National Parks

California Travel Guide

California state is a popular travel destination for Americans and visitors from abroad.  With rugged coastlines, sandy beaches, mountain ranges and metropolitan cities, California has something to please every tourist.

Before you take off on your California vacation, you should gather lots of information so that you can make the most of your trip and not miss any of the top attractions.  Though in reality, you could take several vacations to California and still not see everything.  When you’re ready to book your hotel and rental car, visit our discount travel site, to save on every reservation.

California Geography

California is located on the western coast of the United States. It extends along the Pacific Ocean from the Mexican border in the south for nearly 900 miles (1400 km) to its northern border with the state of Oregon. The state is approximately 200 miles (300 km) wide from its western beaches to its eastern deserts bordering the states of Nevada and Arizona.

Covering more than 163,000 square miles (423,000 square kilometers), California is the third largest state in the United States.  Interstate 5, the primary north/south freeway is 792 miles (1,274 kilometers) long.  Therefore if you plan to visit destinations in northern and southern regions, you need to allow plenty of time for driving or plan on flying.

Secluded beach along Big Sur's rugged coastline © Mike Leco /
At Big Sur just south of Monterey, the mountains plunge right into the ocean to form spectacular coastal scenery.

California's Tropical Beaches to Rugged Coast

The coastline of California extends from the soft sandy tropical beaches of San Diego near the Mexican border to the rugged northern coasts near Oregon. In the southern part of the state, warm Pacific waters and the famous California surf attract many vacationers to its palm shaded beaches. As you go further north, the coastline becomes more scenic, but the waters are cooler and sandy beaches are scarcer. In northern California, hiking along rocky cliffs and visiting secluded beaches to see seals, sea otters or whales make this region a perfect destination for outdoorsy vacationers to enjoy.

The coastal mountains stretch along the western fringe of the entire state. These low volcanic peaks form a protective barrier shielding the inner lands from the full force of the Pacific Ocean weather. In some places, the ridges are a few miles inland with flat coastal steps where cities like Los Angeles and San Diego are built. At Big Sur just south of Monterey, the mountains plunge right into the ocean to form spectacular coastal scenery. A gap in the mountains near San Francisco allows the Pacific Ocean to flow into a large protected bay behind the coastal range.

Major California Cities

The major city in California is the multi-ethnic metropolis of Los Angeles, home to Hollywood movie stars, business moguls, surfers and nearly four million inhabitants. It is actually a conglomeration of several dozen communities that have coalesced into the largest city on the west coast of the US. From quirky Venice Beach to ritzy Beverly Hills, each of these communities has a unique atmosphere that make them well worth visiting.  Our Los Angeles Travel Guide provides more information.

Just 120 miles (193 km) south of LA is the laid back city of San Diego.  This city is another popular travel destination because of its temperate climate, sandy beaches and Hispanic influences.  Attractions like the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, Mission Bay as well as the shops and restaurants in the historic district should all be a part of your vacation plans.  Read our San Diego Travel Guide for more information.

San Francisco, another great California city, is located nearly 400 miles (600 km) to the north of LA. This beautiful city hugs the slopes of a hilly peninsula on the shores of a vast blue bay amid the coastal mountains. It is less metropolitan than Los Angeles and lacks the warm sandy beaches but is much more picturesque. San Francisco is known as a destination for fine dining, international flare and cultural attractions.  Our San Francisco Travel Guide is a good information source for suggestions on what to see.

Yosemite National Park: El Capitan © Mike Leco /
Yosemite National Park with its spectacular alpine vistas is only four hours drive to the east of San Francisco.

Central Valley, the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the desert

A broad flat valley runs down the center of the state east of the Coastal Mountains and west of the higher Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Known as the Central Valley, this once arid desert plain is now some of the richest farmlands in the USA thanks to the liberal use of irrigation. The Central Valley is 50 to 100 miles wide (90 - 150 km) and is covered with farms, orchards and vineyards.

The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range forms a 400-mile long north-south wall of snow-capped peaks approximately 100 miles east of the Pacific shoreline. Much of the mountainous area is preserved as natural wilderness with few roads and limited access. From Bakersfield, just east of Los Angeles, to Yosemite, nearly 200 miles north, there is no road traversing this range from east to west. Approaching the mountains from the west, takes you through 50 miles of escalating hills and forested slopes before you reach the snow capped ridges. From the east, the snowcapped peaks rise almost directly from the floor of the desert to form a spectacular wall of granite extending from horizon to horizon.

A narrow strip of California lies east of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in a parched rain-shadow desert with waterless mountains and desiccated valleys. This is the beginning of the barren Basin and Range Country that extend through the state of Nevada. It includes the vast wasteland of the Mojave Desert and the austere beauty of Death Valley.

Many wonderful attractions in California

There are many more things to see and do in California than the few attractions we have mentioned here.  It’s a popular destination for Theme Park and Amusement Park enthusiasts.  Disney, Universal Studios and Six Flags all have major parks here, as do dozens of smaller park operators.

California is home to seven national parks - Yosemite, Death Valley, Lassen, Joshua Tree, Channel Islands, Redwood, Sequoia/Kings Canyon – in addition to countless national monuments, historical parks, state parks and preserves. 

A trip to California wouldn’t be complete without a drive along California’s Highway 1, known as the Pacific Coast Highway. This scenic byway is 1800 miles long and runs north to south from Northern California to Mexico.  The most popular section is a 130-mile stretch between Dana Point and Oxnard in southern California.   The roadway can get very busy in summer with the heaviest traffic during the months of July and August. Take a look at our California Driving Tour Guide for a map and information on destinations and attractions along Highway 1 and other roadways throughout the state.

Although sun, sand and surf are most often associated with California, the state is also a fantastic destination for winter travelers.  World class ski resorts like Squaw Valley and Mammoth Mountain are popular among downhill skiers and snow boarders.  Throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you can find opportunities for winter activities like snowshoeing, cross country skiing and sledding.  If you can imagine it, you can do it in California!

Written by: Mike Leco and Michelle Leco
Top Photo Credit: © Mike Leco /
Photo Description: Santa Barbara beach