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Publicized and idealized all over the world, CALIFORNIA has a formidable reputation as a terrestrial paradise of sun, sand and surf, added to fast-paced, glitzy cities, primeval old-growth forests and vast stretches of deserts. Despite its great appeal, though, the state also lies under the constant threat of the Big One – a massive earthquake of unimaginable destruction – along with the floods, fires, droughts and other disasters. While it’s been the source of some of the country’s most progressive movements, from the protests of the Sixties to modern environmentalist, civil rights and various reform activities, its economy has been sputtering in recent years, with the possibility of state bankruptcy looming ever larger, thanks to an antiquated tax system. Nonetheless, the state is crucial to the American economy as a whole, whether in film, music, finance, shipping or the hard-hit real-estate sector.

California is far too large to be fully explored in a single trip – much will depend on what you’re looking for. Los Angeles is far and away the biggest and most stimulating city: a maddening collection of freeways, beaches, suburbs and extreme lifestyles, and to many minds the polar opposite of New York City. To the south, the more conservative metropolis of San Diego has broad, welcoming beaches and a renowned zoo, while further inland, the deserts, most notably Death Valley, make up a barren and inhospitable landscape of volcanic craters and saltpans that in summer becomes the hottest place on earth. Heading north, the central coast is a gorgeous run that takes in lively small towns such as Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.

California’s second city, San Francisco, is a European-styled jewel whose wooden Victorian houses and steep hills make it one of the world’s most distinctive and appealing cities. To the east, excellent national parks include 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, peppered with volcanic tablelands and verdant mountains.

The climate in southern California features seemingly endless days of sunshine and warm, dry nights, with occasional bouts of winter flooding. Coastal mornings can be hazy or overcast, especially in May and June; in the Bay Area around San Francisco it can be chilly all year, and fog rolls in to spoil many a sunny day. Much more so than in the south, winter in northern California can bring rain for weeks on end. 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.

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