Geography and Landforms:

California has a diverse landscape made up of many unique geographic areas including the rocky Coastal Ranges, the Central Valley, the Klamath Mountains, the Transverse Range, the Cascades, the Sierra Nevada, and the Great Basin.

The state's coastal area consists of a series of low mountains that extend for 1200 miles along the Pacific Ocean. Beautiful valleys separate the individual ranges. They include the Napa Valley to the north and the Salinas Valley to the south. This region is also home to California's famous redwood trees. The San Andreas Fault is an important feature of this coastal area. The fault enters northern California from the Pacific Ocean and extends into southern California. Movements of the earth's crust along this fault line have caused many earthquakes.

California's Central Valley is a broad, fertile area that extends 500 miles from the northwest to the southeast. Much of California's farmland is located in this region. The valley also contains the state's two largest river systems - the San Joaquin and the Sacramento.

To the east of the Central Valley is the Sierra Nevada region, a 400-mile long area of massive granite rock. The highest point in the continental United States, Mt. Whitney, with an elevation of 14,495 feet, is located here. Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen, two volcanic peaks, lie to the north of the Sierra Nevada. They are part of the Cascade Mountains.

The Klamath Mountains are located in the northwestern portion of the state. They consist of several small, forested ridges that are higher and steeper than the coastal ranges farther south. These ridges are separated by deep canyons and valleys.

While most mountain ranges run north to south, the Transverse Range runs east to west, creating a geographic boundary between northern and southern California. The Peninsular Ranges located to the south cover the southwestern tip of the state.

The Great Basin Region is part of a larger area that extends into Nevada and Oregon. In northern California, it is a lava plateau. To the south, it is an area of wastelands that include the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert. North America's lowest point, Death Valley, 282 feet below sea level, is located in the Great Basin.


Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo was the first European to see the coast of what is now California. He was a Portuguese explorer hired by the Spanish to lead an expedition in search of a passage connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Instead, he discovered San Diego Bay in 1542.

In 1579, Sir Francis Drake, an English sea captain, sailed along the coast of California and stopped just north of San Francisco Bay to repair his ship. Drake called the land "New Albion" and claimed it for England.

Over the next century, the Spanish continued to explore the area. A Franciscan missionary, Junipero Serra, founded a mission in southern California in 1769. It was the first of a chain of 21 Spanish missions near the site of present-day San Diego. These missions played an important role in the Spanish colonization of California. While their function was to bring Christianity to the Native tribes of the area and teach them skills such as weaving and farming, they also provided a foundation for military, spiritual, and commercial control of the region.

Several "presidios" or military forts were built near San Diego (1769), Monterey (1770) and San Francisco (1776). Gradually, Spanish settlers established villages or "pueblos" along the coast. Unfortunately, the presence of these European colonists also resulted in new difficulties for the Native Americans of California. Exposure to unfamiliar diseases, forced manual labor, and the reality of warfare with the white man caused the slow but steady decline of the Native American population in California.

Spain was not the only country interested in the colonization of California. The Russians were hoping to expand their fur trade south along the Pacific Coast. In 1812 they established Fort Ross in northern California. But the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 effectively closed North and South America to further European colonization. By 1840, Russia had left the California region.

The United States was also interested in California for trading purposes. The first American ship reached the coast of California from the East in 1796. In 1826, Jedediah Strong Smith, a trapper, became the first American to reach the area by land. John Sutter, a Swiss-born immigrant, also made the long journey over land after receiving a large land grant in the Sacramento Valley. By 1841, large numbers of American immigrants were heading west to California including the tragic Donner Party, which became stranded during a heavy snowstorm while crossing the Sierra Nevada.

California became a province of Mexico in 1822, just one year after Mexico declared independence from Spain. Under Mexican control, the mission lands became part of huge cattle ranches and estates.

The years that followed were turbulent. California fell under the rule of a series of governors appointed by Mexico but these outsiders were resented by many Californians. The last Mexican governor was driven out in 1845 and the war between the United States and Mexico began in 1846. Later that year, U.S. Navy Commodore John D. Sloat claimed California for the United States. Mexico officially ceded the California territory to the United States in 1848 as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Just days before the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, gold was discovered at the site of John Sutter's sawmill and the famous California Gold Rush began. Thousands of gold miners, or "forty-niners," from all over the world began rushing to California hoping to find easy riches. The population of this territory increased from 26,000 in 1848 to nearly 400,000 in 1860.

The cities of San Francisco and Sacramento grew and flourished. But problems also emerged. The mining camps and booming cities also gave rise to crime, violence, and the need for a strong civil government. Forty-eight delegates came forward when General Bennett Riley, California's military governor, called for a constitutional convention. The convention met in September of 1849 and by October 13, a constitution was created. Despite heated debates over the issues of sectionalism and slavery, Congress admitted California as a state on September 9, 1850. Sacramento was established as the state's capital in 1854.

By May of 1869, the transcontinental railroad had connected California with the rest of the nation. Until then, all communication and transportation with California was dependent upon ships, telegraph, the Pony Express, and the stagecoach.


California is the nation's leading agricultural state, producing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables including carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and broccoli. The state's most valuable crops include cotton, grapes, and oranges. California is also a leader in the production of dairy products and wine.

The processing of farm produce is a major industry in California. But the state's economy also benefits from its vast reserves of natural resources such as petroleum, natural gas, lumber, and cement.

The state manufactures electronic equipment, computers, and transportation equipment. Southern California forms one of the largest manufacturing regions in the nation. To the north, "Silicon Valley" has become a center for the development of computer hardware and software.

One of the largest industries in the state, however, is the motion picture and television industry. Tourism is another great source of income for California. Attractions range from Disneyland and other theme parks, to the natural beauty of the national parks and forests throughout the state.

First Inhabitants:

California's earliest inhabitants were Asians who traveled the Bering Strait into North America using a now-vanished land bridge. More than 10,000 years ago, they settled throughout the region's diverse geographic areas and climates. Deserts and high mountains helped to separate these groups, and they lived peacefully in relative isolation from one another. Over many years, distinctive differences in lifestyle and culture developed among these groups, which included the Hupa, the Maidu, the Pomo, the Modic, and the Mohave tribes. More than 135 language dialects emerged.

Due to a rather dry growing season, these tribes did not develop agricultural societies. Instead, they became very skillful gatherers of native roots, nuts and berries. They also fished in the plentiful lakes and streams. Because of an absence of warfare, a favorable climate, and a plentiful food supply, these cultures flourished.

When Europeans entered the California region in the 16th century, they encountered a population of more than 300,000 Native Americans.

Books Related To California

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple - Karen Cushman
(978-0064406840) , Fiction
Interest level: 4-8, Lexile: 1030, ESL level: 3
California Morning, also known as Lucy, experiences loneliness and sadness when she moves with her family from the East Coast to a California mining town.

The Bracelet - Yoshiko Uchida
(978-0698113909) , Fiction
Interest level: 1-5, Lexile: 710, ESL level: 2 - 3
Emi keeps memories of her friendship with a non-Japanese girl in her mind despite the loss of a gift bracelet she got before her family was forced into an internment camp during WWII.

Buster Changes His Luck - Marc Brown
(978-0316001298) , Fiction
Interest level: 0-3, Lexile: 590, ESL level: 2 - 3
Buster the rabbit's new friends show him what fun he can have celebrating Chinese New Year in San Francisco.

By the Great Horn Spoon - Sid Fleischman
(978-0316286121) , Fiction
Interest level: 3-7, Lexile: 730, ESL level: 3
Jack and his adult friend hide themselves on a vessel bound for California; they experience many adventures along their way to search for gold.

A Day's Work - Eve Bunting
(978-0395845189) , Fiction
Interest level: 0-3, Lexile: 350, ESL level: 2
Francisco is surprised he can learn something from his non-English speaking grandfather who even needs help to find a job in California.

Earthquake at Dawn - Kristiana Gregory
(978-0152046811) , Fiction
Interest level: 5-9, Lexile: 840, ESL level: 4
Read a novelized version of photographer Edith Irvine's take on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake as told by her fellow traveler, Daisy.

Frida Maria: A Story of the Old Southwest - Deborah Lattimore
(978-0152015152) , Fiction
Interest level: 0-4, Lexile: 620, ESL level: 2 - 3
Frida Maria spurns her mother's attempts to interest her in traditional pursuits, like sewing and cooking; instead she impetuously enters the Fiesta and wins!

G is for Golden: A California Alphabet - David Domeniconi
(978-1585360451) , Non-fiction
Interest level: 0-2, ESL level: 1 - 2
This book features all the things that are special about the state of Colorado.

Little Mama Forgets - Melanie Kroupa
(978-0374346133) , Fiction
Interest level: 0-3, Lexile: 710, ESL level: 4
Luciana enjoys her forgetful grandmother since the older women still remembers what is important for each of them.

Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida - Victor Martinez
(978-0064471862) , Fiction
Interest level: 7-12, Lexile: 1000, ESL level: 4
Manny's many problems involving growing up as a Chicano in a poor family are compounded by his father's alcoholism.

Quake!: Disaster in San Francisco - Gail Karwoski
(978-1561453108) , Fiction
Interest level: 4-6, Lexile: 770, ESL level: 3 - 4
This historical fiction novel describes the 1906 San Francisco earthquake from the point of view of a Jewish teen.

Snowshoe Thompson - Nancy Smiler Levinson
(978-0064442060) , Fiction
Interest level: 0-2, Lexile: 330, ESL level: 2
Based on a true story, this book depicts Snowshoe Thompson's undying attempts to deliver the U.S. mail by ski, even when he has to make his own!

The Trouble with Cats - Martha Freeman
(978-0823414796) , Fiction
Interest level: 1-4, Lexile: 300, ESL level: 2
Holly must adjust to a new stepfather, a small San Francisco apartment, and her stepfather's four cats who share her room.

Famous Citizens:

Robert Frost
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, California. One of America's most popular and beloved poets, Frost wrote of the people and landscape of New England. He won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1924, 1931, 1937, and 1943 and was appointed the Poet Laureate of Vermont. Frost died in 1963.

William Randolph Hearst
William Randolph Hearst was an American journalist and publisher. Born in San Francisco, California, he created a publishing empire that, at its peak, included 28 major newspapers and 18 successful magazines. Hearst hired only the very best American journalists. Writers such as Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane and Jack London wrote for him. Hearst also served as a congressman in the US House of Representatives from 1903-1907. His life served as the inspiration for Orson Welles' film Citizen Kane.

Richard Nixon
Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th President of the United States (1969-74) was born in Yorba Linda, California. Prior to serving as President, he was a US Senator from California, and Vice-President under Dwight Eisenhower. During his presidency he succeeded in ending the fighting in Viet Nam and improving relations with the USSR and China. However, his involvement in the Watergate scandal led to his resignation in 1974. He is the only President to have resigned.

Sally Ride
Sally K. Ride, American astrophysicist and astronaut, was born in Encino, California. After earning a PhD in physics from Stanford University, she became a NASA astronaut and helped design the robot arm for the space shuttle. In 1983, Ride became the first American woman in space, and was the youngest American to travel to space at age 32.

John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California. One of America's most respected authors, Steinbeck based his stories on personal observations of the human condition. He is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

Capital: Sacramento
Entered Union: September 9, 1850
Population: 38,802,500
Area 163,696
Bird California Valley Quail
Flower California Poppy
Nickname: The Golden State
Governor Jerry Brown

Places to Visit in California: (Click the links to learn more.)

Mission San Juan Capistrano - San Juan Capistrano
Founded more than 200 years ago, the mission was a center for agriculture, education, industry, and religion. Today it represents the multi-cultural history of California and embraces Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and European heritage.

The San Diego Zoo - San Diego
This world-famous zoo houses more than 4,000 rare and endangered animals representing over 800 species. The botanical garden contains over 6,500 species of exotic plants. Highlights include the Giant Panda Research Stations, Gorilla Tropics, Reptile Mesa, and the Scripps Aviary.

Hearst Castle - San Simeon
This former estate of William Randolph Hearst includes a magnificent main house and three guesthouses. Art treasures throughout the castle include Greek vases from 800 BC, rare oriental carpets, paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and antique furniture.

The Exploratorium - San Francisco
Located within San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts, this hands-on museum of science, art, and perception offers more than 650 interactive, experimental, and educational exhibits and activities.