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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.
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.
The top 10 cities in California by population are
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.. Other popular tourist destinations include Santa Cruz, South Lake Tahoe, Solvang, Napa Valley, Palm Springs and Santa Monica.
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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!
Channel Islands National Park is a United States national park that consists of five of the eight Channel Islands off the coast of the U.S. state of California, in the Pacific Ocean. Although the islands are close to the shore of densely populated Southern California, their isolation has left them relatively undeveloped. The park covers 100,994 ha of which 31,978 ha are owned by the federal government. The Nature Conservancy owns and manages 76% of Santa Cruz Island, the largest island in the park. Channel Islands National Park is home to a wide variety of significant natural and cultural resources. It was designated a U.S. National Monument on April 26, 1938, and a National Biosphere Reserve in 1976. It was promoted to a National Park on March 5, 1980. Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary encompasses the waters six nautical miles around Channel Islands National Park.
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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.
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.
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Kings Canyon National Park is a national park in the southern Sierra Nevada, east of Fresno, California. The park was established in 1940 and covers 186,925 ha. It incorporated General Grant National Park, established in 1890 to protect the General Grant Grove of giant sequoias. The park is north of and contiguous with Sequoia National Park; the two are administered by the National Park Service jointly as the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Some of the highlights of the park include the Grants Grove (including the Fallen Monarch) and the Giant Forest (including the famous General Sherman Tree).
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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.
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.
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The Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP) are located in the United States, along the coast of northern California. Comprising Redwood National Park (established 1968) and California's Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks (dating from the 1920s), the combined RNSP contain 540 km2. Located entirely within Del Norte and Humboldt Counties, the four parks, together, protect 45% of all remaining coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) old-growth forests, totaling at least 157.75 km2. These trees are the tallest and one of the most massive tree species on Earth. In addition to the redwood forests, the parks preserve other indigenous flora, fauna, grassland prairie, cultural resources, portions of rivers and other streams, and 60 kilometres of pristine coastline.
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Sequoia National Park is a national park in the southern Sierra Nevada east of Visalia, California, in the United States. It was established on September 25, 1890. The park spans 1,635.18 km2. Encompassing a vertical relief of nearly 4,000 metres, the park contains among its natural resources the highest point in the contiguous 48 United States, Mount Whitney, at 4,421 metres above sea level. The park is south of and contiguous with Kings Canyon National Park; the two are administered by the National Park Service together as the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
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.
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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:
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.
Several trains operated by Amtrak travel to and from California from a number of other states in the country. These include:
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.
Check Greyhound for options.
Flying may be a more reasonable option for crossing large expanses of the state. American/American Eagle; United/United Express, Virgin America, Southwest, Jetblue and Alaska Airlines offer intrastate flights within the state of California. San Francisco is a hub for United and Virgin America; Los Angeles is a hub for United, American/American Eagle, Virgin America and Alaska Airlines; and Long Beach is the West Coast hub for JetBlue. The LAX-SFO route is one of the busiest in America which means competitive fares and delays are frequent which is only made worse by the fog that tends to hit San Francisco bay at a regular basis.
Three trains operated by Amtrak travel throughout the state of California. These are:
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.
Greyhound offers services throughout California.
There are some services between California's mainland and islands off the coast like Santa Catalina Island near Los Angeles.
California doesn't have a very well-defined cuisine of its own, but rather a remarkably diverse food scene defined by its large population of immigrants of varied ethnic backgrounds and its access to one of the most productive agricultural regions this side of the planet. The culinary style referred to as "Californian cuisine" focuses on imaginative fusions of other cuisines, typically with heavy attention to presentation and an emphasis on using freshly prepared local ingredients.
Almost any dish you can imagine can be found somewhere in California, with the cuisines of The Americas and Asia heavily represented and those of nearly every other country available to a lesser extent. More "North American" fare includes everything from burger shacks to vegetarian, organic and even completely vegan restaurants; the Californian love for food has left it with one of the most diverse restaurant scenes in North America. The large cities have the most variety, while things get simpler and more meat-heavy as you get more rural.
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.
California is known for its fine wines and gourmet beers. Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino are premier wine districts north of San Francisco, but there are others in the Central Coast region and even the San Diego region where suitable microclimates have been found. The inland Central Valley region has hotter summers and traditionally produced inexpensive bulk wines, but quality has been improving with winemaking innovations.
Californians tend to view wine as a natural accompaniment of food or socializing, overlooking its alcoholic content more easily than with distilled spirits. However police crackdowns on drinking and driving are increasingly severe with roadblocks and random checks. Conviction for driving with a blood alcohol level over .08 percent is likely to bring serious legal and financial consequences. Drivers with lower blood alcohol can still be convicted for DUI (driving under the influence) if they fail field sobriety tests such as walking a straight line. You must be 21 years of age to drink any alcoholic beverage. Under age drinking is taken very seriously so if you are in a club or bar and appear to be under 30 you should be ready to present identification showing your age.
For beer, California also has a large population of microbreweries. Sierra Nevada, located in Chico, is one of the biggest microbreweries in North America. In the Central Coast the midsized brewery Firestone Walker in Paso Robles is a good addition to the local wineries in the area. In San Diego, Stone Brewing Company offers a great variety of beers that can be purchased throughout the state. There are over 200 microbreweries in California.
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:
We have a comprehensive list of accommodation in California searchable right here on Travellerspoint. You can use our map to quickly compare budget, mid-range or top of the range accommodation in California and areas nearby.
Ask WetWillie0 a question about California
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.
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