TRAVEL > NORTH AMERICA > UNITED STATES > CALIFORNIA
As a whole, California has the most diverse range of climates and terrains in the country.
Sand and Surf
The Pacific coastline of California stretches for 840 miles, with climates ranging from cool temperate 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.
Up the coastline from the south are notable beach communities, each with a artistic, laidback vibe: Coronado in San Diego, Redondo Beach (South Bay) and Santa Monica in LA, Santa Barbara, Pismo Beach in San Luis Obispo, Capitola near Santa Cruz, Bodega Bay in Marin.
Find abundant sea life at Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Aquarium of the Bay on Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf of 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, Hawk Hill at Marin Headlands, and Mendocino.
The Sacramento River flows south from Lake Shasta and San Joaquin River runs north from headwaters high in the Sierras. Both are the largest of valley tributaries to 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, producing half of the produce and nuts grown in the US.
The California capital city of Sacramento was formed as an inland port city to the San Francisco Bay via the Sacramento River, and as the connection point to the American River, which led up into gold country.
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 Shenondoah 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 closely 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 greater 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.
MISSIONS AND FORTS
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 the 18th century. Mission Santa Barbara is the queen of them all, although Mission San Juan Capistrano is another top favorite.
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 of the indigenous Yokuts People are 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 were 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 with rich diversity of culture and connection to the world.
California really is a state that offers something—and somewhere—for everyone.
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