CALIFORNIA, the Golden State

What to see

Interstate 15 from Las Vegas to Los Angeles
San Diego San Diego, Zoo, Wild Animal Park, Balboa Park, Coronado Island, Sea World
Los Angeles Knott's Berry Farm - Crystal Palace - Beverley Hills - Hollywood - Bel-Air - Malibu - Universal Studios
Solvang Danish Village - Spanish Mission Sta Ines
Santa Barbara Spanish Mission Sta Barbara
Santa Nella Route 1 (Pacific scenic byway)
San Simeon Randolph Hearst Castle
El Portal Yosemite Park
San Francisco Cable Tram - Chinatown - City Tour
Blythe Blythe Intaglios
Death Valley National Park
Lake Tahoe Lake Tahoe
Three Rivers Sequoia Park & Forest
Redding Shasta Lake, Mount & Dam
Burney Burney Falls
other pages other states | articles

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cover west pacific

This is an extract of what to see in this state, with small photos. You will find the full description, history and full-sized photos, in my e-book View America: West Pacific

In the travel series View America, West Pacific covers California, Oregon and Washington. It is not a traditional travelogue, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, tourist attractions and points of interest.

My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 180 full-sized 600px-wide pictures.

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CALIFORNIA is the third largest state after Alaska and Texas. It is also known as the Golden State, named after the immense Gold Rush of 1850. The name California was first used during the Spanish expedition of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in 1542, and was probably derived from a popular Spanish book from 1510, in which a fictional paradise was called California.

This state knows only superlatives! California is the most populous state, it has the largest agricultural sales, the most cars, private planes, students, etc. Most of the state lies in a geologically unstable area on the St Andreas fault line. Small earthquakes are common but there have also been more severe tremors, including the one on 18 April 1906, which almost completely destroyed downtown San Francisco.

In 1850 California joined the U.S. as the 31st state. The capital and largest city is Los Angeles, which is also the second largest American city. California has about 34 million inhabitants and almost 93% of the population lives in cities or towns. Most residents live in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, and the northern mountains and the deserts are practically uninhabited. The metropolis of Los Angeles houses about half of the state's population!

The state's surface is approximately 411,000 km2, and it is forested for 39%. Along the east of the Central Valley lies the Sierra Nevada, with a massive granite ridge. Mount Whitney (14,505 feet or 4,421 m) is the highest mountain in the U.S. outside of Alaska. On the other hand, Death Valley is the second-lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (behind Laguna del Carbón in Argentina), with a depth of 282 feet or 86 m below sea level. In Death Valley, on 10 July 1913 a reading of 134 degrees Fahrenheit (56.7 °C) was taken, the highest temperature ever recorded in the world. The state also contains several deserts, including the Mojave and Colorado deserts.

The giant Sequoia tree grows at higher altitudes in the Sierra Nevada, and some are more than 2,000 years old. But in the eastern White Mountains there are pines that are more than 4,500 years old.

The entire economy is based on the state's abundant natural resources. Next to the comprehensive agriculture the state has gold, petroleum and other minerals. California is the nation's leader in agriculture, and its farms are the most productive in the world thanks to intense irrigation and the excellent climate. The rice harvest for instance is three times larger than in Asia! Agriculture covers all the traditional fruits and vegetables but also nuts, olives, figs, and so on. The state is the second largest cotton producer and a leader in egg and milk production.

Fishing is only second to Alaska and the timber industry is ranked third in the U.S. The mining industry is fourth after Texas, Louisiana and Alaska. The California oil industry comes in third place. The wine industry provides 80% of the entire national production. Next to tourism, the movie, radio and TV industry (Hollywood) is an important sector. After World War II a new space and electronic industry developed in Silicon Valley (Santa Clara Valley).

The greatest growth takes place in the dry south, and though there are local water shortages, these are constantly remedied with extensive new installations to bring more water from the north. The most important river in the south is the Colorado River.

There are eight well-known national parks, including Yosemite, Sequoia (with the world's most massive General Sherman sequoia), Redwood, Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon, and Death Valley National Park. The Owens Valley in eastern California was home to a concentration camp, in which Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II.

Of course California is also world famous for Disneyland, Sea World, Universal Studios, MGM Studios and China Town in San Francisco. There are still many old Spanish missions, the foremost of which is the Santa Barbara Mission, also called the Queen of the Missions. Finally there are world famous observatories such as Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatory.

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San Diego

The San Diego Zoo

The world famous San Diego Zoo actually consists of two parks, the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park, the latter being located some forty miles to the north.

the San Diego ZooA visit to the zoo traditionally starts with a 40-minute guided bus tour through the park. After the bus ride the visitors can replicate the same tour, but this time on foot. This will enable them to shoot dozens of marvelous pictures of koalas, elephants, rhinoceroses, various types of boar (wild boar, warthog, with and without beard), goats, gazelles, Rocky Mountain sheep (with a molting coat that looks like it is dripping off), giant panda, takin (a type of asymmetric wildebeest with a somewhat strange body), playful polar bears, eagles and the majestic condor (the largest of the birds, weighing 8 pounds and with a 12-foot wing span), the hippopotamus (which moves very gracefully under water), okapi, gorillas, and a flock of pink flamingos.

By the way, the name wildebeest comes straight from the Dutch language, and is the literal translation of "wild animal"!

The surroundings are extremely clean and neat, there is a great variety of animals, the landscaping is well done, and the animals look healthy and well cared for. The only somewhat disappointing factor could be the relatively small overall surface of this world famous zoo. But land in San Diego is scarce and at premium, so...

Coronado Island

Our sightseeing trip continued to Coronado Island, a dune with scarce vegetation. Until 1820 it just lay fallow off the coast, and was no more than a hunting ground for Jack Rabbits. In 1820 the island was given as a wedding gift to a young couple that wanted to raise sheep. After only six months though, the man was fed up with the sheep (the story doesn't mention his wife...) and they sold the entire lot, sheep included.

San Diego : Coronado hotelIn 1885 two wealthy businessmen came to the island to hunt, and they hit upon the idea to build a prestigious hotel on it for other hunters. They bought the entire island (approx. 4,000 acres or 1,600 ha) for a "mere" 110,000 $, and built their hotel. Then they parceled the rest of the island into 110,000 lots, and mopped up a sloppy two million dollars...

Their original hotel is the famous Coronado Hotel, the largest wooden hotel in the US. It was built in the record time of exactly one year, as the owners wanted absolutely no delays. They didn't even take the time to wait for the official approval, and built the entire hotel based on sketches from the architect.
For the construction they employed Chinese workers that didn't have any training whatsoever in construction. So, to "motivate" and teach them, they had them build their own homes first... The work continued for 24 hours per day, and 11 months later the massive building was finished!

The hotel had two main entrances, one for the hunters to show off their bloody trophies, and another one for the ladies, who didn't want to see all that blood... Until 1969 the island was only accessible by a ferry, but then the Coronado Bridge was built. This is a majestic bridge, 75 meters above sea level, so that even the largest ships can pass under it except for the large aircraft carriers.

Los Angeles

Knott's Berry Farm

In 1940 Walter Knott started to build the very first American theme park, with the buildings you can see today. He bought all the ancient buildings he could get his hands on and installed them in his park.
The park did not immediately make a profit, but instead cost a lot of money. So his wife, in desperation, sold berry jam and fruit preserves, hence the widespread name "Knott's Berry Farm". Later both the fruit preserves and the theme park became a huge success!

This park also focuses on the commercial aspect with numerous dining and drinking establishments, shops, arcades, games, and so on. But it is a nice and somewhat special variation on the classic Disney, Universal and Six Flags amusement parks. Certainly worth a visit!

Los Angeles : Knott's Berry Farm 1 Los Angeles : Knott's Berry Farm 2

Crystal Cathedral

Along Chapman Avenue there is a very special church, called the Crystal Cathedral. It actually is a super-modern place of worship, that features all possible electronic devices such as TV-cameras and sound equipment, because their services are presented regularly on TV.

The architecture of the buildings is outstanding, and the landscaping and garden architecture is simply breathtaking! The name "Crystal Cathedral" stems from the fact that the walls of the construction are made entirely of glass, and the construction is extremely imposing.

However, in October 2010 the Crystal Cathedral announced that it was filing for bankruptcy protection because of a precipitous drop in contributions.

Los Angeles : Crystal cathedral 1 Los Angeles : Crystal cathedral 2

San Simeon : Hearst Castle

William Randolph Hearst was the son of George Hearst, who around 1850 discovered a phenomenally rich silver mine, inear Virginia City in California. He unearthed 38 tons of silver, and lugged them on muleback some 300 miles across inhospitable territory to the nearest city, where he received about $ 2,000 per pound of silver. This made him one of the richest men in America!

In 1863 he bought all the land he could get, including a piece of land of 75,000 acres (300 km2) and 50 miles (80 km) of coastline, which the family used as a campground and later as his main residence. His son William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) spent his entire youth there. In 1873 William and his mother traveled throughout most of Europe for one and a half years, which aroused his interest in European culture and architecture.

In 1919 and at the age of 56 he wanted to build his own palace, like many other American moguls, in order to perpetuate his name and person, and maybe just to show off a bit. As the perfect location he chose the top of a mountain, 1,575 feet high (480 m). About all the materials for the construction had to be brought in, except for water, which fortunately he found right there, thanks to three freshwater springs.

San Simeon : Hearst Castle 1 San Simeon : Hearst Castle 2

The construction took more than 28 years, and the plans were changed countless times. There exists a tremendous archive of some 4,000 memos to his architect Julia Morgan, in which he changed his mind over and over again about nearly every detail. Many rooms were simply adjusted to house the souvenirs which he had collected, instead of the other way round. In the beginning his wife was allowed to also have her say in the concept, but soon in this matter she was replaced by his mistress. The price of the entire construction ran up to about 10 million dollars!

San Simeon : Hearst Castle 3 San Simeon : Hearst Castle 4

The main building, la Casa del Sol, presents a huge dining room, a sitting room, a billiard room, a cinema room and an interior pool, that is truly decadent in an ancient Roman bathhouse style, but also quite beautiful. The estate also contained the largest private zoo in the U.S., its own vegetable gardens and livestock, its own runway, and so on.

Overwhelming is the word of choice for the entire estate! A word of criticism might be that even though his art collection contains many simply priceless items, the overall architectural style of the construction lacks a general harmony, and the contrasts don't always witness good taste. Nevertheless, a visit to the Hearst Castle is an experience that is not to be missed!

San Francisco

the San Francisco Cable Car

In 1869 the wealthy English Andrew Hallidie saw how a horse slip in the rain, and slide down the steep San Francisco streets. Next to being a wire manufacturer he also happened to be an inventor, and he immediately went to work to come up with a system to avoid such accidents. He invented a steel cable that was strong enough to pull heavily loaded vehicles, and a way to weave this cable together in order to obtain an infinite loop.

In 1872 he began the construction of the underground cables and the cable-drawn vehicles, and perfected a winch that drove the cables at 4 miles per hour. His idea was mockingly called Hallidie's Folly, but exactly one year later he made the first ride over the steep hills without any problem. The San Francisco Cable Car was born!

In 1982 the antique Cable Car system was shut down because it was completely outdated and unsafe, and because it became a hindrance to regular traffic. After a storm of public indignation and protest the antique system was again put into operation in 1984, after having been modernized somewhat. The Cable Car Museum presents an interesting history and many facts about this fascinating attraction!

San Francisco : Cable Car 1 San Francisco : Cable Car 2
San Francisco : Cable Car 3 San Francisco : Cable Car 4

Death Valley

The Badwater area is the lowest point on the Western Hemisphere, at 282 feet (86 m) below sea level. The entire park covers an enormous 5,262 square miles (13,630 km2), and the average temperature in Death Valley during the month of July is more than 104 °F (40° Celsius)...

The floor of the valley is made up of a vast salt plain, the dusty remains of a lake that dried up more than 2,000 years ago. From afar the white surface gives the impression of a large lake. The valley is surrounded by rather high mountain ridges and the entire landscape is completely surreal, since absolutely nothing grows because of the high salt content. There are no bacteria and therefore no plants, no insects and no animals!

Next to this fascinating landscape, other sights are the walking rocks that apparently travel by themselves over the plain, and the old salt-mining equipment.

Death Valley 1 Death Valley 2
Death Valley 3 : walking rock Death Valley 4 : salt mine

The Visitors Center is located in Furnace Creek and it offers more documentation and a documentary. A nice side-exploration is the Artists Drive, an 8 mile long (14 km) one-way road, which climbs through an enchanting landscape of volcanic and sedimentary hills in every imaginable color. This drive decidedly hasn't stolen its name!

Zabriskie Point is one of the most frequented views of the park, and it displays a splendor of many-colored hills. Another pinnacle is Dante's View. This viewpoint may attract fewer tourists because it is relatively remote, and it necessitates a 18 mile (30 km) long and rather steep climb from 985 feet (300 m) to 5,475 feet of altitude (1,669 m). The last 1,300 feet (400 m) of the trip has a remarkable slope of 15%...

Death Valley 7 : Dante's view Death Valley 8 : Dante's view

Shasta : Dam, Lake and Mountain

Shasta Dam

The Shasta Dam is one of the largest dams in the world and also a key piece of the California Central Valley Project, that provides the water that is vital to the entire central valley. The dam itself contains some 12 million tons of concrete, enough to build a 3.2 feet wide (1 m) and 4 inch thick (10 cm) sidewalk around the entire globe...

The dam is 602 ft (183 m) high and 3,460 ft (1,055 m) long, measures 885 feet (270 m) thick at the base and 29.5 feet (9 m) thick at the top, generates 675 megawatts of electricity, and supplies the water for agriculture and the cities.

Shasta Lake

The dam created Shasta Lake, with a surface of 30,000 acres (120 km2) and nearly 372 miles (600 km) of coastline. The lake is used for recreation and all kinds of water sports, such as swimming, boating, sailing and water skiing. It is a much sought after resort for camping and fishing.

Shasta Mountain

The Visitor Center on Mount Shasta is located at an altitude of 4,000 feet (1,220 m), and it is the start of the exploratory tour of Mount Shasta along the scenic Mountain drive. This drive climbs steadily, and along the way Vista Point at 5,900 feet (1,800 m) presents a nice overview of the entire valley.

Bunny Flat at 6,955 feet (2,120 m) constitutes the end of the road. It is the way station where hikers prepare themselves for their mountain trip along a trail that is reserved for hikers and climbers. Many amateur climbers want to cover the remaining distance of 5.9 miles (9.5 km) to the summit of the mountain, and another 6,900 feet (2,100 m) in altitude!

Shasta Dam & lake Shasta Mountain

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