California stretches out from north to south, 800 miles of endless terrain and diverse geography. It’s home to a variety of ecosystems, climate zones, and wildlife. This expansive state has much to offer; its most notable ecological regions include the fertile lands of the central valley, the beaches of the west coast, the Sierra Nevada with its mountainous peaks, and the arid, inhospitable Mojave Desert. Exploration is inevitable, as each region of this otherworldly planet paints a different picture for the traveler, from one extreme landscape to another. So climb out of your spaceship and begin ascending!
The Northern & Southern Coastal Region
The coastal region, stretching from the Oregon border to the Mexican border, can be divided into north and south. San Francisco, Oakland, Sonoma, and other counties outline the northern coast. Along the northern coastal ranges, one can find the legendary redwood forests, in parks such as Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and Humboldt Redwoods State Park. These coastal areas are characterized by fog and rain (especially San Francisco in the summer). Napa Valley, to the north of San Pablo Bay, experiences mesoclimates, giving the region a variety of weather patterns that make it conducive for wine-making.
Napa Valley [Image: Cynthia Via]
Towards the Southern Coast, the sprawling highways and suburban communities outline the urban streets. But the most concentrated areas are near the famous beaches of Los Angeles and San Diego. The most common birds along the coast are California gulls, black-footed albatross, surfbirds, elegant tern, and the
brown pelican, to name a few. The Diablo Ranges and the Santa Cruz Mountains to the south of San Francisco are also part of this region. The Southern Coast is characterized by Mediterranean eco-regions with rainy winters and dry summers. The proximity of the ocean controls temperature extremes, resulting in warmer winters and cooler summers.
The Sierra Nevada
San Francisco [Image: Cynthia Via]
The Sierra Nevada is a primordial heaven decorated with mountain streams, high peaks, and glaciers in the distance. Situated within the Sierra Nevada, Mt. Whitney stands at 14,494 feet—the highest peak in the U.S., south of Alaska. This region is also home to the famous Yosemite National Park. The Sierra Nevada has massive Sequoia trees along with an abundance of plants and wildlife. There are 400 vertebrate species, such as the Nevada red fox, black bear, bob cat, great gray owl, and peregrine falcon. It also has one of the largest alpine lakes in North America: Lake Tahoe.
Imagine 20 million years ago: this fertile landscape was plagued by volcanoes. The region was flooded with molten lava spewing out of the crevices of a young earth. Then the earth’s climate cooled, the ice age began and glaciers carved out the U-shaped canyons throughout the sierra. The Sierra Nevada boasts 200-250 days of sun, warm summers, brutal winters, and rugged terrain, which makes for a challenging hiking adventure.
View from Seminole Dome in Yosemite National Park [Image: Cynthia Via]
The Central Valley
This huge expanse of land is known for its fertile production of vegetables and fruits; about 230 crops are produced here. The Central Valley was once a diverse grassland with riverside woodlands and seasonal vernal pools, but our agriculture needs have altered its landscape. Human activity and the introduction of exotic plants has replaced the diversity of species that once existed with livestock, ranches, and farms.
Central Valley [Image: www.flickr.com]
The pronghorn antelope, the tule elk, and the kit fox, among others, were abundant in this region, but now many of these animals are either non-existent or endangered. Surrounding the valley are rugged hills and gentle mountains which contrast the area’s flatness. The valley may have originated below sea level as an offshore area.
A tule elk in San Joaquin Valley. About 4,0000 of them live in the wild thanks to conservation efforts [Image: Robert Couse-Baker www. flickr.com]
Low precipitation and cold offshore currents which limit evaporation give this otherworldly landscape its extreme dryness.The Mojave Desert lies beneath the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Hot air from the Pacific Ocean climbs up the sierra, but is then turned back by the cold air in the mountains. Though some rain may go over the mountain, most of it is evaporated by the desert’s hot air, thereby never reaching the ground. The Mojave Desert spreads beyond Southern California, to parts of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. Most notably, the desolate Death Valley, one of the hottest places in the Americas at 120° Fahrenheit, is situated on the California-Nevada border.
Death Valley Dunes. [Image: John Bruckman www.flickr.com]
The Mojave has numerous dry salt lakes, low mountains, and dry stream beds. It’s hard to imagine anything living in these barren conditions, yet it’s home to a variety of wildlife, including the coyote, kit fox, black-tailed jackrabbit, greater roadrunner
, and speckled rattlesnake. The creosotebush, brittlebush, and California juniper are commonly found here, along with the endemic barrel cactus and cholla cactus. Around 225 million years ago, during the Paleozoic Era, much of the American Southwest was covered by shallow seas, as revealed by fossil impressions of marine creatures in limestone and dolomite.
Kit foxes prefer arid climates [Image: Daniel Ardnt www.flickr.com]
To explore California’s otherworldly landscape, as it goes from one geological extreme to another, is to begin worshipping nature. It may take a whole lifetime to get around this enormous state, but the point is to start exploring, one region at a time.
Stay tuned for Pocket Ranger® American’s National Park Passport, which includes the famous Yosemite National Park, and other parks in California.