California is located on the west coast of North America. It is the largest US state by population, and the third largest by area. California offers something for everyone: Southern California is home to such popular attractions as Disneyland, Hollywood and the beaches in Malibu that inspired the television show Baywatch, while the northern part of California offers the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the hills of San Francisco, the vineyards of Napa Valley, and the capital, Sacramento. Outside California's major cities one finds some of North America's most rugged national parks, incredible skiing/snowboarding opportunities, and quiet and ancient northern forests including the highest mountain peak in the contiguous USA, Mt. Whitney.
California varies greatly, ranging from the forested northern coastal regions to the rugged interior mountains to the harsh southern desert. Sandwiched in the center of California is the fertile Central Valley, home to a massive amount of agriculture.
These are some of the major cities in California.
California State Parks
California has many state parks, approximately half of which are located near urban centers. A few are highlighted below:
Human occupation in California goes back 50000 years; California was home to thirty different tribal groups prior to the arrival of European explorers in the 1500s and now over 120 tribes are left. The first Europeans were the Spanish and Portuguese, who built a settlement in California, establishing twenty-one missions in California by the late 1700s. Many of these missions survive today, including that in Santa Barbara.
After the Mexican War for Independence in 1821, California became a part of Mexico for 25 years until 1846 where it briefly became a sovereign nation, California Republic, before it was annexed by the United States in 1846. In 1848 the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada mountains kicked off the California Gold Rush, and California's non-native population surged from 15,000 to over 300,000 within two years.
California was recognized as a state in 1850, and its population increased steadily since then. Today California is the most populous state in the US with over 38 million residents.
With over 160,000 square miles (411,000 km2) the landscape of California is vast and varied. The state contains extremes in elevation, with Mount Whitney at 14,505 feet (4,421 m) being the tallest mountain in the lower-48 states, while less than 200 miles away Death Valley, at 282 feet (-82 m) below sea level, is North America's lowest point.
California's border to the west is made up of a rugged coastline along the Pacific Ocean. The coastal mountains rise up from the ocean and are home to redwood trees in the northern half. The Central Valley bisects California from north-to-south before giving way to the Sierra Nevada mountains, home of Yosemite National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and other natural wonders. The southeastern part of California is dominated by desert, which covers 25% of California's total area. The Mojave is a high desert, with elevations ranging from 3,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level. This area receives less than six inches of rain each year.
The state's climate varies from temperate at the coast to the brutal winters of the mountains to one of the world's hottest regions in the deserts. Rainfall is more common in the northern part of the state than in the south, and snow is rare except in the mountains.
The hottest temperature ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, 134°F (56.6°C) was at Death Valley in 1913, and temperatures regularly exceed 120°F (49°C) during the summer. In contrast, winter temperatures in the mountains can drop below 0°F.
California is a very diverse state with many ethnic groups. California has large populations of people of varied backgrounds such as Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Armenian, Iranian, Jewish, Chinese, Russian, Filipino, Eastern Indian, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, and Hmong. California also has large populations of African Americans and Native Americans.
Californians have a wide variety of political views. The Central Valley, Orange County, San Diego, and Palm Springs area tend to be more conservative, while Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay area tend to be more liberal.
California is a very large and populous state, with very different cultures in each region.
All major road entrances (including entrances from other U.S. States) to California have agricultural inspection stations to ensure that some fruits and vegetables do not cross into a region where they may come into contact with the farms in the Central Valley. Often, travellers are subject to border inspection (somewhat strict for domestic travel) and asked if they have been on a farm or are carrying organic matter with them.
California is the third largest state of the US in terms of size. It compares in size with Sweden. However, getting around California can be simple. Also, California has a variety of climate you can choose to live/visit in; from deserts to beautiful beaches to cold beaches to snowy areas to dry-hot areas to overcast cities to farmland to open grass hills and more! A wonderful place if you want to experince these different climates thoughout the year without breaking the bank.
In addition to interstates and US highways, California has one of the most expansive state highway systems in the United States. As with all trips in the United States, a car is usually the best way to get around and see all destinations. However the trip from the top of California to the bottom can take well over ten hours. The coast route (State Route 1 and US 101) is much slower and windier than Interstate 5, and GPS travel estimate times may be inaccurate - especially on Highway 1.
Most California drivers are courteous and careful (although speeding is rampant), and the safety and ease of driving in California is comparable to most First World industrialized countries. Exceptions may be found in the most congested areas of San Francisco and Los Angeles, where road rage, reckless driving and red-light running are commonplace.
California uses the MUTCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices) lane marking system standard throughout the United States, in which dashed white lines divide lanes of through traffic and yellow divides opposing traffic (with single dashed indicating passing and double solid indicating no passing). In many urban areas the lane markings are replaced by Botts dots for additional tactile feedback when crossing lanes.
The network of freeways in major population centers is often confusing and intimidating to those unfamiliar with the area, so having a good map is very helpful. Almost all exits from freeways are on the right. At interchanges between freeways, in most cases, the flow of traffic continues through the left lanes with the transition to the other freeway being in the right lanes.
Note that at certain freeway interchanges, Caltrans is notorious for posting advance direction signs that do not correctly explain which lanes correspond to which ramps. Additionally, Caltrans does not always consistently post signs warning of upcoming lane drops or merges.
For example, where a freeway has three through lanes and the central lane splits into two lanes, thus resulting in two ramps with two lanes each, the advance signage may incorrectly imply that only the right lane will break off for the upcoming right-side ramp, thus causing visitors driving in the middle lane to merge unnecessarily into the right lane. And the two lanes on the right-side ramp may suddenly merge into each other without any warning.
These issues frequently result in tourists making wild last-minute lane merges. The 2009 national MUTCD is intended to remediate this problem (as seen in California and several other states) by mandating the use of detailed arrows on direction signs that clearly show which lanes split into new lanes at upcoming interchanges, but only a handful of California interchanges rebuilt after 2009 have implemented the new MUTCD standard. Thus, one should always approach major freeway interchanges in California with caution.
Mile-based exit numbering is currently in progress but is still very erratic in areas; an exit number may not be marked at all, may be marked on the last directional sign before the exit, or may be marked on the final "EXIT" sign itself where the exit ramp separates.
Most highways are freely accessible, although there are a handful of toll roads in Orange County, Riverside County, and San Diego. All major bridges in the San Francisco Bay Area have toll plazas on traffic in only one direction. All California toll plazas have cash lanes, with the exception of those at the Golden Gate Bridge, which no longer accepts cash tolls.
Cash toll lanes are usually manned by human toll collectors, but some of the Orange County toll roads use only vending machines in the cash lanes which accept bills and coins. California toll plazas do not have "exact change" lanes where drivers may toss change in a basket. All California toll plazas also have lanes for FasTrak electronic toll collection transponders which can be used throughout the state. FasTrak is not compatible with any other state or country's ETC system. Driving through a FasTrak-only lane without a transponder or an active FasTrak account will result in a very expensive ticket. All toll bridges and toll roads have signage for a "last exit before toll," which you should take if you do not have a FasTrak transponder or enough cash to pay the toll.
In major metropolitan areas, the access ramps to a freeway may have two lanes, one marked with a diamond and the other with a traffic signal. The diamond lane (called the "carpool lane") is for vehicles with two or more persons and motorcycles. Vehicles with a single person must use the lane with the traffic light. During high-traffic times, the traffic light spaces out the vehicles attempting to merge onto the freeway. Be sure to read the sign below the light as some ramps allow two or three vehicles per green. A few interchanges between freeways are now using controlled access lights to lighten the gridlock at interchanges.
Some freeways have a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane located along the center divider. This lane, also called the carpool lane, is marked by signage on the wall separating the two sides of the freeway, and in Southern California is additionally marked by a double-yellow line (or in a few places, a double-white line in accordance with the newest version of the MUTCD).
In most cases, this lane is for two or more persons per vehicle. Some carpool lanes in Northern California are in effect during rush hour only, and a few selected areas, notably in the Bay Area, require three or more per vehicle, so check the signage before entering a carpool lane. Motorcycles may also use carpool lanes. Carpool lanes in Southern California are usually in effect 24 hours a day, and have limited access points marked by a dashed white line. These points are the only points at which a vehicle may legally enter or exit a carpool lane, since under the MUTCD, drivers are not allowed to merge across a double yellow line. The minimum fine for unlawful use of a carpool lane is $341.
All persons in a moving vehicle are required to wear a seatbelt and the driver and all passengers can be individually ticketed for failing to do so. Motorcycle riders must wear a helmet. Cellphone users are required to use a hands-free headset if talking on the phone while driving, and texting by the driver is illegal. Unless otherwise signed, right-turns are permitted at red lights following a full stop. If it is raining hard enough to require you to use your windshield wipers, California law requires that your headlights be turned on.
California does not have stationary photo radar cameras like in other countries, and mobile manned photo radar units are rare and still experimental. However, most California police officers do carry radar guns and use them often, and on rural freeways, the California Highway Patrol occasionally flies aircraft overhead to spot speeders and help ground units home in on their positions. Red light enforcement cameras are in use at many urban intersections, but are usually marked only by a single "PHOTO ENFORCED" sign before the intersection. Even more confusing, all approaches to an intersection may be marked with "PHOTO ENFORCED" signs when only one or two actual movements across the intersection are really photo-enforced. The cameras must obtain a clear view of the driver's face and license plate before a ticket may be issued.
California's laws against driving under the influence of alcohol are very strict. The maximum permissible blood alcohol concentration for drivers of noncommercial vehicles is 0.08%; for commercial vehicles, it is 0.04%. All drivers are strongly encouraged to call 911 to report drunk drivers.
Flying may be a more reasonable option from crossing large expanses of the state. Many airlines like American Eagle, United & United Express, Jetblue, Virgin America and Southwest offer intra-state (within the state) service.
The primary (commercial) airports are in:
The state's various rail services provide a cheap and reasonably comfortable way to see and get around much of the state. Amtrak  operates a few long-distance routes through and out of California (visit this Wikitravel article for more information), as well as the three Amtrak California  routes:
In addition, there are several commuter and regional services in the state's metro areas:
A comprehensive map of the various California rail services can be found at California Rail Map , including connection points between services.
The bus is not the most glamorous way to get around the state, but it can be the cheapest. Greyhound serves about 100 locations statewide, though these are not all actual stations, some are merely stops. In general, Greyhound serves the same routes that Amtrak does, though in some cases the dog is cheaper, faster, or more frequent. There's fairly frequent service between San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento, and Sacramento and Los Angeles. There's hourly "clocker" buses between Los Angeles and San Diego. The bus stations in San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Diego are all well-located, but in Los Angeles the station is over a mile east of the downtown core. On the other hand, the Santa Barbara Greyhound station is immediately behind the very upscale Saks Fifth Avenue store!
In addition to Greyhound there are other choices with:
The California Constitution states that English is the official language of the state of California, but in reality, this rule is treated as a floor rather than a ceiling, and one should regard California as a multilingual state. Californian English is the main language and Spanish is the de facto second language, and a knowledge of even rudimentary Spanish is useful in most cities from Sacramento to San Diego. Los Angeles has some of the largest hispanic populations north of Mexico. The state is highly influenced by Spanish culture, as California was one part of the Spanish empire until 1821, and then to Mexico for a short while after until ceded to the USA in 1848. In fact, some of its residents declared it an independent country for about a month (The Bear Flag Republic) in the midst of the Mexican-American War 1846-1848, and many of California's cities were named after saints or phrases in Spanish (such as Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Jose). Store and street signs are sometimes written in both English and Spanish in major metropolitan areas, and "Spanglish" (a mixture of English and Spanish) is often used and heard throughout the state. Most businesses in California have at least a few employees that are bilingual in English and Spanish. Also, Armenian, Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese, Hindi, Punjabi, and Khmer are also widely spoken among Asian Californian populations.
Some of the most famous sights in California include:
California sales tax varies from 7.5% in rural areas to as high as 10.0% in certain cities. The State Board of Equalization maintains up-to-date charts of sales taxes for all California cities and counties. Sales tax is charged on all goods but not services. It is not included in prices (with the exception of gasoline) and is normally calculated and charged at the cashier. California retail receipts always show a "subtotal," then the amount of sales tax, then the real "total" obtained by adding the two.
Like most U.S. states, California sales tax is not refundable for tourists from out-of-state. Regardless, because sales tax is charged only at the final point of sale (unlike a value-added tax which is levied on every producer in the chain), California prices (even after tax is accounted for) are often still very affordable for tourists visiting from countries that charge high import tariffs and VAT for the same goods.
The major department stores in California include Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, Macy's, JCPenney, Sears, and Kohls. The first four are considered upscale. Macy's is mostly midrange and most stores feature its own store brands. However, Macy's also carries upscale designer label merchandise at select stores in wealthy areas like San Francisco and Costa Mesa. JCPenney, Sears, and Kohls target a middle-class to working-class market.
If you are visiting California on an escorted tour package and will be visiting San Francisco and Los Angeles in the same trip, plan on doing most of your department store shopping at the giant West Coast flagship stores in Union Square in San Francisco. Although Los Angeles is the second largest city in America and the most populous in the state, none of the major chains has ever developed a full-size flagship store in that city comparable to the ones found in New York, Paris, or other world cities. The closest equivalent in Southern California is the cluster of three Macy's stores (women's apparel, men's apparel, and home and furniture) at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.
In Northern California, the most important shopping areas are Union Square in San Francisco, Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto, and Westfield Valley Fair in San Jose. In Southern California, the most important shopping areas are Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills (mostly for window shopping as few visitors can actually afford anything), Westfield Century City, Santa Monica Place (and the adjacent Third Street Promenade), Beverly Center, South Coast Plaza, Fashion Island in Newport Beach, and Horton Plaza and Fashion Valley in San Diego.
The Premium Outlets chain operates several factory outlet centers in California, of which the most important are located at Vacaville, Gilroy, Camarillo, Cabazon, and Carlsbad.
California is famous as the home of the Fry's Electronics computer retail chain, which operates superstores throughout Silicon Valley and in other suburban areas throughout the state. Unfortunately, most Fry's stores are not conveniently located from a tourist perspective and are very difficult to reach without a rental car. The stores closest to areas of interest to tourists are in Palo Alto (near Stanford University), Manhattan Beach, and Huntington Beach (near South Coast Plaza).
As in the rest of the U.S., the leading convenience store chain in California is 7-Eleven. The two other major convenience store chains are am/pm stores (always found at Arco gas stations) and Circle K.
For basic supplies, try to use supermarkets and pharmacies if possible, as they have better selection and provide better value for your money than convenience stores. The major pharmacy chains in California are CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid. The major supermarkets in the Bay Area are Safeway, Lucky's, and Nob Hill Foods, while in Los Angeles, major supermarkets include Vons, Pavilions, and Ralphs. The state's inland metro areas feature smaller supermarket chains like WinCo and Raley's. Whole Foods Market is the leading organic/natural supermarket throughout the state. Bristol Farms is the dominant upscale supermarket in Southern California (with a single NorCal store near San Francisco Union Square) while Draeger's is the dominant upscale supermarket in the Bay Area.
The ubiquitous discount store chains Walmart and Target both offer some groceries (Walmart Supercenters and SuperTargets offer a full selection of groceries) and also usually have pharmacies on site. However, with the exception of the relatively new CityTarget stores in downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco, most of their stores are located in suburbs and are difficult to reach unless you have a rental car.
The culinary style known as Californian Cuisine is noted for its use of fresh often local ingredients and imaginative fusion of several styles. The burrito also has its origins from California, born in the Mission District of San Francisco. Almost anything you can imagine can be found somewhere in California. Immigration has had a strong influence on California's culinary landscape, 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 the North America. The large cities have the most variety, while things get simpler and more meat-heavy as you get more rural.
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 212 microbreweries in California.
Occasionally, there will be an advisory issued for air stagnation, which is a phenomenon involving an air mass that cannot move and therefore stagnates over an area for an extensive period of time. Pollutants are often unable to be removed from the air and this often causes breathing difficulties for those with existing respiratory conditions.
If you have a respiratory condition, refer to the National Weather Service website on air quality to see if any such advisories have been issued for the areas you might visit.
Like many western states, California has had cases of hantaviral pulmonary syndrome, 42 confirmed cases in the state since 1993. Realistically, however, hantavirus is of very little concern to the traveler; but sensible precautions should be applied. Do NOT venture in a wild animal's den or handle any dead animals; particularly rodents, as rodents seem to be the primary vector of the illness. There is no cure for the disease, treatment mainly consists of supportive therapies. The main defense against the virus is prevention.
Due to California's proximity to the International Boundary with Mexico, visitors should be cautious while in areas near the border.
Crossing The Border
Thousands of U.S citizens visit the state of Baja California, Mexico from California every year with the majority of travelers returning from an enjoyable experience. However, a minority of travelers do experience difficulties and serious inconveniences while traveling to Mexico. Before traveling to Mexico, ensure that you have the proper documentation and are familiar with the recommendations for foreign travel from the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs
As a whole, California has a relatively high crime rate when compared to many other states. The usual inner city crime can be found in the worst parts of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland. Central Valley cities, such as Sacramento, Stockton, and Fresno also have gang problems. Northern coastal cities such as Eureka have an ongoing problem with significant drug activity, primarily the prevalence of methamphetamine, and property crimes. However, most California cities are very safe. As long as you take basic precautions against petty crime and stay out of obviously run-down neighborhoods, you will probably have a safe and pleasant visit. Be smart and you will be safe.
If you are traveling along the Pacific Coast Highway or Highway 101, you may notice there are a substantial number of hitch-hikers along the way. Most hitchhikers are friendly and present no danger, however, use caution when picking them up.
Drugs are illegal in California. That being said, California has one of the most tolerant positions regarding marijuana in the country. In the some parts of California (San Francisco, Mendocino County, Oakland, Santa Cruz, Parts of Los Angeles, Coastal San Diego, parts of Lake Tahoe) a very European attitude toward marijuana can often be found. While possession without a doctors recommendation is still illegal it is considered a minor offense. If you are caught you will either be told to throw it away or at worst given a $100 fine. It is always best to be discreet and avoid doing things that will bring attention in public.
If you find yourself in an emergency situation (of any kind), dial 911 on your phone.
Earthquakes that are large enough to cause extensive damage are rare, but remain a matter of reality for the state. The biggest dangers in an earthquake are falling objects and windows which shatter explosively. In the event of an earthquake, face away from windows and hide under any sturdy table or desk that may be available. If you are indoors, do not run outside! Falling building facades are more likely to cause severe injuries than anything inside. Contrary to popular belief do not stand in a door frame it is not safe at all, this is merely a myth. You're more likely to get your fingers caught in the frame from all the shaking and swinging of the door than gain protection from a falling object. If outdoors, stay away from buildings and stay out from under power lines.
Along the southernmost portion of the California-Nevada border and the, as well as the California-Arizona border, California has desert landscapes which extend into the south-central regions of the state; the most famous (or infamous) being the region known as Death Valley, where numerous hapless tourists and hikers have indeed met an unfortunate fate while exploring the region.
If you are planning on traveling or hiking into these locations, follow desert survival guidelines. Be sure to take plenty of water (at least one gallon per person, per day), sunscreen and wear light clothing. Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to get return.
Be sure to have a full tank of gasoline, a fully charged cell phone in working condition, and multiple bottles of water prior to traveling by car into these regions. Many desert locations are extremely remote and without any services for many miles (in some cases nearly 100 miles). A vehicle breakdown in the desert is extremely unpleasant in the best-case scenario and tragic in the worst.
Also, it is best to hike during the earlier part of the day, as thunderstorms tend to develop suddenly during the afternoon. In the event you encounter inclement weather conditions, seek high ground immediately! Thunderstorms can cause flash flooding in canyons and other low-lying areas.
Although Southern California is world-famous for sunny weather, much of California suffers from heavy fog in the morning during certain times of year, particularly the Central Valley and some smaller valleys in Northern and Central California. Even coastal areas in Southern California sometimes see fog in the summer (the notorious "June gloom").
Fog usually causes a massive (and often deadly) freeway pileup somewhere in the state approximately every three to five years. Exercise extreme caution when traveling in areas where heavy fog is forecast.
The incidence of Earthquakes in California raises the concern for potential threats of Tsunamis. Though very rare to occur, it should be noted that a great deal of California's coastline is in a Tsunami zone. For more information on the state's hazard assessment, visit the NOAA Center for Tsunami Research website .
Wildfires are quite common between May and October. Take a few precautions - throw out cigarette butts into trashcans, clear the area around campfire pits/rings in campgrounds, never leave flames unattended (even artificial ones), avoid weapon use in dry areas. The strongest impact from fires is smoke. Smoke affects areas dramatically exceeding the size of the root fire. Travelers with respiratory issues should consult visitor information sites before visiting areas where fires are occurring.
California is filled with a very diverse group of people. Northern and Southern California have extremely different cultures, while the rural areas in the Central Valley and Eastern portions of the state differ even more significantly. Like much of the US, sensitive topics include immigration, race, gay rights, and politics.