The Way of Life
In a California dreamworld, you'd wake up with an espresso and a side of wheatgrass and roll down to the beach while the surf’s up. Lifeguards wave hello as they go jogging past in sleek bathing suits and sweatproof smartwatches. You skateboard down the boardwalk to your yoga class, where everyone admires your downward dog. A food truck pulls up with your favorite low-carb, sustainable fish tacos with organic mango chipotle salsa…and then you wake up.
Living the Dream
What's that you say? You're not ready for this dream to end? OK, let's hit the snooze button and see how far this California dream takes you.
Snoozing on the beach after yoga class, you awake to find a casting agent hovering over you, blocking your sunlight, imploring you to star in a movie based on a best-selling graphic novel. You say you’ll have your lawyer look over the papers, and by your lawyer you mean your roommate who plays one on TV. The conversation is cut short when you get a text to meet up with some friends at a bar.
That casting agent was a stress case – she was, like, all business, dude – so you swing by your medical marijuana dispensary and a tattoo parlor to get ‘Peace’ inscribed on your bicep in Tibetan script as a reminder to yourself to stay chill. At the bar you’re called onstage to guest DJ, and afterwards you tell the bartender how the casting agent harshed your mellow. She recommends a wine country getaway, but you’re already doing that Big Sur primal scream chakra-cleansing retreat this weekend. Maybe next time.
You head back to your beach house to update your status on your social-networking profile, alerting your one million online friends to the major events of the day: ‘Killer taco, solid downward dog, major tattoo, random movie offer thingy, sick beats.’ Then you repeat your nightly self-affirmations: ‘I am a child of the universe…I am blessed, or at least not a New Yorker…tomorrow will bring sunshine and possibility…om.’
Now for the reality check. Any Northern Californian hearing your California dream is bound to get huffy. What, political protests and Silicon Valley start-ups don’t factor in your dreams? But Southern Californians will also roll their eyes at these stereotypes: they didn’t create NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and almost half of the world’s movies by slacking off.
But there is some truth to your California dreamscape. Some 80% of Californians live near the coast rather than inland, even though California beaches aren’t always sunny or swimmable. Self-help, fitness and body modification are major industries throughout California, successfully marketed since the 1970s as ‘lite’ versions of religious experience – all the agony and ecstasy of the major religions, without all those heavy commandments. Exercise and healthy food help keep Californians among the fittest in the nation. Yet millions of Californians are apparently ill enough to merit medical prescriptions for marijuana. Ahem.
At least Northern and Southern Californians do have one thing in common: they're all baffled by New Yorkers’ delusion that the world revolves around them. Whatever, dudes. We'll just be over here on the Best Coast, building your technology, growing your food and providing your entertainment. No need to thank us, really. (Californians don't resort to sarcasm all that often, but we've totally mastered the eye roll. Insert one here.)
The charmed existence you dreamed about is a stretch, even in California. Few Californians can afford to spend entire days tanning and networking, what with all the aging UVA rays and sky-high rents out here. Eight of the 10 most expensive US housing markets are in California, and in the two most expensive areas, Newport Beach and Palo Alto, the average house price is over $2.5 million. Only multi millionaires can afford a beach dream-home here. With a modest median household income of $64,500 per year, most Californians rent rather than own.
As for those roommates you dreamed about: if you’re a Californian aged 18 to 24, there’s a 50/50 possibility that your roomies are your parents. Among adult Californians, one in four live alone, and about half are unmarried. If you're not impressed with your dating options in Californian, stick around: of those who are currently married, about a third won’t be in 10 years. Increasingly Californians are shacking up: the number of unmarried cohabiting couples has increased 40% since 1990.
If you’re like most Californians, you effectively live in your car. Californians commute an average of 29 minutes each way to work and spend at least $1 out of every $5 earned on car-related expenses. Small wonder that six of the US cities with the highest air-pollution levels are in California. But Californians are zooming ahead of the national energy-use curve in their smog-checked cars, buying more hybrid and fuel-efficient cars than any other state. With all these statewide efforts to spare the air, two of the 25 US cities with the cleanest air are now in California (kudos, Redding and Salinas!).
Almost half of all Californians reside in cities, but most of the other half live in the suburbs, where the cost of living is just as high – only without all the cultural perks of city living. The Silicon Valley hub of San Jose has been ranked the most overpriced city in America, yet other Californian cities (especially San Francisco and San Diego) consistently top national quality-of-life indexes, with a sunny outlook dubbed the 'Golden State of Mind.' According to a recent Cambridge University study, creativity, imagination, intellectualism and mellowness are all defining characteristics of Californians, compared with inhabitants of other US states.
Homelessness is not part of the California dream, but it’s a reality for at least 115,000 Californians, representing more than 20% of the total US homeless population. Some are teens who have run away or been kicked out by their families, but the largest contingent of homeless are US military veterans – 25% of the nation's homeless vets are in California. What’s more, in the 1970s mental-health programs were cut, and state-funded drug treatment programs were dropped in the 1980s, leaving many Californians with mental illnesses and substance-abuse problems no place to go.
Also standing in line at homeless shelters are the working poor, unable to afford to rent even a small apartment on minimum-wage salaries. Recent California minimum-wage increases still don't cover the cost of living here – you'd need to earn $33 an hour to pay the average rent in Los Angeles. Rather than addressing the underlying causes of homelessness, some California cities have criminalized loitering, panhandling and even sitting on sidewalks. More than three out of every 1000 Californians already sit in the state's notoriously overcrowded jails, mostly for minor drug-related offenses.
Population & Multiculturalism
With more than 39 million residents, California has more people than any other state. One in every eight Americans lives here. It’s also one of the fastest-growing states, with three of America’s 10 biggest cities (Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose) and more than 300,000 newcomers each year. Although the high Sierras and southern deserts are sparsely populated, California’s overall population density is 251 people per square mile – almost triple the national average.
If you were the average Californian, you’d be statistically likely to be Latina, aged about 36 and living in densely populated LA, Orange or San Diego Counties. You’d speak more than one language, and there’s a one in four chance you were born outside the US. If you were born in the US, the odds are 50/50 you moved here recently from another state.
Far from being a new development, immigration has been key to California's growth since its inception. California was a territory of Mexico and Spain before it became a US state, and has sustained one of the world's most diverse populations ever since. One of every four immigrants to the US lands in California, with twice as many coming from Asia as from Latin America. Most arrivals in recent years come from Mexico, followed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam and India. But most immigrants don't arrive as strangers – they move to California to join family members already settled here. An estimated three million undocumented immigrants currently live in California, often with documented or naturalized family members.
Most Californians see their state as a laid-back, open-minded multicultural society that gives everyone a chance to live the American dream. Sanctuary laws reinforce social acceptance of all who become Californian, no matter whether they arrive here seeking safety, family, opportunity, or fellow dreamers. No one is expected to give up their cultural or personal identity to become Californian: Chicano pride, Black Power and gay pride all built political bases here.
Hard-won civil rights are a source of pride in California, but equal opportunity remains elusive. Historically California’s Chinatowns, Japantowns and other ethnic enclaves were often the result of segregationist sentiment, not created by choice. Today Californian cities are among the nation's most racially integrated, yet some neighborhoods remain quite segregated by income, language, education and – even here in the birthplace of the web – internet access.
California is one of the most religiously diverse US states, but also one of the least religious. Less than half of Californians consider religion very important, and a quarter of all Californians profess no religion at all. Of those Californians who do practice a religion, a third identify as Protestant and about a quarter are Catholic. California is home to most of the nation's practicing Hindus, the biggest Jewish community outside New York, a sizable Muslim community and the largest number of Buddhists anywhere outside Asia. Californians have also established their own spiritual practices, including the Church of Satan, EST self-help movement and UFO cults.
Californian culture reflects the composite identity of the state. Over one third of the nation's Asian American population lives in California, and Latinos became the state's majority ethnic group in 2014. As relatively late arrivals during the WWII shipping boom, California's African Americans have historically represented just 7% of the population, but they have been a driving force in California popular culture and politics. The bond holding the Golden State together isn’t a shared ethnic background, religion, or common language: it’s choosing to be Californian.
Love Is in the Air in California
California believes in love, and isn't afraid to show it. In 2004 San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and 4000 same-sex couples promptly got hitched. Four years later California courts found banning same-sex marriage in conflict with California's constitutional protections against discrimination. Opponents rallied around Proposition 8, amending the state’s constitution to limit marriage to between one man and one woman, and it narrowly passed.
But California civil-rights activists took their case against Prop 8 all the way to the US Supreme Court, which decided to uphold a lower court's ruling that the measure was unconstitutional. The 2013 decision was a definitive blow against laws blocking marriage equality, and promptly sparked a $2.6-billion wedding boom nationwide. Meanwhile in California, star-crossed same-sex couples were finally able to celebrate their legal marriages, including some getting hitched for the third time to the same person. Massive LGBT Pride parades across the state doubled as wedding receptions, with free cake, veils and garters galore, and an eternally romantic hashtag: #LoveWins.
Californians seem laid-back by nature, until you see them at a game. California has more professional sports teams than any other state, and loyalties to NBA basketball, NFL football and major-league baseball teams run deep. To catch them in action, get your wallet ready. Tickets aren't cheap but sell out fast, especially for Golden State Warriors or LA Lakers basketball, Oakland Raiders or San Diego Chargers football, San Francisco Giants or LA Dodgers baseball, or LA Kings or San Jose Sharks hockey. Except for championship playoffs, the regular season for major-league baseball runs from April to September, NFL football from September to January, NBA basketball from October to April, WNBA basketball from May to August, NHL ice hockey from October to April and major-league soccer from April to October.
According to a recent study, Californians are less likely to be couch potatoes than other Americans. But when Californian teams play against one another, the streets empty and all eyes are on the game. The ultimate grudge matches are between the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders, the San Francisco Giants and LA Dodgers, and the LA Lakers and LA Clippers. California college-sports rivalries are equally fierce, especially UC Berkeley’s Cal Bears versus the Stanford University Cardinals and the USC Trojans versus UCLA Bruins.
To see small but dedicated crowds of hometown fans – and score cheaper tickets – watch women's pro basketball in LA, men’s pro basketball in Sacramento, pro hockey in Anaheim or pro soccer in San Jose and LA. You may luck onto tickets for San Diego Padres and Anaheim Angels major-league baseball games, and you can catch minor-league baseball teams up and down the state, especially the Sacramento River Cats.
Californians have a reputation as daredevils, and if you can't join them, you can always watch them from the comfort of a beach chair. Surfing first hit California in 1914, when Irish-Hawaiian surfer George Freeth gave demonstrations at Huntington Beach in Orange County. But it was the Santa Cruz TV legend Gidget the surfer girl who turned this Hawaiian pastime into a California obsession, and she is duly honored alongside California surf legends in the city's Surfing Museum. Today the annual Titans of Mavericks big-wave riding competition in Half Moon Bay is the world's premier surfing challenge, with pro surfers risking life and limb to take on waves 10 stories high.
Between waves, bored kids along LA's Santa Monica–Venice border took to the streets with roller-skate wheels bolted onto old dresser drawers. Skateboarding took off in the 1970s, with kids breaking into SoCal's dry swimming pools to perfect their tricks, as captured in the 2001 skate-cult documentary Dogtown and Z Boys. Today you'll find skate parks in most major Californian cities, street skaters tearing down San Francisco's legendary downhill slides, and Silicon Valley commuters rolling into work on skateboards.
Californians like fast horses and even faster cars. San Diego County's Del Mar is the state's ritziest horse-racing track, while LA County's historic Santa Anita Racetrack has been featured in Hollywood movies from Seabiscuit to the Marx Brothers classic A Day at the Races. Every April the Formula 1 Grand Prix race roars through the streets of Long Beach, just south of LA. Sonoma Raceway hosts NASCAR, IndyCar, motorcycle and drag racing, and Bakersfield holds NASCAR and other auto-racing events year-round.
Riptionary (www.riptionary.com) is the definitive online lexicon of surfer slang, so that you'll know what Californians mean when they say: ‘The big mama is fully mackin’ some gnarly grinders!’
Not everything is invented in Silicon Valley: SoCal innovations include the space shuttle, Mickey Mouse, whitening toothpaste, the Hula-Hoop, Barbie, skateboard and surfboard technology and the Cobb salad.
Thousands of Southern Californians practice Santeria, a fusion of Catholicism and Yoruba beliefs brought by West African slaves to the Caribbean, South America and sunny SoCal. Drop by a botànica (herbal folk-medicine shop) for charms and candles.
Over 200 different languages are spoken in California, with Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Russian, Hindi and Arabic in the top 10. Around 44% of state residents speak a language other than English at home.
In his column ‘¡Ask a Mexican!’, OC Weekly comic columnist Gustavo Arellano tackles such burning Californian questions as whether sour cream belongs on burritos, alongside weighty issues such as gentrification and immigrant rights. Read it at www.ocweekly.com.
On Location Film & TV
Picture Orson Welles whispering ‘Rosebud,’ Judy Garland clicking her ruby-red heels three times, or the Terminator threatening ‘I’ll be back': California is where these iconic film images came to life. Shakespeare claimed ‘all the world’s a stage,’ but in California, it’s actually more of a movie set. With over 40 TV shows and scores of movies shot here annually, every palm-lined boulevard or beach seems to come with its own IMDb resume.
California on Celluloid
California is a sneaky scene-stealer in many Hollywood films, stepping out of the background to become a main topic and character in its own right. From sunny capers to moody film-noir mysteries, California has proved its versatility in these movie classics:
- The Maltese Falcon (1941) John Huston directs Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, the classic San Francisco private eye.
- Sunset Boulevard (1950) Billy Wilder’s classic stars Gloria Swanson and William Holden in a bonfire of Hollywood vanities.
- Vertigo (1958) The Golden Gate Bridge dazzles and dizzies in Alfred Hitchcock’s noir thriller.
- The Graduate (1967) Dustin Hoffman flees status-obsessed California suburbia to search for meaning, heading across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley (in the wrong direction).
- Chinatown (1974) Roman Polanski’s gripping version of the early-20th-century water wars that made and nearly broke LA.
- Blade Runner (1982) Ridley Scott’s sci-fi cyberpunk thriller projects a future LA of high-rise corporate fortresses and chaotic streets.
- The Player (1992) Directed by Robert Altman and starring Tim Robbins, this satire on 'the Industry' features dozens of cameos by actors spoofing themselves.
- The Big Lebowski (1998) Through myriad misadventures in the Coen brothers' zany LA farce, The Dude abides.
- Milk (2008) Gus Van Sant directs Sean Penn in an Oscar-winning performance as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold a major US political office.
You might know it as the TV and movie business, but to Southern Californians it’s simply ‘the Industry.’ It all began in the humble orchards of Hollywoodland, a residential suburb of Los Angeles where entrepreneurial moviemakers established studios in the early 20th century. Within a few years, immigrants turned a humble orchard into Hollywood. In 1915 Polish immigrant Samuel Goldwyn joined with Cecil B DeMille to form Paramount Studios, while German-born Carl Laemmle opened nearby Universal Studios, selling lunch to curious guests to help underwrite his moving pictures. A few years later, a family of Polish immigrants arrived from Canada, and Jack Warner and his brothers soon set up a movie studio of their own.
With perpetually balmy weather and more than 315 days of sunshine a year, SoCal proved an ideal shooting location, and moviemaking flourished. In those early Wild West movie-making days, patent holders such as Thomas Edison sent agents to collect payments, or repossess movie equipment. Fledgling filmmakers saw them coming, and made runs for the Mexican border with their equipment. Palm Springs became a favorite weekend hideaway for Hollywood stars, partly because its distance from LA (just under 100 miles) was as far as they could travel under restrictive studio contracts.
Seemingly overnight, Hollywood studios made movie magic. Fans lined up for premieres in LA movie palaces for red-carpet glimpses of early silent-film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Moviegoers nationwide celebrated the first big Hollywood wedding in 1920, when swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks married 'America's sweetheart' Mary Pickford. Years later, their divorce would be one of Hollywood's biggest scandals, but the United Artists studio they founded with Charlie Chaplin endures today. When the silent-movie era gave way to ‘talkies’ with the 1927 musical The Jazz Singer, the world hummed along.
Hollywood & Beyond
By the 1920s Hollywood had become the industry’s social and financial hub, but it’s a myth that most movie production took place there. Of the major studios, only Paramount Pictures is in Hollywood proper, surrounded by block after block of production-related businesses, such as lighting and post-production. Most movies have long been shot elsewhere around LA, in Culver City (at MGM, now Sony Pictures), Studio City (at Universal Studios) and Burbank (at Warner Bros and later Disney).
Moviemaking hasn’t been limited to LA, either. Founded in 1910, the American Film Manufacturing Company (aka Flying ‘A’ Studios) churned out box-office hits in San Diego and then Santa Barbara. Balboa Studios in Long Beach was another major silent-era dream factory. Contemporary movie-production companies based in the San Francisco Bay Area include Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope, Pixar Animation Studios and George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic. Both San Francisco and LA remain major hubs for independent filmmakers and documentarians.
But not every Californian you meet is in the Industry, even in Tinseltown. The Los Angeles Economic Development Council reports that only 1.6% of people living in LA County today are employed directly in film, TV and radio production. The high cost of filming has sent location scouts far beyond LA’s San Fernando Valley (where most of California's movie and TV studios are found) to Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, where film production crews are welcomed with open arms (and sweet deals) to ‘Hollywood North.' California recently passed a $330 million tax credit to lure filmmakers back to Cali, and it seems to be working – more 2016 TV pilots were shot here than in any other location.
Still, for Hollywood dreamers and movie buffs, LA remains the place for a pilgrimage. You can tour major movie studios, be part of a live TV studio audience, line up alongside the red carpet for an awards ceremony, catch movie premieres at film festivals, wander the Hollywood Walk of Fame and discover what it's like to live, dine and party with the stars.
The Art of Animation
In 1923 a young cartoonist named Walt Disney arrived in LA, and within five years he had a hit called Steamboat Willie and a breakout star called Mickey Mouse. That film spawned the entire Disney empire, and dozens of other California animation studios have followed with films, TV programs and special effects. Among the most beloved are Warner Bros (Bugs Bunny et al in Looney Tunes), Hanna-Barbera (The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Yogi Bear and Scooby-Doo), DreamWorks (Shrek, Madagascar, Kung-Fu Panda) and Film Roman (The Simpsons). Even if much of the hands-on work takes place overseas (in places such as South Korea), concept and supervision still takes place in LA and the San Francisco Bay Area.
In San Francisco, George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic is made up of a team of high-tech wizards who produce computer-generated special effects for blockbuster series such as Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter. Just across the San Francisco Bay, Pixar Animation Studios has produced an unbroken string of animated hits, including Toy Story, Finding Dory, Inside Out, WALL-E, Cars and Brave.
The Small Screen
After a year of tinkering, San Francisco inventor Philo Farnsworth transmitted the first television broadcast in 1927 of…a straight line. Giving viewers something actually interesting to watch would take a few more years. The first TV station began broadcasting in Los Angeles in 1931, beaming iconic images of California into living rooms across America and around the world with Dragnet (1950s), The Beverly Hillbillies (1960s), The Brady Bunch and Charlie's Angels (1970s), LA Law (1980s), and Baywatch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990s). Beverly Hills 90210 (1990s) made that LA zip code into a status symbol, while The OC (2000s) glamorized Orange County and Silicon Valley (2014–now) satirizes NorCal start-ups. Reality-TV fans will recognize Southern California locations from Top Chef, Real Housewives of Orange County and Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
A suburban San Francisco start-up changed the TV game in 2005, launching a streaming video on a platform called YouTube. With on-demand streaming services competing with cable channels to launch original series, we are entering a new golden age of California television. Netflix Studios (in Silicon Valley and LA), Amazon Studios (Santa Monica) and Hulu Studios (Santa Monica) are churning out original series, feeding binge-watching cravings with futuristic dystopias such as Stranger Things, Man in the High Castle and The Handmaid's Tale. Only time will tell if streaming services will also yield breakthrough Californian comedies to compare with Showtime’s sharp-witted suburban pot-growing dramedy Weeds, Showtime's Californication adventures of a successful New York novelist gone Hollywood, or HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, an insider satire of the industry featuring Seinfeld co-creator Larry David and Hollywood celebrities playing themselves.
Cecil B DeMille directs the first full-length Hollywood feature movie: a silent Western drama called The Squaw Man.
The silent film era ends with the first talkie, The Jazz Singer. Sid Grauman opens his Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, where stars have been leaving their handprints ever since.
The Wizard of Oz is the first wide-release movie shown in glorious Technicolor. It's a hit, but loses the Oscar for Best Picture to Gone with the Wind. Both were filmed in Culver City.
On a witch hunt for communists, the federal House Un-American Activities Committee investigates and blacklists many Hollywood actors, directors and screenwriters.
The age of the modern blockbuster begins with the thriller Jaws, by a young filmmaker named Steven Spielberg, whose later blockbusters include ET and Jurassic Park.
In the Hollywood & Highland Complex on Hollywood Blvd, the new Kodak (now Dolby) Theatre becomes the permanent home of the Academy Awards ceremony.
Sidebar: Top California Film Festivals
- AFI Fest (www.afi.com/afifest)
- LA Film Fest (www.lafilmfest.com)
- Frameline LGBT Film Fest (www.frameline.org)
- Palm Springs International Film Festival (www.psfilmfest.org)
- San Francisco International Film Festival (www.sffs.org)
- Sonoma International Film Festival (www.sonomafilmfest.org)
From the 1930s to the 1950s, many famous US writers, including F Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, did stints as Hollywood screenwriters.
Music & the Arts
Go ahead and mock, but when Californians thank their lucky stars – or good karma, or the goddess – that they don’t live in New York, they’re not just talking about beach weather. This place has long supported thriving music and arts scenes that aren’t afraid to be completely independent, even outlandish. In the US's most racially and ethnically diverse state, expect eclectic playlists, involving performances and vivid shows of pride and individuality.
Punk’s Not Dead in California
In the 1970s American airwaves were jammed with commercial arena rock that record companies paid DJs to shill like laundry soap, inspiring the articulate ire of California rock critics Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus. California teens bored with prepackaged anthems started making their own with secondhand guitars, three chords and crappy amps that added a loud buzz to unleashed fury.
LA punk paralleled the scrappy local skate scene with the hardcore grind of Black Flag from Hermosa Beach and LA's the Germs. LA band X bridged punk and new wave from 1977 to 1987 with John Doe’s rockabilly guitar, Exene Cervenka’s angsty wail, and disappointed-romantic lyrics inspired by Charles Bukowski and Raymond Chandler. Local LA radio station KROQ rebelled against the tyranny of playlists, putting local punk on the airwaves and launching punk-funk sensations the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction.
San Francisco’s punk scene was arty and absurdist, in rare form with Dead Kennedys singer (and future San Francisco mayoral candidate) Jello Biafra mocking Golden State complacency in ‘California Uber Alles.’ In one legendary 1978 San Francisco punk show, the Sex Pistols broke up and the all-women Avengers took the punk scene by storm. Green Day and Blink 182 put pop-punk on the radio, but there's nothing like hearing next-gen punk kids rip through all three chords they know in a grimy California club.
In your California dream, you're a DJ – so what kind of music do you play? Beach Boys covers, West Coast rap, bluegrass, original punk, classic soul, hard bop, heavy-metal riffs or opera? To please Californian crowds, try all of the above. To hear the world’s most eclectic playlist, just walk down a city street in California.
Much of the traditional recording industry is based in LA, and SoCal’s film and TV industries have produced many pop princesses and airbrushed boy bands. But the NorCal DIY tech approach is launching YouTube artists daily, and encouraging Californians to make strange sounds in their garages with Moog synthesizers and keytars. None of this would be possible without California's decades of innovation, musical oddities and wild dance parties.
An Eclectic Early Soundtrack
Chronologically speaking, Mexican folk music arrived in California first, during the rancho era. The gold rush brought an influx of new arrivals, and rancheros had to belt to be heard over competing sounds of bluegrass, Chinese classical music and bawdy dancehall ragtime. But Italian opera arias became the breakout hits of early California, with divas paid fortunes in gold dust for encores.
By the turn of the 20th century, the city of San Francisco alone had 20 concert and opera halls before the 1906 earthquake literally brought down the houses. Performers converged on the shattered city for marathon free public performances that turned arias into anthems for the city’s rebirth. San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House today is home to North America's second-largest opera company, after NYC’s Metropolitan Opera.
Swing Jazz, Blues & Soul
Swing was the next big thing to hit California. In the 1930s and '40s, big bands sparked a Lindy-Hopping craze in LA, and sailors on shore leave hit San Francisco’s integrated underground jazz clubs.
California’s African American community grew with the ‘Great Migration’ during the WWII shipping and manufacturing boom, and from this thriving scene emerged the West Coast blues sound. Texas-born bluesman T-Bone Walker worked in LA’s Central Ave clubs before making hit records of his electric-guitar stylings for Capitol Records. Throughout the 1940s and '50s, West Coast blues was nurtured in San Francisco and Oakland by guitarists such as Pee Wee Crayton and Oklahoma-born Lowell Fulson.
With Beat poets riffing over improvised bass lines and audiences finger-snapping their approval, the cool West Coast jazz of Chet Baker and Bay Area–born Dave Brubeck emerged from San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood in the 1950s. Meanwhile, in the African American cultural hub along LA’s Central Ave, the hard bop of Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus kept SoCal's jazz scene alive and swinging.
In the 1950s and '60s, doo-wop, rhythm and blues, and soul music were all in steady rotation at nightclubs in South Central LA, considered the ‘Harlem of the West.’ Soulful singer Sam Cooke ran his own hit-making record label, attracting soul and gospel talent to LA.
The first homegrown rock-and-roll talent to make it big in the 1950s was Richie Valens, born in the San Fernando Valley, whose ‘La Bamba’ was a rockified version of a Mexican folk song. Dick Dale experimented with reverb effects in Orange County in the 1950s, becoming known as ‘the King of the Surf Guitar.’ He topped the charts with his band the Del-Tones in the early '60s, influencing everyone from the Beach Boys to Jimi Hendrix – you might recognize his recording of ‘Miserlou’ from the movie Pulp Fiction.
Guitar got psychedelic in 1960s California. When Joan Baez and Bob Dylan had their Northern California fling in the early 1960s, Dylan plugged in his guitar and pioneered folk rock. Janis Joplin and Big Brother & the Holding Company developed their own shambling musical stylings in San Francisco, splintering folk rock into psychedelia. Emerging from the same San Francisco Fillmore scene, Jefferson Airplane turned Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into the psychedelic hit ‘White Rabbit.’ For many 1960s Fillmore headliners, the show ended too soon with drug overdoses – though for the original jam band, the Grateful Dead, the song remained the same until guitarist Jerry Garcia died in rehab in 1995.
On LA’s famous Sunset Strip, LA bands were also blowing minds at the legendary Whisky a Go Go nightclub – especially the Byrds and the Doors, fronted by the legendary Jim Morrison. But the California sound also got down with iconic funk bands War from Long Beach, Tower of Power from Oakland, and San Francisco's Sly and the Family Stone.
The '70s music scene in LA was divided by zip codes and production values. High in the hills above the Sunset Strip was Laurel Canyon, where Joni Mitchell, David Crosby and Graham Nash held legendary jam sessions. Meanwhile down at Sunset Strip's seedy Tropicana Motel, local characters found their way into the bluesy storytelling of singer–songwriters Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones. Record labels produced arena bands to a high polish, creating the slick country-pop of the Eagles and Jackson Browne and finessing Mexican–American fusion with Linda Ronstadt and Santana. But in tiny clubs with battered guitars, a bunch of kids (Black Flag, The Germs, X) were making up songs and the LA punk scene as they went along.
Post-Punk to Pop
The 1980s saw the rise of such influential LA crossover bands as Bad Religion (punk) and Suicidal Tendencies (hardcore/thrash), while more mainstream all-female bands the Bangles and the Go-Gos, new wavers Oingo Boingo, and California rockers Jane’s Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers took the world by storm. Hollywood's Guns N’ Roses set the '80s standard for arena rock, while San Francisco's Metallica showed the world how to head bang with a vengeance. Avant-garde rocker Frank Zappa earned a cult following and a rare hit with the 1982 single Valley Girl, in which his 14-year-old daughter Moon Unit taught the rest of America to say ‘Omigo-o-od!’ like an LA teenager.
By the 1990s California's alternative rock acts took the national stage, including songwriter Beck, political rockers Rage Against the Machine and Orange County's ska-rockers No Doubt, fronted by Gwen Stefani. Hailing from East LA, Los Lobos was king of the Chicano (Mexican American) bands, an honor that has since passed to Ozomatli.
Berkeley's 924 Gilman Street club revived punk in the '90s, launching the career of Grammy Award–winning Green Day. Riding the wave were Berkley ska-punk band Rancid, surf-punk Sublime from Long Beach, San Diego–based pop-punksters Blink 182, and Orange County's resident loudmouths, the Offspring.
Rap & Hip-hop
Since the 1980s, West Coast rap and hip-hop have spoken truth and hit the beat. When the N.W.A. album Straight Outta Compton was released in 1988, it launched the careers of Eazy E, Ice Cube and Dr Dre, and established gangsta rap. Dre co-founded Death Row Records, which helped launch megawatt talents such as Long Beach bad boys Snoop Dogg, Warren G and the late Tupac Shakur. The son of a Black Panther leader who'd fallen on hard times, Tupac combined party songs and hard truths learned on Oakland streets until his untimely shooting in 1996 in a suspected East Coast/West Coast rap feud. Feuds also checkered the musical career of LA rapper Game, whose 2011 The R.E.D. Album brought together an all-star lineup of Diddy, Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and more.
Throughout the 1980s and '90s, California maintained a grassroots hip-hop scene in Oakland and LA. Reacting against the increasing commercialization of hip-hop in the late 1990s, the Bay Area scene produced underground ‘hyphy' (short for hyperactive) artists such as E-40. Political commentary and funk hooks have become signatures of East Bay groups Blackalicious, The Coup and Michael Franti & Spearhead.
In the 1950s, the hard-edged, honky-tonk Bakersfield Sound emerged inland in California’s Central Valley, where Buck Owens and the Buckaroos and Merle Haggard performed their own twists on Nashville country hits for hard-drinkin’ audiences of Dust Bowl migrants and cowboy ranchers.
Waiting for the Sun: A Rock 'n' Roll History of Los Angeles (1996) by Barney Hoskyns follows the twists and turns of the SoCal music scene from the Beach Boys to Black Flag.
Tune into the ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic’ show on Southern California’s KCRW radio station (www.kcrw.com) for live in-studio performances and musician interviews.
There’s more to California than beach houses and boardwalks. Californians have adapted imported styles to the climate and available materials, building cool, adobe-inspired houses in San Diego and fog-resistant redwood-shingle houses in Mendocino. After a century and a half of Californians grafting on inspired influences and eccentric details as the mood strikes them, the element of the unexpected is everywhere: tiled Maya deco facades in Oakland, Shinto-inspired archways in LA, English thatched roofs in Carmel and chinoiserie streetlights in San Francisco. California’s architecture was postmodern before the word even existed.
Spanish Missions & Victorian Queens
The first Spanish missions were built around courtyards, using materials that Native Californians and Spaniards found on hand: adobe, limestone and grass. Many missions crumbled into disrepair as the church’s influence waned, but the style remained practical for the climate. Early California settlers later adapted it into the rancho adobe style, as seen in Downtown LA's El Pueblo de Los Angeles and San Diego’s Old Town.
Once the mid-19th-century gold rush was on, California’s nouveau riche imported materials to construct grand mansions matching European fashions. Many millionaires favored the gilded Queen Anne style, raising the stakes with ornamental excess. Outrageous examples of colorful, gingerbread-swagged Victorian ‘Painted Ladies’ can be found in San Francisco, Ferndale and Eureka.
But Californian architecture has always had its contrarian streak. Many turn-of-the-20th-century architects rejected frilly Victorian styles in favor of the simpler, classical lines of Spanish designs. Spanish Colonial Revival architecture (also known as Mission Revival style) recalls early California missions with their restrained functional details: arched doors and windows, long covered porches, fountain courtyards, solid walls and red-tile roofs. Downtown Santa Barbara showcases this revival style, as do stately buildings in San Diego's Balboa Park, Scotty's Castle in Death Valley and several SoCal train depots, including in Downtown LA, San Diego, San Juan Capistrano and Santa Barbara, as well as Kelso Depot in the Mojave National Preserve.
Arts & Crafts & Art Deco
Simplicity and harmony were hallmarks of California’s early 20th-century Arts and Crafts style. Influenced by both Japanese design principles and England’s Arts and Crafts movement, its woodwork and handmade touches marked a deliberate departure from the industrial revolution's mechanization. Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan in Northern California, and SoCal architects Charles and Henry Greene, popularized the versatile one-story bungalow. Today you’ll spot them in Berkeley and Pasadena with their overhanging eaves, airy terraces and sleeping porches harmonizing warm, livable interiors with the natural environment outdoors.
California was cosmopolitan from the start, and couldn’t be limited to any one set of international influences. In the 1920s, the international art-deco style took elements from the ancient world – Mayan glyphs, Egyptian pillars, Babylonian ziggurats – and flattened them into modern motifs to cap stark facades and outline streamlined skyscrapers in Oakland, San Francisco and LA. Streamline moderne kept decoration to a minimum, and mimicked the aerodynamic look of ocean liners and airplanes.
California’s Naked Architecture
Clothing-optional California has never been shy about showcasing its assets. Starting in the 1960s, California embraced the stripped-down, glass-wall aesthetics of the International Style championed by Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Open floor plans and floor-to-ceiling windows were ideally suited to the see-and-be-seen culture of Southern California.
Austrian-born Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra brought early modernism to LA and Palm Springs, where the signature desert modern style is still celebrated every February during Modernism Week. Neutra and Schindler were also influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed LA’s Hollyhock House in a style he dubbed ‘California Romanza.’
With LA-based designers Charles and Ray Eames, Neutra contributed to the experimental open-plan Case Study Houses, several of which jut out of the LA landscape. You may also recognize Neutra houses from the movies – they've served as filming locations for Boogie Nights and LA Confidential.
True to its mythic nature, California couldn’t help wanting to embellish the facts a little, veering away from strict high modernism to add unlikely postmodern shapes to the local landscape. Hearst Castle is an early example, built over decades by a patient Julia Morgan to suit William Randolph Hearst's every whim with Greco-Roman columns, Spanish Mission arches and Persian tiles.
In 1997 Richard Meier made his mark on West LA with the Getty Center, a cresting white wave of a building on a sunburned hilltop. Canadian-born Frank Gehry relocated to Santa Monica, and his billowing, sculptural style for LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall winks cheekily at shipshape streamline moderne. Also in Downtown LA, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, echoes the grand churches of Mexico and Europe from a controversial deconstructivist angle. Renzo Piano’s signature inside-out industrial style can be glimpsed in the sawtooth roof and red-steel veins of the Broad in Los Angeles.
The Bay Area's iconic postmodern building is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which Swiss architect Mario Botta capped with a black-and-white striped, marble-clad atrium in 1995 and Snøhetta architects expanded with wings shaped like ship sails in 2016. Lately SF has championed a brand of postmodernism by Pritzker Prize–winning architects that magnify and mimic the great outdoors, especially in Golden Gate Park. Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron clad the MH de Young Memorial Museum in copper, which promises to oxidize green to match its park setting. Nearby, Renzo Piano literally raised the roof on sustainable design at the LEED platinum-certified California Academy of Sciences, capped by a living-roof garden.
Sidebar: Oddball California Architecture
- Hearst Castle
- Winchester Mystery House
- Tor House
- Theme Building, LAX Airport
- Wigwam Motel
In 1919 newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst commissioned California’s first licensed female architect, Julia Morgan, to build Hearst Castle. It would take her decades to finish.
Although the earliest European artists were trained cartographers accompanying Western explorers, their images of California as an island show more imagination than scientific rigor. This mythologizing tendency continued throughout the gold-rush era, as Western artists alternated between caricatures of Wild West debauchery and manifest-destiny propaganda urging pioneers to settle the golden West. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 brought an influx of romantic painters, who produced epic California wilderness landscapes. After the 20th century arrived, homegrown colonies of California impressionist plein-air painters emerged at Laguna Beach and Carmel-by-the-Sea.
With the invention of photography, the improbable truth of California’s landscape and its inhabitants was revealed. Pirkle Jones saw expressive potential in California landscape photography after WWII, while San Francisco–born Ansel Adams’s sublime photographs had already started doing justice to Yosemite. Adams founded Group f/64 with Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham in San Francisco. Berkeley-based Dorothea Lange turned her unflinching lens on the plight of Californian migrant workers in the Great Depression and Japanese Americans forced to enter internment camps during WWII, producing poignant documentary photos.
As the postwar American West became crisscrossed with freeways and divided into planned communities, Californian painters captured the abstract forms of manufactured landscapes on canvas. In San Francisco, Richard Diebenkorn and David Park became leading proponents of Bay Area Figurative Art, while San Francisco–born sculptor Richard Serra captured urban aesthetics in massive, rusting monoliths resembling ship prows and industrial Stonehenges. Meanwhile pop artists captured the ethos of conspicuous consumerism, through Wayne Thiebaud’s gumball machines, British émigré David Hockney’s LA pools and, above all, Ed Ruscha’s studies of SoCal pop culture. In the Bay Area, artists showed their love for rough-and-ready-made 1950s Beat collage, '60s psychedelic rock posters from Fillmore concerts, earthy '70s funk and beautiful-mess punk, and '80s graffiti art.
Today’s California contemporary-art scene brings all these influences together with muralist-led social commentary, an obsessive dedication to craft and a new-media milieu pierced by cutting-edge technology. LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art puts on provocative and avant-garde shows, as does LACMA’s Broad, San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, which specializes in post-1950s pop and conceptual art. To see California-made art at its most experimental, browse the SoCal gallery scenes in Downtown LA and Culver City then check out independent NorCal art spaces in San Francisco’s Mission District and the laboratory-like galleries around SoMa’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Latino Mural Movements in California
Beginning in the 1930s, when the federal Works Progress Administration sponsored schemes to uplift and beautify cities across the country, murals came to define California cityscapes. Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco sparked an outpouring of murals across LA that today number in the thousands. Rivera was also brought to San Francisco to paint murals at the San Francisco Art Institute, and his influence is reflected in the interior of San Francisco’s Coit Tower and hundreds of murals across the Mission District. Murals gave voice to Chicano pride and protests over US Central American policies in the 1970s, notably in San Diego’s Chicano Park, San Francisco's Balmy Alley and East LA murals by collectives such as East Los Streetscapers.
To find museums, art galleries, fine-art exhibition spaces and calendars of upcoming shows throughout SoCal, check out ArtScene (www.artscenecal.com) and Artweek LA (www.artweek.la) magazines.
Timeless, rare Ansel Adams photographs are paired with excerpts from canonical Californian writers such as John Steinbeck and Joan Didion in California: With Classic California Writings (1997), edited by Andrea Gray Stillman.
In your California dream you’re discovered by a movie talent scout, but most Californian actors actually get their start in theater. Home to about 25% of the nation’s professional actors, LA is the USA's second-most influential city for theater, after NYC. Meanwhile San Francisco has been a national hub for experimental theater since the 1960s.
Spaces to watch around LA include the Geffen Playhouse close to UCLA, the Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum in Downtown LA, and the Actors’ Gang theater, co-founded by actor Tim Robbins. Small theaters flourish in West Hollywood (WeHo) and North Hollywood (NoHo), the West Coast’s versions of off- and off-off-Broadway. Influential multicultural theaters include Little Tokyo’s East West Players, while critically acclaimed outlying companies include the innovative Long Beach Opera and Orange County’s South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.
San Francisco’s priorities have been obvious since the great earthquake of 1906, when survivors were entertained in tents set up amid the smoldering ruins, and its famous theaters were rebuilt well before City Hall. Today SF is undergoing a performing-arts renaissance, against the long odds of rising rents and federal funding cuts. Tickets are affordable and programs sensational at historic theaters, and new venues are opening mid-Market, in the Tenderloin and in North Beach. Major productions destined for the lights of Broadway and London premiere at the American Conservatory Theater, and its new experimental venue, The Strand. The Magic Theatre gained a national reputation in the 1970s, when Sam Shepard was the theater’s resident playwright, and it still premieres innovative California playwrights today. An audience-interactive troupe, We Players, stages classic plays, including Shakespearean dramas, at unusual locations such as Alcatraz. Across the Bay the Berkeley Repertory Theatre has launched acclaimed productions based on such unlikely subjects as the rise and fall of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple.
By the Book
Californians make up the largest market for books in the US, and read much more than the national average. Skewing the curve is bookish San Francisco, with more writers, playwrights and book purchases per capita than any other US city. The West Coast is a magnet for novelists, poets and storytellers, and California’s multicultural literary community today is stronger than ever.
Crack open these classics from some of California’s less-likely literary locations:
- Central Coast Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers – In the looming, windswept pines surrounding his Tor House, Jeffers found inspiration for hauntingly beautiful poems.
- Central Valley Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (Maxine Hong Kingston) – A gripping tale of growing up Chinese American, and finding Californian identity.
- Gold Country Roughing It (Mark Twain) – The master of sardonic wit tells of earthquakes, silver booms and busts, and getting by for a month on a dime in the Wild West.
- Sierra Nevada Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems (Gary Snyder) – Influenced by Japanese and Chinese spirituality and classical literature, the Beat poet captures the meditative nature of open wilderness.
Early Voices of Social Realism
Arguably the most influential author to emerge from California was John Steinbeck, born in Salinas in 1902 in the heart of Central Valley farm country. He explored the lives and struggles of diverse California communities: Mexican American WWI vets adjusting to civilian life in Tortilla Flat, flat-broke wharf characters attempting to throw a party on Cannery Row, and migrant farm workers just trying to survive the Great Depression in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Grapes of Wrath. Acclaimed social realist Eugene O’Neill took his 1936 Nobel Prize money and transplanted himself near San Francisco, where he wrote the autobiographical play Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Novelists took on the myth of California's self-made millionaires, exposing the tarnish on the Gold State. Classics in this vein include Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, exposing the schemes of real-life LA oil-tycoon Edward Mahoney that resulted in the Teapot Dome bribery scandal. Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer is based on the life of publisher William Randolph Hearst, the reclusive and vengeful media mogul who also inspired the Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane. When F Scott Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood to write scripts, he found the inspiration for his final novel, The Last Tycoon, the story of a 1930s movie producer slowly working himself to death.
California became synonymous with adventure through the talents of early chroniclers such as Mark Twain and Bret Harte. Professional hell-raiser Jack London was a wild child from the Oakland docks who traveled the world with little more than his wits and a canoe. He became the world's most successful adventurer and travel writer, sailing the seven seas, getting swept up in the Klondike gold rush, and dictating his adventures with an early recording device on his pioneering permaculture ranch in Sonoma.
Pulp Noir & Science Fiction
With mysterious fog and neon signs to set the mood, San Francisco and Los Angeles became crime-drama pulp-fiction capitals and the setting of choice for noir mystery movies. Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) made a cynical San Francisco private eye into a modern antihero, while hard-boiled crime writer Raymond Chandler set the scene for murder and double-crossing dames in Santa Monica. The masterminds behind California's 1990s neo-noir crime fiction renaissance were James Ellroy (LA Confidential), the late Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty) and Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress), whose Easy Rawlins detective novels are set in South Central LA.
California technology has long inspired science fiction. Raised in Berkeley, Philip K Dick imagined dystopian futures, including a Los Angeles ruled by artificial intelligence in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It was adapted into the 1982 sci-fi movie classic Blade Runner. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle presents the ultimate what-if scenario: imagine San Francisco circa 1962 if Japan, fascist Italy and Nazi Germany had won WWII. Berkeley-born Ursula K Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness, A Wizard of Earthsea) brings feminism to the genre of fantasy, imagining parallel realities where heroines confront forces of darkness.
Social Movers & Shakers
After surviving WWII, the Beat Generation refused to fall in line with 1950s conformity, defying McCarthyism with poignant, poetic truths. San Francisco Beat scene luminaries included Jack Kerouac (On the Road), Allen Ginsberg (Howl) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the Beats’ patron publisher who co-founded City Lights Bookstore. Censors called Howl obscene, and Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing it – but he won his trial in a landmark decision for free speech. Beat poets broke style rules and crossed genres, including poet–painter–playwright Kenneth Rexroth and Buddhist philosopher–poet Gary Snyder.
But no author has captured California culture with such unflinching clarity as Joan Didion, whose prose burns through the page like sun on a misty California morning. Her collection of literary nonfiction essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem captures 1960s flower power at the exact moment it blooms and wilts. Didion pioneered immersive first-person New Journalism with fellow '60s California chroniclers Hunter S Thompson (Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga) and Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test).
In the 1970s, Charles Bukowski’s semiautobiographical novel Post Office captured down-and-out Downtown LA, while Richard Vasquez’ Chicano took a dramatic look at LA’s Latino barrio. Armistead Maupin captured the rise of disco, cults, medical marijuana, feminism and gay pride in 1970s San Francisco as it happened in his serialized Tales of the City. Bret Easton Ellis followed the short lives and fast times of coked-up Beverly Hills teenagers in Less Than Zero, the definitive chronicle of '80s excess. Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club weaves together the stories of four Chinese immigrants and their American-born daughters in a textured tale of aspiration and survival in San Francisco's Chinatown.
Ever since the rise of California's underground comics in the '60s, no California bookshelf can be considered complete without graphic novels and 'zines. As you travel through California, you'll recognize characters straight out of local comics – arty, angsty teens from Daniel Clowes' Ghostworld and Art School Confidential, street-corner prophets from Wendy McNaughton's Meanwhile in San Francisco, and soul-searching techies from Paul Madonna's Everything Is Its Own Reward. To see what's on California's mind lately, pick up the latest copies of literary magazines The Believer and McSweeney's, founded by author Dave Eggers. You'll find them at his youth literary nonprofit 826 Valencia and its LA offshoot, the Time Travel Mart.
Feel the pulse of California's heartland in Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Central Valley (1996), edited by Oakland-based writer Stan Yogi. It’s full of multicultural perspectives, from early European settlers to 20th-century Mexican and Asian immigrant farmers.
Road-trip through California with local storytellers as your copilots in My California: Journeys by Great Writers. Proceeds from purchases via Angel City Press (www.angelcitypress.com) support the California Arts Council.
Each word Berkeley-based US Poet Laureate Robert Hass commits to the page in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Time and Materials is as essential and uplifting as a rivet in the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Land & Wildlife
You'll never have to leave California for a change of scenery. From snowy peaks to scorching deserts, golden-sand beaches and sun-dappled redwood forests, California is the most biodiverse place in North America. Species that are rare elsewhere thrive in this balmy Mediterranean climate, with its dry summers and mild wet winters. California has more people than any other US state, which puts a tremendous strain on precious natural resources, but for more than 150 years, conservation-minded Californians have worked hard to protect the state's iconic wildlife and natural wonders.
California: Almost an Island
Cut off from the rest of North America by the soaring peaks of the Sierra Nevada, California is as biologically distinct as an island. Under these biologically isolated conditions, evolution and local adaptation have yielded unique plants and animals ranging from bristlecone pines in the north, to Joshua trees in the south. California ranks first in the nation for its number of endemic plants, amphibians, reptiles, freshwater fish and mammals. In fact, 30% of all plant species, 50% of all bird species and 50% of all mammal species in the USA can be found here.
Go Wild for California's Wildflowers
The famous ‘golden hills’ of California are actually native plants and grasses that have adapted to local conditions over millennia, and learned to dry up in preparation for the long hot summer. Many local plants have adjusted their growing cycles to long periods of almost no rain, growing prolifically during California’s mild wet winters, blooming as early as February, drying out in early summer and springing to life again with the first rains of fall.
In Southern California’s desert areas, wildflower blooms usually peak in March, with carpets of wildflowers covering lowland areas of the state into April. Visit Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Death Valley National Park, the Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve and Carrizo Plain National Monument for some of the most spectacular annual wildflower displays.
As snows melt later at higher elevations in the Sierra Nevada, Yosemite National Park’s Tuolumne Meadows is another prime spot for wildflower walks and photography, with blooms usually peaking in late June or early July.
Lay of the Land
California is the third-biggest US state after Alaska and Texas, covering more than 155,000 sq miles – that's larger than 85 of the world's smallest nations. It shares borders with Oregon to the north, Mexico to the south, Nevada and Arizona to the east, and has 840 miles of glorious Pacific shoreline to the west.
Geology & Earthquakes
California is a complex geologic landscape formed from fragments of rock and earth crust squeezed together as the North American continent drifted westward over hundreds of millions of years. Crumpled coastal ranges, fault lines rippling through the Central Valley and jagged, still-rising Sierra Nevada mountains all reveal gigantic forces at work, as the continental and ocean plates crush together.
Everything changed about 25 million years ago, when the ocean plates stopped colliding and instead started sliding against each other, creating the massive San Andreas Fault. This contact zone catches and slips, rattling California with an ongoing succession of tremors and earthquakes.
In 1906 the state’s most famous earthquake measured 7.8 on the Richter scale and demolished San Francisco, leaving more than 3000 people dead. The Bay Area was again badly shaken in 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake (6.9) caused a section of the Bay Bridge to collapse. In Los Angeles the last ‘big one’ was in 1994, when the Northridge quake (6.7) caused parts of the Santa Monica Fwy to fall down, resulting in damage that made it the most costly quake in US history.
The Coast to the Central Valley
Rugged mountains take the brunt of winter storms along California’s coast, leaving inland areas more protected. San Francisco marks the midpoint of the Coast Ranges, with fog swirling along the sparsely populated North Coast. To the south, beach communities enjoy balmier climates along the Central and Southern California coasts.
The northernmost reaches of the Coast Ranges get 120in of rain in a typical year, and persistent summer fog contributes another 12in of precipitation in some spots. This may not sound like the best climate for beach-going, but California's northern coastal lowlands are sublime for coastal wine tasting. Nutrient-rich soils and abundant moisture foster stands of towering coast redwoods, growing as far south as Big Sur and all the way north to Oregon.
On their eastern flanks, the Coast Ranges taper into gently rolling hills that slide into the sprawling Central Valley. Once an inland sea, this flat basin is now an agricultural powerhouse producing about half of America’s fruits, nuts and vegetables. Stretching about 450 miles long and 50 miles wide, the valley sees about as much rainfall as a desert, but gets huge volumes of water runoff from the Sierra Nevada.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Central Valley was a natural wonderland – vast marshes with flocks of geese that blackened the sky, grasslands carpeted with flowers sniffed by millions of antelopes, elk and grizzly bears. Virtually this entire landscape has been plowed under and replaced with non-native plants (including agricultural crops and vineyards) and livestock ranches. So when you savor your next great California meal, raise a glass to the flora and fauna that came before you.
On the eastern side of the Central Valley looms California’s most prominent topographic feature: the Sierra Nevada, nicknamed the 'Range of Light’ by conservationist John Muir. At 400 miles long and 70 miles wide, this is one of the world's largest mountain ranges, punctuated with 13 peaks over 14,000ft high. The vast wilderness of the High Sierra (mostly above 9000ft) is an astounding landscape of shrinking glaciers, sculpted granite peaks and remote canyons. This landscape is beautiful to look at but difficult to access, and it was one of the greatest challenges for 19th-century settlers attempting to reach California.
The soaring Sierra Nevada captures storm systems and drains them of their water, with most of the precipitation above 3000ft turning to snow, creating a premier winter-sports destination. Melting snow flows down into a half-dozen major river systems on the range’s western and eastern slopes, providing the vast majority of water needed for agriculture in the Central Valley and for the metro areas of San Francisco and LA.
At its northern end, the Sierra Nevada merges imperceptibly into the volcanic Cascade Mountains, which continue north into Oregon and Washington. At its southern end, the Sierra Nevada makes a funny westward hook and connects via the Transverse Ranges (one of the USA's few east–west mountain ranges) to the southern Coast Ranges.
The Deserts & Beyond
With the west slope of the Sierra Nevada capturing most of the precipitation, lands east of the Sierra crest are dry and desertlike, receiving less than 10in of rain a year. Some valleys at the eastern foot of the Sierra Nevada, however, are well watered by creeks, so that they're able to support livestock and agriculture.
At the western edge of the Great Basin, the elevated Modoc Plateau in far northeastern California is a cold desert blanketed by hardy sagebrush shrubs and juniper trees. Temperatures increase as you head south, with a prominent transition on the descent from Mono Lake into the Owens Valley east of the Sierra Nevada. This southern hot desert (part of the Mojave Desert) includes Death Valley, one of the hottest places on the planet. Further south the Mojave Desert morphs into the Colorado Desert (part of Mexico’s greater Sonoran Desert) around the Salton Sea.
California's Flora & Fauna
Although the staggering numbers of animals that greeted the first foreign settlers are now distant memories, you can still easily spot wildlife thriving in California. Some are only shadow populations, and some are actually endangered – all the more reason to take the opportunity to stop by California's designated wildlife areas to appreciate their presence and support their conservation.
Spend even one day along California’s coast and you may spot pods of bottle-nosed dolphins and porpoises swimming, canoodling and cavorting in the ocean. Playful sea otters and harbor seals typically stick closer to shore, especially around public piers and protected bays. Since the 1989 earthquake, sea lions have taken to sunbathing on San Francisco’s Pier 39, where delighted tourists watch the city's resident beach bums nap, goof off and recover from their seafood dinners. To see more wild pinnipeds, visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve near Monterey, or Channel Islands National Park in Southern California.
Once threatened by extinction, gray whales now migrate in growing numbers along California’s coast between December and April. Adult whales live up to 60 years, grow longer than a city bus and can weigh up to 40 tons, making quite a splash when they leap out of the water. Every year they travel from summertime feeding grounds in the arctic Bering Sea, down to southern breeding grounds off Baja California then all the way back up again, making a 6000-mile round trip.
Also almost hunted to extinction by the late 19th century for their oil-rich blubber, northern elephant seals have made a remarkable comeback along California’s coast. North of Santa Cruz, Año Nuevo State Reserve is a major breeding ground for northern elephant seals. California’s biggest elephant seal colony is found at Piedras Blancas, south of Big Sur. There’s a smaller rookery at Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County. When marine mammals are hurt or stranded, they're cared for at Marin's Marine Mammal Center, where you can meet rescued seals and learn how you can help protect their habitats.
Lumbering across California's flag is the state mascot: the grizzly bear. Grizzlies once roamed California’s beaches and grasslands in large numbers, eating everything from acorns to whale carcasses. Grizzlies were particularly abundant in the Central Valley, but retreated upslope into the Sierra Nevada as they were hunted to extinction in the 1920s.
California’s mountain forests are still home to an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 black bears, the grizzlies' smaller cousins. Despite their name, their fur ranges in color from black to dark brown, auburn or even blond. These burly omnivores feed on berries, nuts, roots, grasses, insects, eggs, small mammals and fish, but can become a nuisance around campgrounds and cabins where food and trash are not secured.
As settlers moved into California in the 19th century, many other large mammals fared almost as poorly as grizzlies. Immense herds of tule elk and antelope in the Central Valley were particularly hard hit, with antelope retreating in small numbers to the northeastern corner of the state, and tule elk hunted into near-extinction. A small remnant herd was moved to Point Reyes, where it has since rebounded.
Mountain lions (also called cougars) hunt throughout California's mountains and forests, especially in areas teeming with deer. Solitary lions can grow 8ft in length and weigh 175lb, and are formidable predators. Few attacks on humans have occurred, happening mostly where suburbs have encroached on the lions' wilderness hunting grounds.
California's deserts are far from deserted, but most animals are too smart to hang out in the daytime heat. Most come out only in the cool of the night, as bats do. Roadrunners (black-and-white mottled ground cuckoos) can often be spotted on roadsides – you'll recognize them from their long tails and punk-style Mohawks. Other desert inhabitants include burrowing kit foxes, tree-climbing gray foxes, hopping jackrabbits, kangaroo rats, slow-moving (and endangered) desert tortoises and a variety of snakes, lizards and spiders. Desert bighorn sheep and migrating birds flock to watering holes, often around seasonal springs and native fan-palm oases – look for them in Joshua Tree National Park and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Birds & Butterflies
You might think this picture-postcard state is made for tourists, but California is totally for the birds. California is an essential stop on the migratory Pacific Flyway between Alaska and Mexico. Almost half the bird species in North America use the state's wildlife refuges and nature preserves for rest and refueling. Migration peaks during the wetter winter season starting in October/November, when two million fowl gather at the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges for the world's biggest game of duck, duck, goose.
Year-round you can see birds dotting California’s beaches, estuaries and bays, where herons, cormorants, shorebirds and gulls gather. Point Reyes National Seashore and the Channel Islands are prime year-round bird-watching spots.
As you drive along the Big Sur coastline, look skyward to spot endangered California condors. You may also spot condors inland, soaring over Pinnacles National Park and the Los Padres National Forest. Keep an eye out for regal bald eagles around their winter home at Big Bear Lake in the mountains near LA, and on the Channel Islands, where they've started to make a comeback.
Monarch butterflies are glorious orange creatures that take epic long-distance journeys in search of milkweed, their only source of food. They winter in California by the tens of thousands, clustering along the Central Coast at Santa Cruz, Pacific Grove, Pismo Beach and Santa Barbara County.
Wildflowers & Trees
Like human Californians, California’s 6000 kinds of plants are by turns shy and flamboyant. Many species are so obscure and similar that only a dedicated botanist could tell them apart, but in the spring they merge into shimmering carpets of wildflowers that will take your breath away. The state flower is the native California poppy, which shyly closes at night and unfolds by day in a shocking display of golden orange.
California is also a region of superlative trees: the oldest (bristlecone pines of the White Mountains live to nearly 5000 years old), the tallest (coast redwoods reach 380ft) and the largest (giant sequoias of the Sierra Nevada exceed 36ft across). Sequoias are unique to California, adapted to survive in isolated groves on the Sierra Nevada’s western slopes in Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
An astounding 20 native species of oak grow in California, including live (evergreen) oaks with holly-like leaves and scaly acorns. Other common trees include the aromatic California bay laurel, whose long slender leaves turn purple. Rare native trees include Monterey pines and Torrey pines, gnarly species that have adapted to harsh coastal conditions such as high winds, sparse rainfall and sandy, stony soils. Torrey pines only grow at Torrey Pines State Reserve near San Diego and in the Channel Islands, California's hot spot for endemic plant species.
Heading inland, the Sierra Nevada has three distinct eco-zones: the dry western foothills covered with oak and chaparral; conifer forests starting from an elevation of 2000ft; and an alpine zone above 8000ft. Almost two dozen species of conifer grow in the Sierra Nevada, with mid-elevation forests home to massive Douglas firs, ponderosa pines and, biggest of all, the giant sequoia. Deciduous trees include the quaking aspen, a white-trunked tree with shimmering leaves that turn pale yellow in the fall, helping the Golden State live up to its name in the Eastern Sierra.
Cacti & Other Desert Flora
In Southern California's deserts, cacti and other plants have adapted to the arid climate with thin, spiny leaves that resist moisture loss (and deter grazing animals). Their seed and flowering mechanisms kick into high gear during brief winter rains. Desert flora can bloom spectacularly in spring, carpeting valleys and drawing thousands of onlookers and shutterbugs.
One of the most common species is cholla, which looks so furry that it's nicknamed ‘teddy-bear cactus,’ but don't be fooled by its cuddly appearance. Cholla will bury extremely sharp, barbed spines in your skin at the slightest touch. Also watch out for the aptly named catclaw acacia, nicknamed ‘wait-a-minute bush’ because its small, sharp, hooked thorny spikes will try to grab your clothing or skin as you brush past.
You may also recognize prickly pear, a flat, fleshy-padded cacti whose juice is traditionally used as medicine by Native Americans. You can hardly miss spiky ocotillo, which grows up to 20ft tall and has canelike branches that sprout blood-red flowers in spring. Creosote may look like a cactus, but it's actually a small evergreen bush with a distinctive smell.
With gangly arms and puffy green sleeves, Joshua trees look like Dr Seuss characters from afar, but up close you can see they're actually a type of yucca. In spring they burst into blossom with greenish-white flowers. Joshua trees grow throughout the Mojave Desert, although their habitat and long-term survival is severely threatened by climate change. According to local legend, they were named by Mormons who thought their crooked branches resembled the outstretched arms of a biblical prophet.
California's National & State Parks
Most Californians rate outdoor recreation as vital to their quality of life, and the amount of preserved public lands has steadily grown since the 1960s with support from key legislation. The landmark 1976 California Coastal Act saved the coastline from further development, while the controversial 1994 California Desert Protection Act passed over the objections of ranchers, miners and off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts.
Today, California State Parks (www.parks.ca.gov) protect nearly a third of the state’s coastline, along with redwood forests, mountain lakes, desert canyons, waterfalls, wildlife preserves and historical sites. In recent decades, state budget shortfalls and chronic underfunding of California's parks have contributed to closures, limited visitor services and increased park entry and outdoor-recreation fees. But with state revenues from recreational tourism consistently outpacing resource-extraction industries such as mining, California has a considerable vested interest in protecting its wilderness tracts.
While you could be disappointed to find a park closed or full, bear in mind that some limits to public access are necessary to prevent California’s parklands from being loved to death. Too many visitors can stress the natural environment. To avoid the crowds and glimpse wilderness at its most untrammeled, plan to visit popular parks such as Yosemite outside of peak season. Alternatively, less-famous natural areas managed by the National Park Service (www.nps.gov/state/CA) often receive fewer visitors, which means you won’t have to reserve permits, campsites or lodging many months in advance.
There are 18 national forests in California managed by the US Forest Service (USFS; www.fs.usda.gov/r5), comprising lands around Mt Whitney, Mt Shasta, Lake Tahoe, Big Bear Lake and Big Sur. Beloved by birders, national wildlife refuges (NWR), including the Salton Sea and Klamath Basin, are managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS; www.fws.gov/refuges). More wilderness tracts in California, including the Lost Coast and Carrizo Plain, are overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM; www.blm.gov/ca/st/en.html).
As you take in California's stunning natural landscapes, pause to appreciate the human effort it has taken to preserve and reclaim these natural wonders. In California rapid development and unchecked growth have often come at great environmental cost. Starting in 1849, gold-rush miners hacked and blasted through the California countryside in search of a lucky strike. More than 1.5 billion tons of debris and uncalculated amounts of poisonous mercury were carried downstream into the Central Valley, where rivers and streams became clogged and polluted. When you see forests in high Sierra gold country and salmon runs in the Sacramento Delta, you are admiring the resilience of nature and the work of many determined conservationists.
Water, or the lack thereof, has led to epic environmental struggles and catastrophes in California. Despite campaigning by John Muir, California’s greatest environmental champion, the Tuolumne River was dammed at Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park to supply Bay Area drinking water. Pipelines diverting water supplies for arid Los Angeles have contributed to the destruction of Owens Lake and its fertile wetlands, and the degradation of Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierra. Statewide, the damming of rivers and capture of water for houses and farms has ended inland salmon runs and dried up marshlands. The Central Valley's underground aquifer is subsiding, with some land sinking as much as 1ft each year. So every time you make an effort to conserve California's precious water resources, you deserve a chorus of thanks from up and down the state.
Altered and compromised habitats make easy targets for invasive species, including highly aggressive species that upset California’s precariously balanced ecosystems. In San Francisco Bay, one of the most important estuaries in the world, there are now over 230 species choking the aquatic ecosystem, making up as much as 95% of the total biomass in some spots. Cleanup efforts are underway, and you can do your part by not dumping anything in California waterways, and recycling and composting as much of your waste as possible.
Although air quality in California has improved markedly in past decades, it’s still among the worst in the country. Along with industrial emissions, the main pollutants are auto exhaust and fine particulates generated by the wearing down of vehicle tires. An even greater health hazard is ozone, the principal ingredient in smog, which makes sunny days around LA, Sacramento, the Central Valley and the western Sierra Nevada look hazy. California road trips are fantastic adventures, but if you rent a hybrid, take a train, carpool or hop public transit for short distances, you can breathe easier knowing you're helping to spare the air.
All these efforts add up to a more sustainable future for California and its wildlife. Low-emission vehicles are becoming one of the most sought-after types of car in the state – California's own Tesla electric cars may yet replace gas-guzzling SUVs as the Hollywood celebrity car of choice. While environmental controls, emissions standards and renewable energy support have been eroding at the federal level, Californians have voted to raise standards for pollution control and construct solar-power plants. By law, California’s utilities must get 33% of their energy from renewable resources by 2020 – the most ambitious target yet set by any US state. When you bask in the California sun, you may be seeing the future.
Sidebar: California’s Top Parks
- Yosemite National Park
- Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
- Death Valley National Park
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Redwood National & State Parks
Browse through more than 1200 aerial photos covering almost every mile of California’s gorgeously rugged coastline, stretching from Oregon to Mexico, at www.californiacoastline.org.
California claims both the highest point in contiguous US (Mt Whitney, 14,505ft) and the lowest elevation in North America (Badwater, Death Valley, 282ft below sea level) – and they’re only 90 miles apart, as the condor flies.
Peak mating season for northern elephant seals along California's coast just happens to coincide with Valentine’s Day (February 14).
The Audubon Society’s California chapter website (www.ca.audubon.org) offers helpful birding checklists, photos and descriptions of key species, conservation news and a Pacific Flyway blog (www.audublog.org).
In 2006 the world’s tallest-known living tree was discovered in a remote area of Redwood National Park – its location is kept secret to protect it. It’s named Hyperion and stands a whopping 379ft tall.
Co-founded by naturalist John Muir in 1892, the Sierra Club (www.sierraclub.org) was the USA’s first conservation group. It remains the nation’s most active, offering educational programs, group hikes, organized trips and volunteer vacations.
The California condor is the largest flying bird in North America. In 1987 there were only two dozen or so birds left in the wild. Thanks to captive breeding and release programs, there are about 240 flying free today.