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The geography of California is diverse. There are alpine mountains, foggy coastlines, hot deserts, and a fertile central valley. The U.S. state of Californiamarker is home to some of the world's most exceptional trees: the tallest (coast redwood), most massive (Giant Sequoia), and oldest (bristlecone pine). It is also home to both the highest (Mt.marker Whitneymarker) and lowest (Death Valleymarker) points in the 48 contiguous states.

The state is generally divided into Northern and Southern California, although the boundary between the two is not well defined. San Francisco is decidedly a Northern California city and Los Angeles likewise a Southern California one, but areas in between do not often share their confidence in geographic identity. The US Geological Survey defines the geographic center of the state at a point near North Fork, Californiamarker.

Earth scientists typically divide the state into eleven distinct geomorphic provinces with clearly defined boundaries. They are, from north to south, the Klamath Mountains, the Cascade Range, the Modoc Plateaumarker, the Basin and Range, the Coast Ranges, the Central Valleymarker, the Sierra Nevada, the Transverse Ranges, the Mojave Desert, the Peninsular Ranges, and the Colorado Desert. For purposes of explanation, it is also helpful to recognize the Los Angeles Basin, the Channel Islandsmarker, and the Pacific Oceanmarker as distinct regions.

Northern California

Klamath Mountains

The Klamath Mountains are a mountain range in northwest California and southwest Oregon, the highest peak being Thompson Peak (2,744 m / 9,002 ft) in Trinity County, Californiamarker. They have a very varied geology, with substantial areas of serpentine and marble, and a climate summers with limited rainfall. As a consequence of the geology, they have a unique flora including several endemic or near-endemic species, such as Lawson's Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana), Foxtail Pine (Pinus balfouriana), Brewer's Spruce (Picea breweriana) and Kalmiopsis (Kalmiopsis leachiana).

Cascade Range

The Cascade Range is a mountainous region stretching from British Columbiamarker in Canada down to the northern part of California. The Cascades (as they are called for short) are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the ring of volcanoes around the Pacific Ocean. All of the known historic eruptions in the contiguous United States have been from Cascade volcanoes. The last Cascade volcano to erupt in California was Lassen Peakmarker, which erupted from 1914 to 1921. Lassen is the most southerly active volcano of the Cascade chain.

This region is located in the northeastern section of the state bordering Oregonmarker and Nevadamarker, mostly north of the Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The area is centered on Mount Shastamarker, near the Trinity Alpsmarker. Mount Shasta is a dormant volcano, but there is some evidence that it or Shastinamarker, a smaller companion, erupted in the 18th Century.

Modoc Plateau

In the northeast corner of the state lies the Modoc Plateaumarker, an expanse of lava flows at an altitude of 4,000 to 6,000 ft (1,200 to 1,800 m) with cinder cones, juniper flats, pine forests, and seasonal lakes. Nearly 1 million acres (4,000 km²) of the Modoc National Forestmarker lie on the plateau between the Medicine Lake Highlandsmarker in the west and the Warner Mountainsmarker in the east. The plateau supports large herds of mule deer (Odocoileus Hemionus), Rocky Mountain Elk (Cervus Canadensis), and pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra Americana). There are also several herds of wild horses on the plateau. The Clear Lake National Wildlife Refugemarker and Long Bell State Game Refuge are located on the plateau as well. The Lost River watershed drains the north part of the plateau, while southern watersheds either collect in basin reservoirs or flow into the large Big Sage Reservoir, which sits in the center of Modoc Countymarker.

Basin and Range

Mono Lake
To the east of the Sierra is the Basin and Range geological province, which extends into Nevadamarker. The Basin and Range is a series of mountains and valleys (specifically horst and grabens), caused by the extension of the Earth's crust. One notable feature of the Basin and Range is Mono Lakemarker, which is the oldest lake in North America. The Basin and Range also contains the Owens Valleymarker, the deepest valley in North America (more than 10,000 feet (3 km) deep, as measured from the top of Mount Whitney).

In the eastern part of the state, below the Sierra Nevada, there is a series dry lake beds that were filled with water during the last ice age (fed by ice melt from alpine glacier but never directly affected by glaciation; see pluvial). Many of these lakes have extensive evaporite deposit that contain a variety of different salts. In fact, the salt sediments of many of these lake beds have been mined for many years for various salts, most notably borax (this is most famously true for Owens Lakemarker and Death Valleymarker).

In this province reside the White Mountainsmarker, which are home to the oldest living thing in the world, the bristlecone pine.

Coast Ranges

Skyline Boulevard, along the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains

To the west of the Central Valley lies the Coast Ranges, including the Diablo Range, just east of San Franciscomarker, and the Santa Cruz Mountainsmarker, to the south of San Francisco. The Coast Ranges north of San Francisco become increasingly foggy and rainy. These mountains are noted for their coast redwoods, which live within the range of the coastal fog, the tallest trees on Earth.

Central Valley

California's geography is largely defined by its central feature — the Central Valleymarker, a huge, fertile valley between the coastal mountain ranges and the Sierra Nevada. The northern part of the Central Valley is called the Sacramento Valley, after its main river, and the southern part is called the San Joaquin Valleymarker ( ), after its main river. The whole Central Valley is watered by mountain-fed rivers (notably the San Joaquin, Kings, and Sacramento) that drain to the San Francisco Baymarker system. The rivers are sufficiently large and deep that several inland cities, notably Stockton, Californiamarker, are seaports.

The southern tip of the valley has interior drainage and thus is not technically part of the valley at all. Tulare Lakemarker, once 570 square miles (1,476 square kilometers) and now dry and covered with agricultural fields, once filled much of the area.

Sierra Nevada

In the east of the state lies the Sierra Nevada, which runs north–south for . The highest peak in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitneymarker at 14,505 feet (4,421 m), lies within the Sierra Nevada. The topography of the Sierra is shaped by uplift and glacial action.

The Sierra has 200–250 sunny days each year, warm summers, fierce winters, and varied terrain, a rare combination of rugged variety and pleasant weather. The famous Yosemite Valleymarker lies in the Central Sierra. The large, deep freshwater Lake Tahoemarker lies to the North of Yosemite. The Sierra is also home to the Giant Sequoia, the most massive trees on Earth.

These features inspired the founding of the Sierra Club and the Alpine Club, public-service clubs of mountaineers devoted to maintaining trails and lodges and organizing outings to explore the Sierra. The most famous hiking and horse-packing trail in the Sierra is the John Muir Trail, which goes from the top of Mt. Whitney to Yosemite valley, and which is part of the Pacific Crest Trail that goes from Mexicomarker to Canadamarker.

The three major national parks in this province are Yosemite National Parkmarker, Kings Canyon National Parkmarker, and Sequoia National Parkmarker.

Southern California

Transverse Ranges

Mount San Gorgonio and Mount Baldy as seen from Mount San Jacinto

Southern California is separated from the rest of the state by the east-west trending Transverse Ranges, including the Tehachapi, which separate the Central Valley from the Mojave Desert. Urban Southern California intersperses the valleys between the Santa Susana Mountains, Santa Monica Mountainsmarker and San Gabriel Mountainsmarker, which range from the Pacific Coast, eastward over , to the San Bernardino Mountainsmarker, north of San Bernardinomarker. The highest point of the range is Mount San Gorgoniomarker at . The San Gabriel Mountains have Mount Wilson observatorymarker, where the redshift was discovered in the 1920s.

The Transverse Ranges include a series of east–west trending mountain ranges that extend from Point Conception at the western tip of Santa Barbara County, eastward (and a bit south) to the east end of the San Jacinto Mountains in western Riverside County. The Santa Ynez Mountains make up the westernmost ranges, extending from Point Conception to the Ventura River just west-northwest of Ojai, in Ventura County. Pine Mountain Ridge, Nordhoff Ridge–Topatopa Mountains, Rincon Peak–Red Mountain, Sulphur Mountain, Santa Paula Ridge, South Mountain–Oat Mountainmarker–Santa Susana Mountains, Simi Hills, Conejo Mountains–Santa Monica Mountains are all part of the Western Transverse Ranges, in Ventura and western Los Angeles Counties.

The Liebre Mountains occupy the northwest corner of Los Angeles County, and represent a northwestern extension of the San Gabriel Mountains, both on the Pacific Plate side of the San Andreas Fault. The fault divides the San Gabriel Mountains from the San Bernardino Mountains further to the east in San Bernardino County.

It is possible to surf in the Pacific Oceanmarker and ski on a mountain during the same winter day in Southern California.

Los Angeles Basin

Los Angeles Basin from space
For the last 15 million years, the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Santa Ana Rivers have deposited sediment from the Transverse Ranges along the southern coast of California. That sediment has formed the large, flat expanse of land known as the Los Angeles Basin, on which lives most of the population of Los Angeles and Orangemarker Counties.

At its deepest point, near where the Los Angeles River meets the Rio Hondo, the sediment forming the basin is deep. The fact that so much sediment, which is naturally less stable than other geologic formations, underlies Los Angeles and its environs is one of the reasons earthquakes are such a danger to the metropolitan area.

Mojave Desert

Badwater Basin: the lowest point in North America.

There are harsh deserts in the Southeast of California. These deserts are caused by a combination of the cold offshore current, which limits evaporation, and the rain shadow of the mountains. The prevailing winds blow from the ocean inland. When the air passes over the mountains, adiabatic cooling causes most water in the air to rain on the mountains. When the air returns to sea level on the other side of the mountains, it recompresses, warms and dries, parching the deserts. When the wind blows from inland, the resulting hot dry foehn winds are called the Santa Ana Winds.

The Mojave Desert is bounded by the peninsular Tehachapi Mountains on the Northwest, together with the San Gabriel and the San Bernardino Mountains on the Southwest. These Western boundaries are quite distinct, forming the dominant pie-slice shaped Antelope Valleymarker in Southern California. The outlines of this valley are caused by the two largest faults in California: the San Andreasmarker and the Garlock. The Mojave Desert extends Eastward into the State of Nevadamarker. The Mojave Desert receives less than 6 inches (150 mm) of rain a year and is generally between 3,000 and 6,000 feet (1,000 and 2,000 m) of elevation. Areas such as the Antelope Valley desert which is a high desert received snow each year, in the past it could snow 2-3 times a year; however, recently snow level has declined significantly to once a year or less. Most of the towns and cities in the California portion of the Mojave are relatively small, except for Palmdalemarker and Lancastermarker. However, some are quite famous like Barstowmarker, a popular stop on the famous U.S. Route 66. The Mojave Desert also contains the lowest, hottest place in the Americas: Death Valleymarker, where temperature normally approaches 120 °F (49 °C) in late July and early August.

Peninsular Ranges

The southernmost mountains of California are the Peninsular Ranges, which are East of San Diegomarker and continue into Baja Californiamarker (Mexicomarker) in the Sierra San Pedro Martirmarker. The Peninsular Ranges contain the Laguna Mountainsmarker, the San Jacinto Mountainsmarker, the Santa Rosa Mountains, the Santa Ana Mountains and the Palomar Mountain Rangemarker, notable for its famous Palomar observatorymarker. San Jacinto Peakmarker's eastern shoulder has a cable tram that runs from the desert floor to nearly the top of the mountain where riders can set off hiking or go cross-country skiing.

Colorado Desert

The Coachella Valley Preserve
To the east of the peninsular ranges lie the Colorado and Sonoran Desertsmarker, which extend into Arizonamarker and Mexico.

The ground elevation is generally lower and in some areas was compressed downward, therefore the eastern Coachella and Imperial Valleysmarker north of the U.S.-Mexican border are below sea level, the lowest community in the U.S. is Calipatria, Californiamarker at 160 feet below sea level.

One feature of the desert is the Salton Seamarker, an inland lake that was formed in 1905 when a swollen Colorado Rivermarker breached a temporary canal near the U.S.-Mexico border and flowed into the Salton Basin for almost two years. Today, the Salton Sea remains as California's largest lake.

The Channel Islands

The Channel Islandsmarker are a group of islands off the coast of Southern California. They are divided into two groups, the Northern islands and the Southern islands. There are eight islands total:
Northern islands Southern islands
Anacapa Islandmarker San Clemente Islandmarker
San Miguel Islandmarker San Nicolas Islandmarker
Santa Cruz Islandmarker Santa Barbara Islandmarker
Santa Rosa Islandmarker Santa Catalina Islandmarker

Four of the islands are located in Santa Barbara Countymarker, two are located in Ventura Countymarker, and two are located in Los Angeles County. The islands have relatively few people. The only island with a sizable settlement is Santa Catalinamarker, with its towns of Avalonmarker and Two Harborsmarker. The islands of Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa make up the Channel Islands National Parkmarker. There is also a marine sanctuary in the islands, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The Channel Islands, and in particular San Nicolas Island, are famous for the Lost Woman of San Nicolas, or Juana Maria. This woman was the main character in the book Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.

Pacific Ocean

The Pacific Oceanmarker lies to the west of California. Sea temperatures rarely exceed 65 °F (18 °C), even in summer, because of up-welling deep waters with dissolved nutrients. Therefore, most sea life in and around California more closely resembles Arctic, rather than tropical, biotopes. The sea off California is remarkably fertile, a murky green filled with fish, rather than the clear dead blue of most tropical seas. Before 1930, there was an extremely valuable sardine (herring) fishery off Montereymarker, but this was depleted, an event later famous as the background to John Steinbeck's Cannery Row.

Natural hazards

California's most infamous natural hazard is earthquakes due to the many faults that run through California, Nevada, and the Pacific Coast. Major historical earthquakes include:

Coastal cities are vulnerable to tsunamis from locally generated earthquakes as well as those elsewhere in the Pacific Ring of Fire. The Great Chilean Earthquakemarker tsunami (1960) killed one person and caused $500,000 to $1,000,000 dollars of damage in Los Angelesmarker, damaged harbors in many coastal cities, and flooded streets in Crescent Citymarker. Waves from the Alaskan Good Friday Earthquake of 1964 killed twelve people in Crescent City and caused damage as far south as Los Angeles.

The state is subject to coastal storms, especially during the North American monsoon season. Dry weather during the rest of the year produces conditions favorable to wildfires. California hurricanes occur less frequently than their counterparts on the Atlantic Oceanmarker. Higher elevations experience snowstorms in the winter months.

Floods are occasionally caused by heavy rain, storms, and snowmelt. Steep slopes and unstable soil make certain locations vulnerable to landslides in wet weather or during earthquakes.

California is also home to several volcanoes, including Lassen Peakmarker, which erupted in 1914 and 1921, and Mount Shastamarker.

Future geography

California, when only partially explored by the Spanish, was once thought to be an island, as when the southern peninsula of Baja California is approached from the Gulf of Californiamarker the land appears to the west. It is expected, through the motions of plate tectonics that the sea floor spreading now acting in the Gulf of California (also known as the Sea of Cortez) will eventually extend through Southern California and along the San Andreas faultmarker to below San Franciscomarker, finally forming a long island in less than 150 million years. (For comparison, this is also the approximate age of the Atlantic Oceanmarker.) Predictions suggest that this island will eventually collide with Alaskamarker after an additional 100 million years.

See also


  1. May 22, 1960 Tsunami

External links

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