Geography of California

Los Angeles skyline with snowy mountains behind

Carl Larson Photography/Getty Images

California is a state located in the western United States. It is the largest state in the union based on its population of over 35 million and it is the third-largest state (behind Alaska and Texas) by land area. California is bordered to the north by Oregon, to the east by Nevada, to the southeast by Arizona, to the south by Mexico and the Pacific Ocean to the west. California's nickname is the "Golden State." The state of California is most well known for its large cities, varied topography, favorable climate, and large economy. As such, California's population has grown quickly over the past decades and it continues to grow today via both immigration from foreign countries and movement from other states.

Basic Facts

  • Capital: Sacramento
  • Population: 38,292,687 (January 2009 estimate)
  • Largest Cities: Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Long Beach, Fresno, Sacramento, and Oakland
  • Area: 155,959 square miles (403,934 sq km)
  • Highest Point: Mount Whitney at 14,494 feet (4,418 m)
  • Lowest Point: Death Valley at -282 feet (-86 m)

Geographic Facts About California

The following is a list of ten geographic facts to know about the state of California:

  1. California was one of the most diverse regions for Indigenous peoples in the United States with around 70 independent communities prior to the arrival of persons from other areas in the 1500s. The first explorer of the California coast was the Portuguese explorer João Rodrigues Cabrilho in 1542.
  2. Throughout the rest of the 1500s, the Spanish explored California's coast and eventually established 21 missions in what was known as Alta California. In 1821, The Mexican War of Independence allowed Mexico and California to become independent of Spain. Following this independence, Alta California remained as a northern province of Mexico.
  3. In 1846, the Mexican-American War broke out and following the end of the war, Alta California became a U.S. territory. By the 1850s, California had a large population as a result of the Gold Rush and on September 9, 1850, California was admitted into the United States.
  4. Today, California is the most populous state in the U.S. For reference, California's population is over 39 million people, making it roughly the same as the entire country of Canada. Illegal immigration is also a problem in California and in 2010, around 7.3% of the population was made up of illegal immigrants.
  5. Most of California's population is clustered within one of three major metropolitan areas. These include the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area, Southern California extending from Los Angeles to San Diego and Central Valley cities stretching from Sacramento to Stockton and Modesto.
  6. California has varied topography that includes mountain ranges like the Sierra Nevada that run south to north along the eastern border of the state and the Tehachapi Mountains in Southern California. The state also has famous valleys like the agriculturally productive Central Valley and the wine-growing Napa Valley.
  7. Central California is divided into two regions by its major river systems. The Sacramento River, which begins flowing near Mount Shasta in northern California, provides water to both the northern part of the state and the Sacramento Valley. The San Joaquin River forms the watershed for the San Joaquin Valley, another agriculturally productive region of the state. The two rivers then join to form the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta system which is a major water supplier for the state, a water transit hub, and an incredibly biodiverse region.
  8. Most of California's climate is considered Mediterranean with warm to hot dry summers and mild wet winters. Cities located close to the Pacific coast feature a maritime climate with cool foggy summers, while the Central Valley and other inland locations can become very hot in the summer. For example, San Francisco's average July high temperature is 68°F (20°C) while Sacramento's is 94°F (34°C). California also has desert regions like Death Valley and very cold climates in the higher mountain areas.
  9. California is highly active geologically as it is located within the Pacific Ring of Fire. Many large faults such as the San Andreas run throughout the state making a large portion of it, including the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas, prone to earthquakes. A portion of the volcanic Cascade Mountain Range also extends into northern California and Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen are active volcanoes in the area. Drought, wildfire, landslides, and flooding are other natural disasters common in California.
  10. California's economy is responsible for about 13% of the gross domestic product for the entire United States. Computers and electronic products are California's largest export, while tourism, agriculture and other manufacturing industries make up a large part of the state's economy.
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Briney, Amanda. "Geography of California." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Briney, Amanda. (2023, April 5). Geography of California. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "Geography of California." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).