California: Under the Geographer’s Microscope

California: Under the Geographer’s Microscope

I’m a geography professor writing a series on what’s unique or different about each of the fifty states. Follow me on for more coming shortly.

Land of Natural Diversity

All the states from the Rockies to the west have great geographic diversity — mountains, deserts, forests. They make their small, flattish Eastern cousins look plain and featureless. It’s the sheer magnitude of that diversity — topography, climate, and vegetation — that stuns us in California.

Here in California is the tallest mountain in the continental USA. Mt. Whitney, king of the Sierra Nevada range, backbone of the state. The peak stands just 1400 feet shy of three miles tall. Just a hundred miles away in the same county (Inyo) is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, Death Valley, at -282 feet. What a roller coaster ride that would make from mountain top to valley bottom! In the Klamath Mountains of northern California are forests so dense and remote, they are a haven for illegal marijuana growers.

Along the California coast are spectacular differences in vegetation and climate — more than 3000 miles of wind, sand and jagged rocks where earth, air and water come together. Environments range from the rain-laden northern coast, home of the giant Redwoods and Sequoias, to the dry scrub coastal areas around San Diego.

The high peaks of the state accumulate snow that provides winter skiing. Then it melts just in time for spring and summer use by California’s thirsty urban dwellers and even thirstier farmers. Undeterred by deserts, irrigation gives us the lush environments of places like Palm Springs.

Many of these natural areas are preserved in National Parks such as Yosemite. The map drips with place names that beg us to conjure up images: the Colorado River, Yosemite, Donner Pass, Shasta, Petrified Forest, Salton Sea, Lake Tahoe, Mojave, San Andreas, and many more.

Channel Islands National Park from

Hollywood has taken advantage of this great geographic diversity and thousands of movies and TV shows have been filmed here. One of many sites that you can use as a guide is Explore the Best Film Locations in California at

Land of Superlatives

With so much territory and such diversity of climate and physical geography, California is a land of superlatives of nature. Want to see the world’s tallest tree? It’s a Redwood, 368 feet tall, in Redwood National Park. The world’s oldest living things? They are the bristlecone pines that can live up to 5000 years. Do you like heat? The appropriately named Furnace Creek section of Death Valley holds the world’s record for heat: 134 degrees (F) set in 1913, and the third-highest, 130 degrees, set in 2020.

Waterfalls? Five of Yosemite’s falls are among the 10 highest on earth. At Waterwheel Falls, the summer wind tosses the water back upon itself in 35-foot arcs. In the mood for some hellish landscapes? Check out the cinder cones, lava domes and thermal springs in the volcanic environment of Lassen National Park. Just the names on a map are enough to scare you: Devil’s Kitchen. Sulfur Works. Boiling Springs Lake. Bumpass Hell. Terminal Geyser.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park from

California abounds in exotic animals too; enough to keep educational TV channels in film footage for years. Just in Redwood National Park alone live more than 1,000 species of plants and animals. California gives you a chance to see big horn sheep, bobcat, mule deer, coyotes, mountain lions and Roosevelt elk. In its deserts you’ll find tarantulas, rattlesnakes, iguanas and the desert tortoise. Offshore are elephant seals, porpoises, salmon and sea lions.

On and Below the Surface

We hear so much about how we have exerted our control over the environment that California serves to keep us humble. California constantly reminds us that there are many aspects of nature that are uncontrollable — maybe just above or just below the surface, but essentially out of reach. Earthquakes, mudslides, volcanoes, forest fires. Hardly a few months go by when California does not make the news for some environmental disruption of consequence to human activity such as the Loma Prieta earthquake that rocked Oakland during the 1989 World Series. In California Mother Nature is a close neighbor.

Underneath it all, the western edge of the state is inexorably moving northward. The earth’s crust is splitting asunder along the San Andreas fault, a fault that has already cracked open the Gulf of California to create the Baja Peninsula. The earthquake-prone fault runs 750 miles through California from near the northern tip of the Gulf of California through the San Francisco Bay Area. It even continues many miles offshore of Northern California. Stress build-up in this fault has been responsible for major quakes recorded as far back as 1857, as well as the great San Francisco quake of 1906, the Oakland quake and others. Earthquakes also produce devastating tsunamis that can occur as a by-product of California’s own quakes or from quakes anywhere along the Pacific, including quake-vulnerable Alaska.

Air photo of the San Andreas fault from

California has potentially active volcanoes, especially in the Cascade Range in the northern third of the state. The last recorded eruption was at Mt. Lassen in 1925 when a 25-mile long swath of ash and debris spewed out. Mt. Shasta, Medicine Lake Volcano and others are potential hazards.

Fire is another hazard. The August Complex fire of 2020 is already one of the largest single fires in the state’s history, burning one million acres, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. In 2018 the Camp Fire in Butte County in northern California cost 85 lives and destroyed almost 19,000 structures with damage estimated at $10 billion. That year was a particularly bad year for fires. When 2018 ended, the acreage burned was about double the size of Massachusetts. Seasonal drought creates a tinderbox of coastal brush vegetation.

Drought is a natural part of the climate. Meteorologists have classified California in drought conditions for 52 of the 110 years from 1900 to 2020, with droughts often occurring five or six years in a row. Drought is something that California residents have to continue to learn to live with and deal with.

The great Golden State gives us something we badly need in our dealings with Mother Nature — humility.

The Nation’s Produce Counter

The gold of the Golden State was not only in “Them Thar Hills” but also in the Great Valley. Here the gold was agricultural. California’s Great Valley is located between the Sierra Nevada, the eastern mountain backbone of the state, and the Coast Range along the Pacific. It may be the world’s most agriculturally productive region — at least according to the Vegetable Research Center at the University of California at Davis.

It’s true what you’ve heard: California is the nation’s leading producer of dozens of crops, especially fruits and vegetables. The Valley floor is quilted with acres of lemons, apricots, nectarines, avocados, plums and prunes. Add dates, figs, strawberries, olives and nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and pistachios; not to mention grapes in the Napa Valley. California is the nation’s leading producer of each of these crops and it has even surpassed Wisconsin in milk production.

In fact, milk and dairy products leads the state’s list of the value of agricultural product categories, bringing in more than $7 billion annually. And it’s fascinating to guess what the second leading crop is — are you ready? Almonds — $6 billion. Grapes bring in $5 billion; cattle $3 billion; strawberries, pistachios and lettuce about $2 billion each and then a few more crop categories at about $1 billion each: walnuts, tomatoes and floriculture (flowers and ornamental plants). But the state is also the leading producer of dozens of less exotic items including carrots, cauliflower, broccoli and celery and… the list goes on. The magnitude of this agricultural giant is amazing.

Now let’s back up a bit and take another look at the most valuable crop. It may be marijuana. The USDA collects data on industrial hemp used for things like twine, but not data for pot. And it’s hard to compare retail figures on legally grown marijuana, compiled by the state, with wholesale prices for other crops received by farmers. But considering that the state says that legal sales of marijuana were worth $3 billion in 2019, and that reliable sources estimate that illegal pot growing is greater than the legal kind, it could well be that pot is already California’s most valuable crop, or that it certainly will be within a few years.

A migrant worker picking strawberries in Guadeloupe, south of San Luis Obispo, from

The San Joaquin River in the south and the Sacramento River in the north drain the Central Valley, the nation’s salad bowl. The two rivers marry near Lodi, east of San Francisco, before emptying out under the Golden Gate Bridge. Chico, Yuba City and Sacramento (also the state capital) are the urban centers of the northern valley, as Stockton, Fresno and Bakersfield are for the southern valley. Both the northern and southern halves of the Central Valley rely on irrigation. Irrigation makes every season a perfect season, every year a vintage year for grapes.

But the Central Valley is not the only rich agricultural area in California. The Imperial Valley in the desert in the southeast corner of the state along the border with Mexico is a giant producer of cotton, fruit, sugar beets, cattle and alfalfa. The desert valley centers on the Salton Sea and El Centro is its main urban focus.

California agriculture has developed its own style. As in other areas of American pursuits, California was ahead of its time with seasonal immigrant labor, corporate farms, commuting farmhands and massive irrigation projects. All is not without cost. The ever-competitive market for water in the state leads to constant battle between those in the cities who want to raise kids and those in the valley who want to raise vegetables and nuts.

The Nation of California

Like Texas, the sheer size of everything about California is impressive. California is our third largest state in territory after Alaska and Texas. The state’s economy is a gigantic industrial machine. If the value of California’s gross state domestic product were a gross national product, California’s would be the fifth largest economy in the world; only the USA, China, Japan and Germany are larger.

What’s in that California economy? Everything. In agriculture, its value of farm marketing is almost as much as the next two leading states, Texas and Iowa, combined. It produces a wealth of forest products and mineral resources, especially petroleum and metals.

But most of all, California is the nation’s leading manufacturing state. Its factories create more value added by manufacture than the two leading manufacturing states of the Midwest combined (Ohio and Illinois). More than 1.2 million people are employed in manufacturing. California excels especially in high-tech industries. Just south of San Francisco is Silicon Valley, the world’s largest cluster of computer manufacturers, software designers and systems engineering companies. Farther south is Hollywood, largely located there due to the favorable climate of Southern California. Increasingly the silver screen and the computer meet in computer animation firms that have mushroomed in the state.

Silicon Valley — downtown San Jose from

Like any big state, California’s employment and economy benefits immensely from federal spending. Like Texas, Virginia, and several other states, military bases and associated defense spending is a big factor. California is home to numerous military installations including Camp Pendleton Marine Base, Vandenberg, Travis and Edwards Air Force bases, Lemoore Naval Air Station, and San Diego Naval Base, headquarters of the Pacific Fleet. San Diego is thus the western counterpart to Norfolk, Virginia, which is headquarters for the Atlantic Fleet. And while we may think that Virginia and Maryland benefit the most from federal employment due to spill-over from Washington DC, California has a quarter-million federal employees, more than either of those two eastern states. This is because much federal employment follows population. There’s not only the military base employment, but postal workers, VA hospitals, IRS, FBI and Social Security offices, FAA and TSA employees at airports, customs and immigration officials and federal prisons– the list goes on.

Golden State firms design and manufacture products used in every aspect of the aerospace industry from airplanes and missiles to weapon guidance systems and instruments. So much prototype manufacturing and research and development goes on that testing labs, often affiliated with universities, are a big business on their own. California universities receive huge amounts of federal funding for research and development. In recent years four of the top twelve university recipients were in California. The National Science Foundation reports that Universities of California at San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles and also Stanford University each received more than a billion dollars in R&D funding.

Not that there aren’t twists in the road. In the early 1990’s economists, not to mention California politicians and residents, were shocked to find that their state had the highest unemployment rate in the nation. Higher than Michigan! California’s economy has almost returned to normal, which means unemployment is usually a bit above the national average. That was the case in December 2019, pre-COVID, when California’s unemployment rate of 3.9% was slightly above the national rate of 3.5%.

Population Diversity

California’s population of 39,500,000 is huge. That’s more people than in Canada or Australia and two dozen European countries. And its population is still growing. Recently this population growth has been more and more from natural increase and overseas immigration rather than from migrants from other states within the USA.

It may be surprising to realize that California, and not one of the densely populated small eastern states, is the most urbanized state in the nation — 95% of its population lives in built-up areas, a percent more than New Jersey or Massachusetts. Two of the nation’s five largest combined statistical area are here. These are metropolitan areas that have grown into each other. Of course these are Los Angeles (18.7 million people) and San Francisco (9.7 million) — that’s 72% of the state’s total population. If we add the next largest two California metropolitan areas, San Diego and Sacramento, we’re up to 84% living in metropolitan areas.

Now consider that these densely-built up urbanized areas on which 95% of California’s population lives cover only 5% of the state’s territory. That’s an area about the size of New Jersey. So California has the highest population density in its urbanized areas of all states in the nation — New York state is second. And when you consider that we think of Los Angeles and its freeways as the prototype of urban sprawl, it’s astounding even to geographers, that the most densely populated metropolitan area in the US is not New York or Boston, but Los Angeles. California’s population has grown so rapidly, it’s almost as if it is leading the West Coast in trying to catch up with population size and density along the East Coast.

In terms of its population mix, California is the third most diverse state in the nation. In fact, California is one of six “majority minority” states –the others are Hawaii, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada and Maryland. While 72% of California’s population is white, only about 37% of the state’s population is non-Hispanic white. The list of minority populations is impressive: 39% Hispanic; 16% Asian; 7% African American and 4% of two or more races. The numbers of people these percentages represent are striking too: the state’s 15.5 million Hispanics alone would still make California the fifth most populous state. The more than 6 million Asian Americans (about a third of all Asian Americans in the United States) would rank as the 20th most populous state. Even California’s 2.3 million African Americans are more people than live in New Mexico and 14 other states.

California has the largest percentage of foreign-born residents of the 50 states, about 27%. That’s more than 10 million people, of whom about 2 million or so are undocumented. Where do they come from? Yes, Mexico, more than 4 million people. But another million came from China or Taiwan and almost a million from the Philippines. More than 600,000 arrived from India or Pakistan and another half-million from Vietnam. There’s a long list of other countries with a quarter-million or more: El Salvador, Korea, Guatemala, Russia (and former USSR) and Iran. And consider another statistic: 40% of Californians speak a language other than English at home.

The neighborhood known as Koreatown in Los Angeles from

Two distinctly geographical themes emerge from this list of languages. The proximity of Mexico and Central America obviously explains the dominance of Spanish speakers. But secondly, the list shows the importance of the Asian Rim countries: Japan, The Philippines, Vietnam, China, Taiwan and Korea. Trade and other economic interaction with these trans-Pacific neighbors are reflected in this cultural exchange that has taken place.

And yet they come. California put out the welcome mat for one-third of all the immigrants entering the United States and more than one in four Californians is an immigrant. LAX (Los Angeles Airport) is the Ellis Island for America’s immigrants of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Their Statue of Liberty is the Golden Gate Bridge. Meanwhile the state’s economy, dependent on this ethnic diversity for everything from computer engineers to maids, and from gardeners to doctors and convenience store clerks, continues to take advantage of that strength in diversity as it booms along.

How does California fare on various measures of social well-being? California has the nation’s lowest high school graduation rate, 83%, although that’s only a bit below the US average of 85%. The state does well on infant mortality, tied with several other states for third place. California is a reliable state for Democrats in national elections. It gave Hillary Clinton her second highest percentage (62%) after Hawaii in the 2016 election when she ran against Donald Trump. With 56 of 538 electoral votes, a hair more than 10% of the total, California is the largest prize up for grabs. Democrats have controlled the California state legislature since 1970.

Step Migration

California may represent the good life for overseas immigrants, but the Golden State seems to have lost some of its lure for a broad section of American population. William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution and at the University of Michigan, has studied California’s changing attraction as a migration destination. The issues are complex, but roughly, the scenario goes like this:

California’s attraction to overseas migrants brings many immigrants into the state below the poverty line, numerically and proportionally more than in other states. In addition, the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas are particularly attractive to minority migrants within the United States. And while California continues to be a magnet for the college educated, well-off white population seeking upper class jobs, lower income whites are leaving the state in large numbers. California has become a state of net domestic out-migration. Many lower income whites who leave California go to neighboring states, especially Arizona, Nevada, Washington and Oregon.

Map by the author, James W. Fonseca

But California has a net migration loss not only to those neighboring western states but also to Texas, Georgia, both Carolinas and many (most) other states. Some of this is what geographers and demographers call step-migration. Newcomers tried California for a while but decided to go elsewhere. We’ve gone west and now we’re going east. The entire West is re-shaped by step-migrants from California in the sense that while the numbers of movers aren’t large in states with smaller populations, California, not the east coast, is the largest source of new migrants to sparsely populated western states such as Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Despite residents leaving, California’s population continues to grow because of births within the state and immigration from overseas. Because the majority of the step-migrants who leave California are white, these trends speed-up the rate at which California’s population is becoming more ethnically diverse.

North versus South

California is so large in territory and population that maybe it’s just too big. What does a logger on the Oregon border have in common with a film animation computer specialist or a shop owner in San Diego 650 miles to the south? Note that this is a similar distance to that from New York to Detroit, or from Denver to Des Moines. Should the state be divided into two states — a Northern and a Southern California? The two ‘states’ are fundamentally different in culture and economy as reflected in their two giant metropolises, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The idea of dividing California in half is actually an old idea. It was first proposed back in 1859, but there was concern that a split California would get further dragged into the slave state vs. free state battle that was raging before the Civil War. As early as 1926 the Los Angeles Times wrote about the extraordinary divergence between North and South in terms of political issues — everything from Bible reading in public schools to Prohibition and to legalized gambling. In 1965 a US News and World Report cover story asked, “Should California be Chopped in Half?”

Why the differences between these two regions? Partly it’s because San Francisco, like its northern coastal neighbors, Portland and Seattle, grew up as a “northeastern” city grafted onto the West Coast. Spurred on in its initial growth by sea trade with New England, San Francisco still reminds many of Boston with its multi-family housing, density, crooked streets, dependence on public transportation and liberal voting record. This is the California of the New Age, flower children, gay liberation, Jerry Brown, and European immigrant groups such as Italians, Germans and Portuguese.

To the south are the classic auto-age metropolises of Los Angeles and San Diego, early harbingers of the sprawl, freeways and pollution. Politics? Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. More of a Southern influence in origin than a Northern one. A conservative voting record despite its large immigrant population. A magnet for Hispanic and Asian immigration.

Is a state of almost 40 million people ungovernable? Obviously not, since on a day-to-day basis the state gets along reasonably well. But could it be better governed if it were two states? Suppose California were divided into a Southern California with 20 million people (built mainly around Los Angeles’ and San Diego’s orbits) and a Northern California of about 10,000,000 people (mainly San Francisco and Sacramento). Both states would still have territories larger than Washington state. And Southern California would still be the most populous state in the nation. Northern California would be about the eighth largest. California would double its power in the United States Senate (from two Senators to four). As shown on the map, if two states are possible, why not three or six? If California’s population were to be divided equally among six new states, all six would still rank higher than number 18, Missouri, does now!

A map of a six-state California proposal that failed to qualify as a ballot initiative in the 2016 election. More details at Six Californias

Can the twain continue to co-exist? We’ll see. By the way, the more conservative southern half of the state in the 1920’s was for prohibition of liquor sales, for Bible reading in the schools and against legalized gambling. The more liberal northern half thought the opposite on all these issues.


Few issues generate more controversy in California than water. Most of the state other than the mountains and desert has what geographers call a Mediterranean climate. It seldom rains except in winter, so the area is under drought conditions not just in the summer, but generally for more than half the year from April to September. Even counting winter rains, the total annual rainfall is only 15 inches in the Los Angeles basin and 10 inches per year around San Diego. The Imperial Valley is even drier with only 8 inches a year — pure desert. San Francisco seems like a water paradise with 22 inches per year, but that is still half of what most eastern states receive.

Yet rain is abundant along the coast of Northern California. Here up to 80 inches of rain fall per year watering the giant sequoias and redwoods. Rain (and snow in winter) is equally heavy along most of the Sierra Nevada range. Tamarack in the Sierras averages 450 inches of snowfall annually. This snow starts to melt into streams just in time to help slacken the drought downstate.

Thus the water story in California is one of unequal water distribution. The greatest thirst is in the dry southern urban complexes, especially Los Angeles and San Diego, but the greatest amount of moisture is in the sparsely populated northern and eastern mountainous portions of the state. Who gets water (farmers vs. cities; industries vs. homeowners) and what regions of the state get water is a staple of California political debate. Agriculture uses about 80% of California’s water; urban areas use about 20%. The thirst has even carried over at times into feuding between California and Arizona and between the United States and Mexico over the trickle of water left in the Colorado River as it enters Mexico at the California-Arizona border.

The major aqueducts and canals that supply California’s water. From

As a result, the California landscape has been turned into one of the world’s largest plumbing projects. One of the better-known pieces of pipe is the Owens Valley Aqueduct that brings water from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevadas to Los Angeles. Another is the California State Water Project carrying water from northern California southward via a series of dams and reservoirs including Oroville Dam, the tallest in the United States (770 feet). The Central Valley project transfers water for crop irrigation from the moister Sacramento Valley in the north to the drier San Joaquin Valley in the south. Water is also captured from the Colorado River along the Arizona border not just for Imperial Valley irrigation but also for Los Angeles. The city’s thirst has dried up lakes such as Owens Lake and Mono Lake leaving dead wildfowl, sand flies and alkali dust bowls behind.

Trend Setter: American Dream or Nightmare?

California has become a trend-setter for the American lifestyle. Its national (and international) ambassador is Hollywood and the music industry. California has given us jeans and casual wear, sushi, barbecues and mesquite charcoal. Valley Talk, Ebonics and hippies. Yoga. New Age. Psychobabble. The Self. The list goes on.

Legal marijuana growing in Humboldt County in northern California. From

For several generations California has been the Promised Land for just about everyone. Gold-hungry Forty-Niners in the mid-1800’s. Chinese immigrant railway workers in the late 1800’s. Mexicans always, and more recently, Central Americans too. The drought-stricken Okies of the 1930’s. African Americans escaping the rural South in the 1950’s and 1960’s, especially from Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. Mom and Pop retirees from across the Rustbelt through the 1980's.

California was and is the new Land of Opportunity for overseas immigrants of all creeds and colors and from every direction. As we have seen, it is Mexico North and Asia East and Europe West. California has been almost everything to just about everyone.

But there have been bumps on the Road to Paradise. What happened to the giant industrial machine that could employ all who came? There may be a chicken on every grill, but that great American ideal of owning your own home has become elusive. California ranks 49th among the states in the percentage of population owning their own homes: 55%; only New York has a lower rate.

What of that beautiful environment? It’s still there yet The Golden State ranks second (after New Jersey) in number of Superfund hazardous waste sites. Given the relatively recent growth of California compared to eastern states, why do California cities, such as Salinas, Chico, Fresno, Bakersfield, San Bernardino and Compton so often appear on the bottom rungs of those various annual “Best Places to Live” rankings? Did author Louis Jones hit a nerve with the title of his novel: California’s Over? Maybe California is still a trend-setter, but we no longer want to be trendy?

Follow me on for more of what’s unique or different about each of the fifty states… You can see New Jersey here:

And here’s Rhode Island:

Retired as Dean and geography professor at Ohio University Zanesville. I spend time in Florida, Maine, Chicago and Newport, Rhode Island.

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