TRAVEL || NORTH AMERICA > UNITED STATES > CALIFORNIA
Larger than many countries, California extends between a range of the most extreme and diverse climates and terrains in the country. From the highest peak to the lowest basin, from mountain forests to sandy beaches, from prolific valleys to desert expanses, California has it all.
This state also holds the largest state population with nearly 40 million people. Six urban areas sprawl with over 1.6 million people each: Los Angeles-Orange County, San Francisco-Oakland, San Diego County, Riverside-San Bernardino, Greater Sacramento, and San Jose-Santa Clara County.
California Regions + Counties
Although many counties have multiple regional aspects, to simplify, they are designated to their primary geographic region. For instance, Fresno County is designated to the San Joaquin Valley but also reaches east through the gold country into the southern Sierra Nevada and west into the Central Coast Range.
♦ North Coast
Del Norte, Humboldt, Mendocino, Sonoma (Bay Area—south), Lake
♦ Cascade Range
Siskiyou, Trinity, Shasta, Modoc, Lassen, Plumas (Sierra—south)
♦ Gold Country / North Sierra
Sierra, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado, Amado, Calaveras, Alpine, Tuolumne, Mariposa
♦ Sacramento Valley
Sacramento, Yolo, Colusa, Sutter, Yuba, Butte, Glenn, Tehama
♦ San Francisco Bay Area
San Francisco, Marin, Napa, Solano, Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo
♦ Central Coast
Santa Cruz, San Benito, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura
♦ San Joaquin Valley / South Sierra
San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare, Kern (Deserts—east)
♦ East Sierra (Great Basin)
Mono, Inyo (Deserts—south)
A Brief History
Over 300,000 natives of various tribal groups, each with an understanding and respect for the ecosystem, lived on and cared for the land. They are known to have worked in harmony with the natural world applying their advanced knowledge of plant use for traditional ecological medicine—how to use them, when to harvest them, and how much to take.
As Spain’s colonization moved northward, beginning in 1769 at San Diego de Alcalá, Fr. Junípero Serra founded the 1st nine of 21 Franciscan Spanish Missions with the intention to establish the church and convert natives to this order of Christianity. Following its War of Independence from Spain, Alta California became a Mexican territory.
In 1847, after the Mexican-American War, California was ceded to the US by Mexico. The following year, while building a sawmill on the American River’s South Fork in Coloma with his business partner, John Sutter, James W. Marshall discovered gold. The native Nisenan people of this region, other indigenous tribes throughout the state, and the environment they stewarded suffered in the tumultuous period that ensued. During the mass migration of 1849—The Gold Rush—prospectors from all over (including many Chinese) flooded the region in search of wealth.
San Francisco, Sacramento, and Stockton soon became centers for commerce. The economy boomed through exploitation of the land as more invasive methods were devised. Development in California continued, and the state has since attracted many in search of a better life. Suburban expansion continues to swell into virgin and agricultural land. Collective efforts are important to protect nature’s fragile beauty from adverse environmental effects caused by untamed development, pollutants, and natural and human destruction.
Sand and Surf
The Pacific coastline of California stretches for 840 miles, with climates ranging from cool temperate to arid desert to subtropical. Its long-spanning shoreline varies between sandy beaches, natural bays, and rugged cliffs, which attract a variety of marine life and birds, as well as beach lovers and surfers.
Along the coastline from the south, beach communities radiate artistic, casual vibes such as in Coronado in San Diego, Laguna Beach in Orange County, South Bay and Santa Monica in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Pismo Beach in San Luis Obispo, Capitola near Santa Cruz, and Half Moon Bay and Bodega Bay in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Discover abundant sea life at Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Aquarium of the Bay on Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Drive up the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) to capture spectacular views at the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Big Sur, 17-Mile Drive of Pebble Beach next to Carmel-by-the-Sea, and Mendocino.
Southern Californian beaches are vulnerable, particularly in winter, to natural petroleum seeps that degrade into tarballs that often wash onto the shores, removed by beach-cleaning machinery. On the other hand, the biggest environmental threats to the water quality, wildlife, and residents are from off-shore oil drilling spills, watersheds pollutants, and climate change.
The California Coastal Conservancy works to protect and restore natural and scenic beauty. They work with many partners to preserve “hundreds of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat, coastal farmland, and scenic open space.”
The Sacramento River flows south from the Klamath Mountains through Lake Shasta, while the San Joaquin River runs north from headwaters high in the Sierra Nevadas. Both conjoin at the state’s center to enter San Francisco Bay. These two largest of the valley tributaries flow through a large inland depression of terrain spanning the center of the state, around 450 miles long and up to 60 miles wide. This flat Central Valley is abundant with agriculture, one of the most productive valleys in the world, growing half of all US-grown produce and nuts.
Strategically located at the confluence of the Sacramento River and the American River, the California capital city of Sacramento connects to the San Francisco Bay via the Sacramento River. This city was established as an agricultural community at Sutter’s Fort but transformed into a trade and mining center during the Gold Rush.
The valleys meet undulating hills with orchards and vineyards. Napa and Sonoma Valleys have achieved worldwide acclaim in wine production. There are other regions throughout the state, such as Santa Ynez Valley near Solvang and Shenandoah Valley near Plymouth, producing wonderful varietals.
In addition to wine grapes, farms in the hills grow tree and vine fruit, pumpkins, and Christmas trees. Apple Hill is known in the Sierras for apples and cider, along with wineries, pie varieties, and fall crafts and festivals.
FORESTS AND MOUNTAINS
calaveras Big trees state park
Coniferous Giants to Rugged Peaks
Massive Sequoias and Redwoods fill forests of the mountainous terrain of the coastal ranges and California’s largest mountain range, the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This range thrusts upward between the large Central Valley to the west and the Great Basin and Range to the east.
Some of the most spectacular natural wonders are found in and around the Sierras, including Lake Tahoe and the magnificent Yosemite Valley, within a few hours’ drive of each other. Further south, Mount Whitney ascends among the highest peaks, and nearby, to its east, the land descends to the depths of Death Valley below—respectively these are the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States.
Mount Shasta rises up over 14,000 feet as a monolithic peak at the southern-most end of the Cascade Range. The mountains are perfect for skiing in winter or escaping the extreme heat of the valley in the summer.
Three main deserts are found in California. The Colorado Desert, the westernmost part of the larger Sonoran Desert of Arizona and northern Mexico, includes the Salton Sea and Joshua Tree National Park.
The soaring Sierra Nevadas create a rain shadow for the Great Basin Desert, which extends across Nevada and is filled with sagebrush. This high desert gives way to salt flats in an even drier Mojave Desert to the south. In 2 hours, you can drive from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental US to its lowest point, Death Valley, in the Mojave Desert.
mission San Juan capistrano
Native tribes lived throughout California for centuries before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. Following them came Franciscan missionaries who established missions along the coastline for religious conversion of the indigenous peoples.
Between San Diego and Sonoma, 21 Spanish missions maintain the history of the Spanish conquests established by Junípero Serra in the 18th century. Mission Santa Barbara is the queen of them all, although Mission San Juan Capistrano is another top favorite.
After the Mexican-American War, ending in 1848, California fell to the United States just before the discovery of gold. Old Sacramento and nearby Sutter Fort were established as trade centers during the subsequent Gold Rush. Fort Mason in San Francisco was established during the Civil War for coastal defense.
Native tribes called this land home for centuries. Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park preserves the life and heritage of the Miwok people. The Chukchansi tribe of the indigenous Yokuts People is headquartered in Coarsegold, where prospectors found gold in 1849.
Along Highway 49, named for the rush of miners (49ers) who flooded the area in 1849, are old mining settlements. The El Dorado county seat of Placerville was founded near Sutter’s Mill, the original site where gold was discovered in Coloma. Other towns worth visiting are Auburn and Nevada City in Placer County, Sutter’s Creek in Amador County, and Columbia, Sonora, and Jamestown in Tuolumne County.
Quaint, rural towns, and protected landscapes continue to offer a quiet respite and connection to nature. Many maintain local heritage and history, which give them a depth of character.
As immigrants flooded the region during the Gold Rush and throughout the 20th century, vibrant urban centers began to form. The largest among them was San Diego, Los Angeles-Orange County, and San Francisco Bay Area. Today these cities have spread into major metropolises, not only sprawling with congestion but rich with cultural diversity and connection to the world.
California really is a state that offers something—and somewhere—for everyone.
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