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California

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Travel Guide North America USA Western United States California

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Introduction

Old gas pump, Route 66, California

Old gas pump, Route 66, California

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht

Rugged national parks, world-class vineyards and of course the countless beaches keep travellers coming back to California. It's one of the biggest and most densely populated states of the USA, especially along the long and beautiful coastline from San Diego to San Francisco. Inland you will find much more space though, with mountains, deserts and the world's longest, biggest and oldest trees! It also holds on of the world's hottest places: Death Valley.

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Geography

The geography of California is extraordinarily diverse. The Pacific Ocean is in the west, Nevada and Arizona are to the east, Oregon is in the north, and the southern border is shared with Mexico. California is the third largest state in the United States.

The California Central Valley runs up and down the state while the coastal mountain ranges lay to the west, the Sierra Nevada to the east, the Cascade Range to the north and the Tehachapi Mountains in the south. There are hundreds of miles beaches, large stretches of desert, high mountains covered with snow, and thick redwood forests. The Sierra Nevada includes the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states, Mount Whitney, at 4421 metres. The range embraces Yosemite Valley, famous for its glacially carved domes, and Sequoia National Park, home to the giant sequoia trees, the largest living organisms on Earth, and the deep freshwater lake, Lake Tahoe, the largest lake in the state by volume.

About 45 % of the state's total surface area is covered by forests,] and California's diversity of pine species is unmatched by any other state. California contains more forestland than any other state except Alaska. Many of the trees in the California White Mountains are the oldest in the world; one Bristlecone pine has an age of 4,700 years.

In the south is a large inland salt lake, the Salton Sea. The south-central desert is called the Mojave; to the northeast of the Mojave lies Death Valley, which contains the lowest and hottest place in North America, the Badwater Basin at -86 metres. The horizontal distance from the nadir of Death Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney is less than 140 kilometres.

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Regions

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Cities

The top 10 cities in California by population are[1]

Other significantly sized cities include Bakersfield, Riverside, Barstow, San Bernardino, Pasadena, Stockton, Chula Vista, Modesto, Fremont and Glendale, all of which are in the top 100 cities in the US by population.[1]. Other popular tourist destinations include Santa Cruz, South Lake Tahoe, Solvang, Napa Valley, Palm Springs and Santa Monica.

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Sights and Activities

Beaches

Santa Monica

Rollercoaster, Santa Monica

Rollercoaster, Santa Monica

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht


Although Santa Monica is a city itself rather than part of the city of Los Angeles, it basically is the playground for the beach bums in the LA. Most of the action in Santa Monica is centred around the Santa Monica Pier, where the official end of Route 66 is located. The pier, with its activities like rollercoasters and all sorts of shops, splits the beach into two halfs. The northern one is less attractive and most parking takes place there. The southern half, towards Venice Beach, is more attractive, with cycle- and foothpaths and palmtrees. The water here is pretty cold like most of the Californian coast, and watch out for riptides or strong currents at times. There are lifeguards patrolling around the waters, but better safe than sorry!

Venice Beach
While Santa Monica Beach is more of a family style beach, Venice Beach is more the beach for the young and the ones that like to see and to be seen. Apart from the beach, there is also lots of sport grounds, including the famous Muscle Beach, where you'll find the big guys pumping their iron. Next to the beach runs the Ocean Front Walk, or just boardwalk, full with souvenir shops, snacks, drinks and even 'legal' (as in 'good for health problems') marihuana shops. Things can feel a bit worn down and downright shabby after the sun sets, but most of the times it's nothing more than a feeling and certainly not an unsafe place!

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley Road, California

Death Valley Road, California

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht

Death Valley is located in the Mojave Desert of California in the United States. Although Death Valley basically refers to the valley floor itself, it's actually part of the much larger Death Valley National Park. It is a place of extremes with the driest, hottest, and lowest place in North America. Oddly enough, it is not that far from Mount Whitney, which is the highest point in the lower 48 states. It is a popular camping destination and features many great hiking trails and natural wonders. Though these activities surely are not recommended in the hot summer months unless you plan to hike early in the morning.

Joshua Tree National Park

Located deep in the southern Californian desert is Joshua Tree National Park. Designated as a National Park in 1994 this area is one of the best preserved desert areas in the country. The park covers two different deserts that have their own ecosystem that are determined by different elevations. The area below 900 metres, is in the Colorado Desert and the plant life is creosote bush, ocotillo and cholla cactus. The Little San Bernardino Mountains cut through the southern park of the park.

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree

© All Rights Reserved airwaves


The higher, and therefore moister, part of the park is in the cooler Mojave Desert. This part of the park is home to the namesake of the park the Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia), which is related to the yucca plant. There are also several bird species to watch for in the park, with the best place to watch being Barker Dam. The dam is a also a good spot to watch for Big Horn sheep. The Mojave Desert part of the park, in the western part, is also home to amazing geologic formations. These bare rocks are broken up into loose boulders that are home to the parks most popular activity of rock climbing. Many people descend upon the park during the fall and spring, which is the high season, in order to take part in some of the best rock climbing in the world.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht

Lassen Volcanic National Park is a United States National Park in northeastern California. The dominant feature of the park is Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world and the southern-most volcano in the Cascade Range. Lassen Volcanic National Park started as two separate national monuments designated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907: Cinder Cone National Monument and Lassen Peak National Monument.

Pacific Coast Highway

Colourful mailboxes along Big Sur, California

Colourful mailboxes along Big Sur, California

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht

The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is one of the most beautiful roads along one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. It stretches along much of the Californian coastline. It starts at Interstate 5 near Dana Point in Orange County, south of Los Angeles and runs north past places like Santa Barbara, Cambria, Santa Cruz and San Francisco up to US Highway 101 near Leggett in Mendocino County. There is plenty to see and do along this magnificent drive, including the great Elephant Seal Colony near Cambria, the San Simeon Castle, the beautiful stretch of Big Sur with the famous Bixby Creek Bridge and of course the Golden Gate Bridge, shared with Highway 101.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is a massive national park, with 95% designated as a wilderness area, covering over 761,266 acres in several counties in east central California. Over 3.5 million people visit this park every year to see its stunning beauty. Its main attractions are its amazing granite cliffs, waterfalls, pristine streams, Giant Sequoia groves and stunning biological diversity.

Spectactular view from Glacier Point Road, Yosemite NP

Spectactular view from Glacier Point Road, Yosemite NP

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht


Resting across the Sierra Nevada Mountains the elevation ranges from 600 to 4,000 metres, which covers 5 distinct major vegetation zones. If looking for the drive by experience, car camping fun or the intense back country hiking and rock climbing Yosemite National Park has something for any outdoorsy junkie. Remember to watch out for black bears. The park consists of 5 areas: the Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Road/Area, Tioga Road and Tuolumne Meadows, Wawona and Hetch Hetchy (the least visited).

National Parks

  • Mojave National Preserve
  • Pinnacles National Monument
  • Redwood National Park
  • Sequoia National Park
  • Kings Canyon National Park
  • Channel Islands National Park

Amusement Parks

Skiing

Most people think of the beach and the desert when they think of a vacation in California. But some of the worlds best skiing can be found in California and the Lake Tahoe area. Looking for some intense turns and extreme backcountry or just some cruisers California Ski Areas have it all. For more information read the articles:

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Events and Festivals

January:

February:

March:

April:

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Weather

As California stretches from the border with Mexico north almost up half of the western coastline of the USA and there deserts and high mountain ranges, the climate in California can be quite different from place to place.

Generally though, summers from May to October are quite warm almost anywhere and can be extremely hot in the southern and southeastern deserts, with Death Valley recording temperatures over 50 °C almost every year. At the same time, the north and northwest might face some cooler conditions and it rarely gets overly hot in San Francisco for example. Temperatures vary from 25 °C to 35 °C in most areas during this time, though mountainous areas can be colder, especially at night.

Winters last from December to March, with cold conditions in the northern and eastern mountain ranges, though still fairly warm in the south, with temperatures between 16 °C and 22 °C. Nights can be particulary cold in the deserts during this time as well. The mountains can see heavy snowfall during this time and there are quite some ski areas, for example around Lake Tahoe along the border with Nevada.

Late Spring and early autumn are actually quite nice for a visit, although still you have to bear in mind that especially the higher areas can still be affected by cold and snow. Everywhere else is pleasantly warm though.

The northern parts have more rain, quite evenly distributed throughout the year though somewhat drier in summer. Some areas haven't seen decent amounts of rain though for several years, especially in the southern parts and deserts.

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Getting There

By Plane

  • The main airport is Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). It is one of the busiest airports in the world, handling over 60 million passengers a year. LAX is located in southwestern Los Angeles in the neighborhood of Westchester, 16 miles (27 kilometres) from the downtown core. The airport has 9 terminals: number 1 to 8 and the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT), serving hundreds of destinations within the US and to Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, Europe and Oceania.
  • Oakland International Airport (OAK) is about 5 miles (8 kilometres) from the CBD of Oakland. It mainly serves other US cities, but has some international flights as well, mainly to Guadalajara and Cancun and seasonal flights to Terceira, one of the Azores Islands.
  • Sacramento International Airport (SMF) is located about 10 miles (16 kilometres) from the central business district of Sacramento. It mainly has domestic flights, though there are international connections with a few cities in Mexico, mainly Guadalajara.
  • San Diego International Airport (SAN) is just about 5 kilometres from downtown San Diego. Around 20 airlines serve San Diego, with many domestic and several international connections.
  • San Francisco International Airport (SFO), located 21 kilometres (13 miles) south of San Francisco, is a major gateway to Asia, Europe and Oceania and there are numerous domestic flights as well. After Los Angeles International Airport, it's the second biggest in California and in the top 25 of the world regarding the number of passengers.
  • San Jose International Airport (SJC) is about 4 kilometres from downtown San Jose. It mainly has domestic flights and some international connections to Mexican places like Guadalajara and San Jose del Cabo.
  • Santa Ana-John Wayne Airport (SNA) is an airport near Santa Ana and is the main gateway to the Orange County. The airport is served by Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) buses #76 and #212, as well as the Irvine Shuttle route A.

By Train

Several trains operated by Amtrak travel to and from California from a number of other states in the country. These include:

  • The Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and New Orleans.
  • The California Zephyr between Emeryville (San Francisco) and Chicago.
  • The Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle.
  • The Southwest Chief between Los Angeles and Chicago, via Albuquerque.
  • The Texas Eagle between Los Angeles and Chicago three times a week. The San Antonio, Texas to Chicago part goes every day.

By Car

There are many roads, including Interstates that go to/from the state. The I-5 runs the entire lenght of the state towards Oregon. The I-80 goes into Nevada, while the I-15 travels to Las Vegas. The I-40, I-10 and I-8 run towards Arizona.

By Bus

Check Greyhound for options.

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Getting Around

By Train

Three trains operated by Amtrak travel throughout the state of California. These are:

  • The Capitol Corridor between Auburn and San Jose, stopping Sacramento and Emeryville (San Francisco) among other places.
  • The Pacific Surfliner between Paso Robles and San Diego, stopping in cities like Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.
  • The Sao Joaquins between the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California.

By Car

Many international rental companies have a wide selection of rental cars and these include Hertz, Avis, Dollar, Thrifty, Enterprise, Budget and Alamo/National. Most companies will require you are at least 25 years of age, although younger people might be able to rent cars at slightly higher rates and with some insurance differences as well. A national driver's license is usually enough, but an additional international one is recommended. Also note that it usually costs more to include lots of other extra things. For example extra drivers, GPS, the first full tank, SLI (Supplemental Liability Insurance), PAI (Personal Accident Insurance, usually covered already at home), road assistance/service plan, and drop-off costs for one-way rentals.
If you want to book a car, it is recommended that you book your car before arriving in the USA. This is almost always (much) cheaper compared to just showing up. Also, try and book with a so-called 'broker', which usually works together with a few or many car rental companies and can offer the best deal. Some examples include Holidayautos, Holidaycars and Sunny Cars. Some of the cheapest deals to book from Europe, includes Drive-USA, which also has a German version.

For more information and tips about renting cars and campers, additional costs, insurance, traffic rules, scenic routes and getting maps and fuel it is advised to check the USA Getting Around section.

California has a number of National Scenic Byways which offer a great way to explore the state crossing beautiful landscapes. Mostly, there are lots of national parks, state parks or monuments along the way and it's generally a better alternative than the faster but boring Interstate Highways.

By Bus

Greyhound offers services throughout California.

By Boat

There are some services between California's mainland and islands off the coast like Santa Catalina Island near Los Angeles.

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Eat

  • IN N OUT Burger is a local favorite. You'll find them along major freeways throughout the state. Their menus are simple (unless you know their "secret menu,") and their burgers are delicious.

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Sleep

Hotel and Motel Chains

There are dozens of hotel and motel chains, ranging from budget to top end. Allthough they are not the most charming accommodations, they usually have a very decent midrange service with good rooms and are generally good value. At least you know what to expect and in some cases they are either the only or the best option in the area. Some of them include:

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References

  1. 1.1 1.2 Source: Wikipedia's List of US Cities by Population

Quick Facts

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Capital
Sacramento

On Travellerspoint

Contributors

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California Travel Helpers

  • WetWillie0

    I'm a native and lifelong resident of California As a surfer and skier, I've seen just about every corner of the state. I can describe from memory tons of local features not included in the guide books.
    Thanks, Bill

    Ask WetWillie0 a question about California

This is version 74. Last edited at 23:30 on Mar 28, 14 by Toponym. 78 articles link to this page.

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