California Travel Guide: Overview
California. The Golden State. It's beautifully diverse, both in geography and in the people who call it home. Yes, there are plenty of foodies, hipsters, techies, beachgoers and ski bums, but that just scratches the surface. California has long been the first and last stop for immigrants from Asia, Mexico, Central America and the Middle East. It’s a thriving melting pot of cultures—a result of the California Dream that inspired so many to pursue their own versions of it.
California is among the most expensive places to live in the United States. It also has its fair share of challenges, including managing its population growth, natural disasters, limited water resources and more. Where else, though, can you go from the surf and sand to dynamic cities, sloping vineyards, towering mountains and lakes, all within a half-day drive?
Take some time to explore California, and you'll understand why visitors from all over the world flock here to see the mesmerizing granite peaks of Yosemite, the deep-blue waters of Lake Tahoe, the lush redwood forests and Sequoia groves, the silent desert splendors of Death Valley and Joshua Tree and, of course, the gorgeous, rugged coastline. Whether you're touring the fog-swept craggy rocks and churning waters of Big Sur or Mendocino in the north or soaking in the sun and year-round beach cultures of Santa Barbara or San Diego in the south, it’s easy to see why so many go to such lengths to call this place home.
A variety of native tribes had inhabited California for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived in the 16th century, and in 1769, the Spanish began constructing forts, settlements and 21 California missions up and down the coast with the intention of converting the indigenous people to Catholicism. Many of these sites, including San Luis Obispo and San Jose, later developed into some of the state’s most important cities.
After California gained its independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico ruled the state for a quarter century, and then, in 1846, the United States annexed it.
With the discovery of gold in 1848, a surge of nonnatives came to the state for a piece of the newfound wealth. This, ultimately, led to the overnight growth of many towns and cities. Most prominent of all was San Francisco, which transformed from a sleepy coastal town to a thriving center for commerce and trade.
California became the Union’s 31st state in 1850. Soon thereafter, California’s Central Valley—hundreds of miles long and offering an ideal climate and rich soil perfect for growing nearly anything—drew even more people to start new lives in the West. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, which connected San Francisco and the state to the rest of the United States, ensured the state's population (and economy) continued to rise.
The 20th century brought with it the establishment of Hollywood as the entertainment capital of the world, the construction of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the birth of Silicon Valley and the invention of the Internet. California grew to become the nation’s most populous state, and it emerged as one of the country’s most important cultural, political and financial centers. In 2018, the state’s economy, which came in at the fifth-largest in the world, surpassed that of the United Kingdom.
California might not have a separate culture that’s distinct from the rest of the country—even though many of the state's residents would argue otherwise—but its influence on American culture cannot be understated. Hollywood’s enormous impact on the global film and TV industries is, perhaps, the most visible symbol of California’s worldwide cultural impact. Since its prominence in the early 20th century, the silver screen has lured many would-be stars and starlets to Los Angeles. Although the city is the second largest in the United States and home to a number of other industries and some of the most vibrant ethnic communities in the country, Los Angeles is still synonymous with show business.
More recently, Silicon Valley and the technology industry of the San Francisco Bay Area have captured center stage. Few corners of the world remain where Bay Area–based Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple (just to name a few) have not steamrolled their way into the fabric of people's everyday lives. It's also no coincidence the state that has long welcomed immigrants and outsiders has also given rise to alternative ways of living. (Think hippies, beatniks, the LGBT community, free speech movements, the Black Panthers and others.) In more ways than one, California has established itself as the global center for innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship in the modern world.
Backroads Pro Tip
Road traffic is an all-too-common reality for drivers throughout the state and Los Angeles and San Francisco are two of more congegsted regions in the US. Visitors should plan accordingly and leave plenty of extra time, especially when it comes to flights or time-sensitive events in major urban areas.
Good to Know
When traveling in California, keep some of the following in mind:
The official currency, and the only accepted one, is the US dollar. The best place to exchange money is at airports, although some bank branches will offer exchange to Euros and other major currencies as well. Major credit cards are widely accepted at nearly all businesses, though it’s still a good idea to carry at least some cash for the occasional small business that doesn’t accept credit cards. Some businesses in cities (very few overall but a growing number) have even gone completely cashless. ATMs are plentiful and many supermarkets and grocery stores have cashback options that allow customers to pay with their debit card and receive cash.
Tap water is safe to drink, but be conscientious of California’s ongoing drought issues, and don’t be surprised if someone politely reminds you not to waste water. Little things, such as shutting off the tap when brushing your teeth and refraining from long showers, are both encouraged and appreciated.
As in the rest of the United States, tipping is expected at all restaurants, with 15 percent being the standard amount for acceptable service and up to 18–20 percent for excellent service.
People generally behave the same in public in California as in the rest of the United States. Californians are known to be laid back, though, so don't be surprised if your coffee order or sandwich comes out a bit slower than in the faster-paced New York or other locations in the eastern United States. (The order in California will likely be delivered with a warm smile, though!) Do be aware of the political divide that often separates the liberal coastal cities from other more conservative parts of the state.
Outlets in California have the American type A plugs with a current of 110 volts.
All public and government buildings, as well as national parks and most state parks, have public restrooms. Stores, restaurants and businesses will usually have restrooms, but they are typically intended for customer use only. Additionally, some downtown or tourist areas might have public or pay toilets available.
When To Visit California
California is a wonderful place to visit any time of year. Much of the state enjoys a temperate, Mediterranean climate with plenty of sun, although there are important differences throughout the state. California's diverse geography means that while Los Angeles and San Diego will have sunny, warm weather all year with very little rain, other places in the state like Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and other mountainous regions have four actual seasons with cold, snowy winters, hot summers, and transitional spring and fall seasons. For winter sports enthusiasts, Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Mountain are ideal destinations for skiing and other activities. Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Palm Springs and the large parts of desert in the south can be extremely hot in the summer months but are ideal for the shoulder seasons. The further north you go along the Pacific Coast, the more you can expect to see overcast skies, cooler temperatures and more regular precipitation. Luckily, the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, and LA offer enough cultural activities that even with rare cases of bad weather, there is plenty to see and do.
- California is the most populous state in the US, with over 40 million residents. One in eight US residents calls this state their home.
- The state's massive economy (with agriculture, technology and entertainment as some of its biggest industries) is estimated to be the fifth-largest in the world.
- California contains the lowest and the highest points in the continental U. S. You can travel from 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley to 14,494-foot Mt. Whitney in less than a day.
Regions and Cities
The state can be generally split into two halves based on the major population centers of the San Francisco Bay Area and the capital of Sacramento in the north and the Los Angeles/San Diego urban area in the south, home to over 20 million people. There's also a mostly friendly rivalry between the residents of both parts of the state based on geography, culture, sports teams and history.
The Bay Area, Napa/Sonoma wine country, Big Sur, the coastal redwoods of Mendocino and Humboldt counties as well as Tahoe, Yosemite and much of the Sierra Nevada mountains are all in the northern part of the state. Visitors could spend weeks just exploring this part of the state!
San Francisco Bay Area
One of the most visited cities in the world, San Francisco is the state’s most cosmopolitan city, and it’s home to many historic and cultural sites, as well as thriving food and arts scenes. Oakland, Berkeley and other nearby cities add an even greater array of worthwhile stops in the Bay Area.
Napa and Sonoma Valleys
Beautiful scenery, vineyards producing some of the world’s best wine and outstanding lodging and dining options make the original California Wine Country an extraordinary place to visit.
An all-season recreational destination, Lake Tahoe draws people to its deep-blue waters and beautiful mountains for a variety of outdoors activities.
What many people imagine as quintessential California, especially those images from movies and TV (i.e. Baywatch, Laguna Beach, Beverly Hills 90210), is found in the southern part of the state. The climate is drier, sunnier and hotter in the south, with plenty of natural sites to explore such as Mammoth Mountain, Joshua Tree and Death Valley.
A massive, sprawling metropolis, Los Angeles is famous for its beaches, diverse populations and neighborhoods and, of course, Hollywood.
With its pleasant, sunny climate, beautiful beaches and laid-back vibe, it's no wonder people love to visit this city. Its proximity to the Mexican border makes it ideal for land-based entries to Baja California as well.
Known as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara is charming, quaint and much smaller and easier to navigate than Los Angeles or San Diego. It's a low-key introduction to Southern California featuring an underrated wine region of its own.
A funky desert resort town, Palm Springs is known for its golf courses, recreational activities and proximity to Joshua Tree National Park.
Worth a Visit
One of the world’s most known national parks, with its massive granite peaks, flowing waterfalls and endless trails to explore, Yosemite is recognized across the globe for its unique beauty.
Mendocino and the Coastal Redwoods
Gorgeous coastline combined with redwood forests, miles of hiking and sleepy coastal towns make this a fun, must-visit area.
The unique desert landscape and geographical sights make Death Valley National Park worth a visit. As any good California-based travel guide will tell you, though, this place isn’t ideal for a summer visit. During that time, it's often the hottest place on the continent!
Sequoia and Kings Canyon
These two national parks are side by side and offer fewer crowds than Yosemite, as well as a chance to see the world’s oldest and largest trees: the majestic Sequoias.
Things to See and to Do
Full Article Coming Soon!
How to Get to California
The San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles/San Diego areas are the state’s primary population centers, and each has a number of airports with flights from cities all over the US and the world. Because the state's population continues to grow, smaller airports are also good options for flights. For example, Sacramento, Orange County, Long Beach and Santa Rosa airports are all increasing their flight offerings to major US airports. For international travelers, Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) are the airports with the most direct flights arriving from transcontinental locations, but Oakland, San Jose and others have an increasing number of flights to international destinations as well.
California is a large state, and it offers a lot to see. As such, traveling by car is the ideal option. Since many of California's sights are national parks and natural wonders that are quite spread out, they’re not always well serviced by public transportation. That said, cities and urban areas will offer better access to trains, buses and ferries. With so many cities and such a large population, there are plenty of airports, making flying between the northern and southern parts of the state an option for saving time and money.
English is the official language in California, but due to its historically large and increasing population of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, Spanish is widely spoken as well. In fact, Spanish is so common in the state that some public school districts offer Spanish immersion and/or bilingual education to their students.
Food and Drink
The variety and quality of food here make dining a California travel must! The Central Valley is arguably the single-most agriculturally productive region in the world, producing much of the country's fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts. As a result, California's restaurants and food purveyors have access to some of the freshest products available, and the state's residents have high standards when it comes to the source and quality of their foods.
Additionally, the state's vibrant immigrant communities contribute a wonderful array of culinary possibilities to explore, and this goes far beyond the burritos, tacos and Mexican standards many know and love. In California, you’ll find next-level authentic ethnic dining, including Cantonese dim sum, Salvadorean pupusas, Japanese izakaya, Persian kabobs, Filipino lumpia, South Indian dosas and Korean bibimbap, just to name a few.
Food in California: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
While pickpocketing is very uncommon in California, it’s always wise to maintain caution in tourist areas and urban centers. Don’t leave valuables unattended at any time. If you're driving, follow all traffic laws, and always lock your car when you leave. Don’t keep bags, packs or luggage visible in your car for any length of time when parked in major urban areas.
Natural disasters are a sad but true reality in California. The state has always been known for earthquakes but these are extremely rare and very unlikely for travelers to encounter. More common occurrences are those stemming from weather extremes that have resulted in situations that can have a dramatic impact on visitors. Summer and fall have always been the season for wildfires, but recent years have seen more dramatic fires (with ash, smoke and poor air quality). Many of California’s most popular national parks can be closed unexpectedly due to wildfires, requiring visitors to make last-minute changes to their travel plans. Travelers are advised to check weather and road conditions when they plan to visit these areas.
Similarly, coastal and beach conditions should always be checked before visits in all parts of the state. Large waves, rip tides and other ocean conditions can have an impact on surfing and beach activities. Lifeguards are not present at many beaches, so caution should be taken by visitors to ensure safety.
For emergencies of any kind, visitors should dial 911 from any phone.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great California adventure!