 1900.
In 1822, California became part of Mexico after it gained independence from Spain. Much of the vast territory at the time was virtually unexplored until many American and European whalers, farmers, and fur trappers began settling the area. Early on, Mexico neglected the territory, causing unrest among the settlers. But the situation improved when California was incorporated into Mexico in 1825. The missions were given large land grants and the native Indians were liberated.
In 1846, President James Polk encouraged a group of settlers led by Captain John Fremont to declare independence from Mexico. President Polk joined three weeks later, declaring war on Mexico with the ulterior motive of conquering California, which he did with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. That same year, gold was discovered in the Central Valley, and by the end of the year, the news had spread to the rest of the country. In 1849, on the first year of the gold rush, 50,000 migrants made their trek on mules and wagons traveling from the Mississippi to California – a stretch of 2,000 miles.
California became a state in 1850, entering the union as a “free” anti-slavery state. By 1854 the gold had all run out, but California grew nevertheless, thanks to the completion of the telegraph and railroad line in 1869. The gold wealth helped trigger the immigration explosion and economic boom that created modern California. What gold didn’t do for California, famous literary names like Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson did with their travels and writings.
In the 1870s, depression hit California and the people blamed the Chinese for it. This era was marked by racism and intolerance. Anti-Chinese programs swept the state with Congress passing bills suspending immigration and deporting those who were already in the country. Rural whites went beyond the law, driving the Chinese from the fields.
Following the late 1800s, California experienced boom and busts, with WWII pulling the state out of the Great Depression. During this period, the state turned into a real manufacturing and industrial powerhouse, and experienced a wave of migration from the east, which helped make it the most populated state in the country in 1962. Today, California is the most powerful and influential state in the U.S., and continues to experience migration of people from other parts of the U.S., especially from the cold rust belts of the northeast.
Baker, Christopher, Judy Wade, and Morten Strange. California. New York: Macmillan General Reference, 1994. ISBN: 0671879065.
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