Publicized and idealized all over the world, CALIFORNIA really
does live up to the myth. More than just a terrestrial paradise
of sun, sand and surf, it has high mountain ranges, fast-paced
glitzy cities, primeval old-growth forests and vast stretches
of deserts. The landscape is imbued with history, ranging from
rock carvings left by indigenous Native Americans to the eerie
ghost towns of the Gold Rush pioneers.
In some ways, the west coast is the ultimate "now" society.
Anywhere so vulnerable to the constant threat of the Big One
- a massive earthquake of unimaginable terror - is bound to have
a sense of living for the moment. However, its supposed superficiality
is largely fictitious. Although home to such reactionary figures
as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, it has also been the source
of some of the country's most progressive political movements
. The fierce protests of the Sixties may have died down, but
California remains the heart of liberal America, at the forefront
of environmental awareness, gay pride and social permissiveness,
and increasingly a bulwark of the Democratic Party. Economically
, too, the region is crucial, whether in the film industry, the
music business, the financial markets, or the all-consuming sector
of real-estate development.
California is too large to be fully explored in a single trip,
but in an area so varied it's hard to pick out specific highlights.
Los Angeles is far and away the biggest and most stimulating
city: a maddening collection of freeways, beaches, seedy suburbs,
upscale neighborhoods and extreme lifestyles. From Los Angeles
you can head south to the growing metropolis of San Diego , with
its broad, welcoming beaches and easy access to Mexico; or push
inland to the desert areas , most notably Death Valley , a barren
and inhospitable landscape of volcanic craters and salt pans
that in summer becomes the hottest place on earth.
Most people, though, follow the shoreline north up the central
coast : a gorgeous run that takes in lively small towns like
Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz . California's second city, San
Francisco , at the top end, is about as different from LA as
it's possible to get: the oldest, most European-styled city in
the state, set on a series of steep hills, its wooden houses
tumbling down to water on three sides. It is also well placed
for the national parks to the east, such as Yosemite , where
waterfalls cascade into a sheer glacial valley, and Sequoia/Kings
Canyon with its gigantic trees, as well as the ghost towns of
the Gold Country. North of San Francisco the countryside becomes
wilder, wetter and greener, approaching Oregon through spectacular
and almost deserted volcanic tablelands.
The climate in southern California consists of seemingly endless
days of sunshine and warm dry nights, with occasional bouts of
torrential flooding in the winter. LA's notorious smog is at
its worst when the temperatures are highest, from July through
September. All along the coast mornings can be hazily overcast,
especially in May and June; in exposed San Francisco it can be
chilly all year, and fog rolls in to ruin many a sunny day. Much
more so than in the south, winter in northern California can
bring rain for weeks on end, causing massive mudslides that wipe
out roads and hillside homes. Most hiking trails in the mountains
are blocked between October and June by the snow that keeps California's
ski slopes among the busiest in the nation.