California geography

California geography

California, the third largest state in the United States, measures 560 miles from west to east and 1040 miles from north to south at its widest and longest. Bordered by Oregon to the north, Nevada and Arizona to the east, Mexico to the south and the Pacific Ocean to the west, its physical geography is very diverse: within its boundaries are cliffs, beaches, volcanic lava beds, fertile river valleys, waterfalls, mountains and deserts. Surprisingly perhaps, it contains both the highest point in the United States outside Alaska, Mount Whitney, and the lowest point in the entire country, Badwater Basin in Death Valley. These two extremes stand just 85 miles apart.
California’s stunning Pacific coastline stretches for 840 miles. Most of the longest, most accessible sandy beaches are in the southern section, between Santa Barbara and the Mexican border. This is where world-famous beaches such as Malibu, Venice, Santa Monica and Huntington are found. Further north, the beaches are more widely spaced. Popular sandy shores on the Central Coast include Carmel, Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz. North of San Francisco, the Pacific beats against remote coves and rocky bluffs which are good viewpoints for whale-watching.

The most significant and impressive of the state’s many mountain ranges is the Sierra Nevada in eastern California. It contains a large number of peaks measuring over 13,000ft (3962m), including Mount Whitney (14,505ft / 4421m), a favourite target for climbing expeditions. All the highest peaks in the Sierra Nevada are covered in snow throughout the winter months. The second highest range is the White Mountains which, together with the Inyo Mountains, stand nearby on the Nevada border, separated from the Sierra Nevada by Owens Valley. In Northern California, there’s fascinating scenery around the volcanic peaks of Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen at the southern end of the Cascade Range, which runs all the way down western North America from British Columbia.

The San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles are high enough to please winter sports enthusiasts, with reliable snowfalls every winter. Their highest peak is San Gorgonio Mountain (11, 503ft / 3506m). East of here, in the Mojave Desert, is the slightly higher Charleston Peak (11,916ft / 3632m). South of the San Bernardino range are the San Jacinto, Santa Rosa and Laguna Mountains.

Lower-lying mountains run all the way down the Pacific coast. The California Coast Ranges, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, stretch for over 400 miles from Humboldt County to Santa Barbara County. South of these are the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges, which contain peaks of over 10,000ft / 3048m.

Rivers, lakes and reservoirs
California’s principal rivers, both of which have numerous tributaries, are the Sacramento and San Joaquin which flow from the Sierra Nevada via the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys in central California to San Francisco Bay, then out to the Pacific Ocean. The Colorado River defines California’s border with Arizona.

The state’s largest freshwater lakes and reservoirs are Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada on the California-Nevada border, Clear on the Northern Coast and Lake Shasta in the Shasta Cascade. By volume, Tahoe is the world’s largest. Its maximum depth is a massive 1644ft (501m) and at 22 miles long, you can’t see one side from the other due to the curvature of the earth. The state’s saline lakes include Mono east of Yosemite and the largest Californian lake of all, the Salton Sea in the Colorado Desert, a place for birdwatching rather than swimming. There are smaller lakes dotted all over the state.

California state map. Illustration by Lisa Joanes
See an interactive map of California here

California’s twelve regions

California’s 58 counties are generally divided into Northern and Southern California. Californians don’t always agree where the border should be but most consider everything south of the line made by the northern boundaries of San Luis Obispo, Kern and San Bernardino counties to be Southern California, and the remaining two-thirds of the state to be Northern. The physical geography of the country falls naturally into 12 regions of varying size, as follows.

Shasta Cascade - In the far northeast, this is a region of volcanic mountains and lava beds featuring the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the vast Shasta Lake and sparkling rivers.

North Coast - The coastal strip from the Bay Area to the Oregon border is lined with rugged cliffs, rocky beaches, rolling green hills and misty forests of giant redwood trees, among them the Avenue of the Giants. The region has no large cities but it has a good number of small towns and communities with Victorian architecture and an arty, ecologically-aware vibe.

San Francisco Bay Area - This region includes San Francisco itself, densely populated and the cultural hub of Northern California, the East Bay cities of Oakland and Berkeley and the Silicon Valley city of San José. North of the San Francisco Bay are the counties of Marin, Sonoma and Napa, known for their open countryside, woodlands and wineries. To the south are San Mateo, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties, a mixture of farmland, affluent suburbs and scenic coast such as Half Moon Bay.

Gold Country - Named after California’s 19th century Gold Rush, this region is made up of historic mining towns, farms, wineries and small arts communities. The American River, a lively tributary of the Sacramento, runs down from the crest of the Sierra Nevada and crosses the region.

High Sierra - This dramatic region is home to some of the most stunning mountain terrain in the state, sculpted by glaciers over millennia. Lake Tahoe, Mono Lake and some of California’s best known parks including Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon are all located here.

Central Valley - The flat Central Valley is a welcoming region which stretches through the middle of the state from just north of Sacramento to Los Angeles. Rich, fertile soil makes this one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, with large farms growing almonds, tomatoes, grapes, apricots, and asparagus.

Sequoia National Park and Joshua Tree National Park

Central Coast - The section of coast between the San Francisco Bay Area to Santa Barbara includes Monterey beside its broad bay, the striking Big Sur cliffs and several historic Mission communities. The winelands of San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Edna Valley and Santa Barbara County, the Danish-built settlement of Solvang and the appealing beachside town of Santa Barbara are also found here. Five of the Channel Islands, offshore, are a national park.

Los Angeles County - Los Angeles, California’s most populated and glittering city, lies on a hilly desert plain between the Pacific and the forested San Gabriel Mountains, with the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains to the northwest. Malibu, Beverly Hills and Hollywood are all in the northwest part of the city, west of Downtown LA. The coast is lined with beaches and boardwalks and the attractive island of Santa Catalina lies offshore. Beyond the city’s vast grid of streets are the San Bernardino Mountains.

Orange County - This beachside county is sandwiched between San Diego, Los Angeles, and the Inland Empire. Formerly an important spot for fruit-growing, most of its orange groves have now been replaced with must-see amusement parks, shopping centres and resorts. This is the smallest and most affluent county in Southern California.

Inland Empire - The Inland Empire lies east of Los Angeles in California’s extreme southwest, adjacent to the Deserts region. Beyond the suburbs which house much of the Los Angeles workforce are the San Bernardino Mountains and National Forest.

The Deserts - This vast region in the southeast of the state includes arid plains, dunes and mountains of unsurpassed beauty. Death Valley National Park, the Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree National Park, the heavily irrigated Coachella and Imperial Valleys and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are all found here. The elegant town of Palm Springs is its main urban base.

San Diego County - A coastal city very close to the Mexican border, San Diego is California’s second largest metropolis, but its population is half that of LA. Hills and canyons create pockets of open space throughout the city. Long stretches of sandy beach occupy San Diego’s coastline, while to the east are avocado farms, the chaparral of Cleveland National Forest and the grassy slopes of the Laguna Mountains.

Read our 10 things to see and do in California.
Written by Emma Gregg and Katie Cook
Responsible Travel would like to thank the California Tourist Board for their sponsorship of this guide
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