THE MOST POPULOUS state in the UNITED STATES, California also has the richest and most urbanized citizenry. It is the third largest state, famous for its climate, unique industries, agriculture, geographic variety, and lifestyles. California covers 158,706 square mi (411,049 square km), is 252 mi (406 km) at its widest point, and is 824 mi (1,326 km) in length. Its western border is the PACIFIC OCEAN, and the state has 1,931 km (1,200 mi) of shoreline. On the east, most of California borders NEVADA, and in the southeast, the Colorado River separates the state from ARIZONA. OREGON shares the northern boundary, and to the south, California's border is international; the Mexican state of Baja California lies across it. The state capital is at Sacramento, an inland city on the Sacramento River, near the spot where gold was discovered in 1848. Nicknamed “The Golden State,” the official motto is “Eureka!” meaning “I found it!”



An indication of California's geographic diversity is that the highest and lowest points in the contiguous 48 states lie within 85 mi (137 km) of each other in California: Mount Whitney, at 14,505 ft (4,421 m) in height, and Death Valley, at 282 ft (86 m) below sea level. Death Valley, a national park, also is the site of the highest temperature ever recorded in the United States: 134 degrees F (56.7 degrees C) in 1913. Almost 28 million acres, or 27.7 percent of the land in California, are devoted to farming. Much of this is in the Central Valley, which extends 450 mi (724 km) along the state's interior, between the coastal and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. Many large rivers, including the Sacramento, Merced, American, Feather, Tuolumne, and San Joaquin, water the valley, which is called the Sacramento Valley in the north and the San Joaquin Valley in the south. The DELTAs of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers divide the two valleys. Grapes are the principal cash crop, bringing in over $2.5 billion per year; California produces 91 percent of the world's grapes. Lettuce, almonds, strawberries, flowers, tomatoes, and hay follow in order of sales dollars.

The Sierra Nevada are among the highest mountains in the United States and extend in a swath 40 to 80 mi (64 to 129 km) wide, and 430 mi (692 km) long. The range begins south of the active VOLCANO Lassen Peak in the north, slopes upward east of the Central Valley, and continues south to the Tehachapi Mountains. The mountain range's eastern edge is sheer and marked by sudden drops in altitude. Carved by glaciers and continually uplifted by tectonic activity, the Sierra Nevada contains 13 peaks that stand over 14,000 ft (4,267 m) tall. The range is the site of three national parks: Yosemite, King's Canyon, and Sequoia, as well as Lake Tahoe, a freshwater lake astride the California- Nevada border, 6,229 ft (1,899 m) high, and 1,645 ft (501 m) deep.

North of the Sierra Nevada is an active volcanic area that includes Mount Lassen, Mount Shasta, Medicine Lake Volcano, the Lava Beds National Monument, and the southern edge of the Cascade Range. Directly east of the Sierra Nevada lies the western edge of the Great Basin, a sparse, arid area that extends across much of Nevada and UTAH. It is also called the Trans-Sierra Desert. Both areas are sparsely populated.

California's coastline includes the state's four largest cities: Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, and San Francisco, listed in order of population. Three of the four are port communities, which combined, see over $350 billion in import and export trade per year. Urban areas can extend up to 40 mi (64 km) inland. The coastal areas of California are also made of sandy beaches and dune areas, wetlands, and bluffs.

The Pacific Ocean coast in California is lined with mountain ranges, created by either upthrust magma or the more recent interaction of two tectonic plates, the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. These mountains affect the state's climate by forming a barrier that prevents the ocean's moisture and storms from traveling further inland. In the far north the Klamath Mountains continue into Oregon. The Coast Ranges are a series of mountains north of San Francisco that reach heights of up to 4,000 ft (1,219 m): the Diablo, Sierra Madre, San Rafael, Gabilan, Santa Cruz, and Santa Lucia mountains.

Below San Francisco, the Transverse Ranges include the Santa Monica Range, which extends offshore to the northern Channel Islands. (While the names of cities and mountains are sometimes the same, they are not necessarily in the same area; the city of Santa Monica is far to the south in Los Angeles County.) Some of the other ranges in the Transverse group, which reaches heights of 10,000 ft (3,048 m), are the Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez, Tehachapi, Topatopa, San Gabriel, and San Bernadino mountains, which stretch as far south as Los Angeles County. South of Los Angeles, the Peninsular Ranges, with altitudes as high as the Transverse Range, includes several groups leading inland as far as the Coachella Valley, as well as the Santa Ana Range that extends out to sea, forming the southern Channel Islands. This group of mountains, which includes the San Jacinto, Santa Rosa, Agua Tibia, and Laguna, continues south into Baja California.

A large portion of the state south and east of the Sierra Nevada comprises the Mojave Desert, which covers one-sixth of California's land mass. Death Valley, the Joshua Tree National Park, and the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge are found here, as well as several military installations, testing grounds, and Indian reservations. The Mojave Desert takes up 25 million acres in California and extends into Nevada and Utah as well. It averages 2,000 to 3,000 feet (610 to 914 m) above sea level, although some areas have much higher and lower altitudes.

South of the Mojave and east of the southern Peninsular Range is the Colorado Desert. This area, which is actually an extension of the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and MEXICO, is less than 1,000 ft (305 m) above sea level in most places. Cotton is a major agricultural product of this thinly populated area.


With so much geographic variation, generalizations about California's climate are difficult to make. In most cities of California, though, especially along the coast, winters are much milder that in other areas of similar latitude in the United States. In January, southern metropolitan areas average temperatures of 49 to 65 degrees F (9.5 to 18.3 degrees C), while Bishop, a city east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the Great Basin, sees a range of 22 to 54 degrees F (-5.5 to 12.2 degrees C).

In Eureka, a coastal city in the north, the temperature is 41 to 55 degrees F (5 to 12.8 degrees C). Normal high temperatures in July range from 96 to 99 degrees F (35.5 to 37.2 degrees C) in some Central Valley and desert cities, to 63 degrees F (17.2 degrees C) in Eureka. July highs in Los Angeles average 84 degrees F (29 degrees C), and in San Francisco, 68 degrees F (20 degrees C).

Extreme temperatures occur in Death Valley and the high Sierras. The summer heat in Death Valley averages over 100 degrees F (37.8 degrees C), and the area usually gets less than 2 in (5 cm) of rain per year. Higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada get between 70 and 80 in (178 and 203 cm) of precipitation per year, most of it as snow, while desert regions might receive no more than 3 or 4 in (7.6 to 10.2 cm). Along the coast, more rain falls in the north than the south; San Diego, near the border with Mexico, receives less than 11 in (28 cm) per year, while San Francisco gets over 22 in (56 cm).

California was home to Native Americans for at least 15,000 years, and possibly much longer. They formed diverse groups; by the time Europeans encountered the natives of California, there were probably 300,000 people living in the area, speaking over 100 distinct languages. An estimated 500 groups or tribelets, each with their own customs, beliefs, diets, values, and survival techniques, dotted the landscape. The artistic and complex society of the Chumash on the central coast, who built plank canoes to reach coastal islands, was very different from the small family groups of Paiutes who lived east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where resources were scarce. Tribal lifestyles in California were shaped by the land and weather.

Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to sail up the coast of California in 1542. He entered San Diego's harbor, passed San Francisco Bay twice without notice, and died on one of the Channel Islands. Spain claimed the land but saw it only as a port for the Manila galleons that sailed annually between Asia and Mexico. Over two centuries passed before Spain made an attempt to colonize the land they called Alta California. Fray Junipero Serra and soldier Don Gaspar de Portola led a team of priests and military men north, founding 21 missions, four presidios (forts), and several pueblos (towns) in California through the 1790s.

Along the coast, the Spanish settlements changed and sometimes destroyed native cultures when they attempted to convert, confine, and employ them. Tribes not directly tied to the missions were forced to move or adapt their lifestyles to an environment that changed with the Spanish introduction of new plants, trees, herd animals, and pigs.

Under the Spanish, California's economy came to depend on cattle ranching and the sales of cowhide and tallow. In many inland areas, though, the native groups continued to live as they had for centuries. When Mexico declared independence in 1821, the new government allowed the missions to decline and awarded huge land grants to Mexican citizens.

A small insurrection in 1846 called the Bear Flag Revolt, led by John C. Fremont and other Americans, claimed California for the United States but was abandoned with the outbreak of the Mexican American War. A year later the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded California to the United States as part of the war's settlement. At practically the same time, gold was discovered near Sacramento, on land owned by Swiss immigrant John Sutter. Thousands of gold seekers (called 49ers the first year) flooded California. The state was transformed by the sudden influx of young, mostly white males. San Francisco Bay became a graveyard of abandoned ships; crews as well as passengers flocked to the gold “diggings” along the American, Feather, and Sacramento River and their branches. San Francisco itself boomed from a hamlet of 400 in 1847 to a city of 15,000 by the fall of 1849. In the search for gold, rivers were dammed and diverted, and choked with debris. Channels and pits were gouged out of the landscape, and hillsides were washed away by hydraulic mining. Arsenic-laden piles of tailings—the refuse of processed ore—poisoned land and water.

California became the 31st state in September 1850, and the Mexican citizens who stayed lost most of their lands. A free state, it sided with the North during the Civil War but was far from the battlefields. The state continued to grow even after mining lost its appeal, but men outnumbered women for many years, Native populations dwindled, and nonwhites were usually denied citizenship and rights. Chinese immigrants, 25,000 of them almost all male, arrived by 1852, and thousands more were brought to the state in the 1860s to build railroads.

The railroads made millionaires of some and opened the state to more migration from the east. Boosterism (promoting California) and progressivism flourished near the turn of the 20th century. The new film industry centered itself in Hollywood and became a defining symbol of the state. After the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, the temblor was also associated with the state. California became a leading producer of wheat, fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and water availability became a problem, addressed by projects such as the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley, and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which devastated the Owens Valley to bring water to Los Angeles.

Prejudice against the Chinese at the state and national levels led to a halt in immigration from China, and by 1910, 40,000 Japanese laborers entered California to work. The state, always prey to a “boom and bust” cycle of growth, barred and discriminated against immigrants in economic downturns. During the Depression, interstate migrants from the Dust Bowl were turned away at the border.

World War II brought the aircraft industry to California, along with increased shipbuilding and weapons production. The sunny climate and available land for training and testing were factors that attracted wartime industry, and California remained a major center for military and defense work into the 21st century. This brought many minorities to the state to fill jobs. Much of California's large Japanese population, however, was forced into internment camps during the war.

After the war, sprawling suburbs grew around cities to accommodate workers of the new technical and aerospace industries. California's liberal governor Earl Warren, a Republican, like most of his predecessors since the Civil War, left office to lead the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953. California emerged as center of protest and innovation during the 1960s, and San Francisco became a haven for the counterculture movement.

The Watts riots in Los Angeles focused attention on civil rights issues, the free speech movement at the University of California at Berkeley turned to active protests and sit-ins, the Black Panthers and Chicano student organizations were formed, and the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied Alcatraz Island, a former prison in San Francisco Bay.

The technical industries of California expanded in the 1970s and 1980s to include new computer and microchip businesses, and Silicon Valley in the north became a major center of information technology. Environmental concerns over toxic dumping and emissions, smog, and pesticide use in agricultural areas rose during the same period. Immigration, both international and interstate, continued to inflate the population. In the 1970s, San Francisco became a center for the gay community, and the sexual orientation of the city's residents has been at least 15 percent gay since. In 2004, the city issued 4,037 same-sex marriage licenses before ordered to stop by the state supreme court.

In the 1990s, Los Angeles suffered further riots, and the state experienced natural disasters, including large earthquakes, fires, droughts, flooding, and mudslides, combined with economic ups and downs. California shares the same concerns and challenges as the rest of the nation as it enters the 21st century, but with a larger share of population, land, and business than most other states, California has become both a leader and a test case for new ventures, ideas, and lifestyles.


As of July 2003, the state was home to 35,934,000 people: 28 percent, or 10 million people, live in Los Angeles County; six other counties have over 1 million residents. For historical context, after the initial gold rush, California in 1850 had 92,000 people (excluding Native Americans), by 1870, 0.5 million, and in 1900, 1.5 million people. In 1941 the state was home to just over 7 million people; by 1957 that figure had doubled. The population in 1970 was 20 million, in 1980 almost 24 million, and in 1990, 30 million. California's population is slightly younger than the national average, with only 10.6 percent over age 65 (nationally, 12.4 percent are over 65), and 27.3 percent under age 18 (compared to 25.7 percent nationally).

About half of the new residents in California in 2003 were immigrants; 49 percent of that numbercame from Latin America and the Caribbean, and 40 percent came from Asia. California has had the highest population of immigrants for several years; over 27 percent of immigrants to the United States live there. The 2000 U.S. census reports that of almost 35 million people in California, 16 million claimed to be white, 11 million Hispanic, 2.2 million Black, and 3.7 million Asian in ethnicity. Over 900,000 said they were multiracial, 104,000 were Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders, and 179,000 claimed American Indian or Native Alaskan heritage.


California boasts the fifth-largest economy in the world and the largest in the United States. Its gross state product in 2003 was $1.4 trillion. Although a 2004 study put California second (behind Massachusetts) in its ability to attract and develop high-tech business, all projections are impacted by fiscal and budget problems that led to the 2003 recall election of the state's governor, Gray Davis. Davis was replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who proposed massive cuts and changes in the state's spending to bring the deficit under control.

Tourism, the entertainment business, aerospace, electronics, and high-tech industries are all areas in which California dominates other states. California's agricultural production, including both farm and cattle products, exceeded $27.6 billion in 2001. There were 88,000 farms in the state, covering 27.7 million acres. California produced over 90 percent of the world's grape products, and in 2003, almost 500 million gallons of California wine were shipped worldwide. In 2001, about 19 percent of Californians worked in trade, transportation and utilities, 15 percent provided professional services, 15 percent worked for the government, 11 percent for manufacturers, and 10 percent in education and health fields.

Over the years, the unemployment rate has remained higher than the national average; in 2003 California saw 6.7 percent unemployment, compared to the nation's 6.0 percent. Average personal income in California has historically been higher than that of the rest of the United States, but the percentage has steadily declined. In 1955, Californian earned 24.5 percent more per capita, but in 2002 a Californian earned only 6.7 percent more than people in other states, on average.