Publicized and idealized all over the world, California has a formidable reputation as a terrestrial paradise of sun, sand and surf, also boasting fast-paced, glitzy cities, primeval old-growth forests and vast stretches of deserts. 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 only just started to recover from the 2008–12 state budget crisis, bankruptcy narrowly avoided. Nonetheless, California’s GDP remains bigger than that of most European countries, and regardless of its economic ups and downs, the “Golden State” retains an unbreakable grip on the world’s imagination, thanks in large part to Hollywood.
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 easily the biggest and most stimulating city: a maddening collection of diverse neighbourhoods, from the Mexican and Japanese enclaves downtown and family fun of Disneyland to the glitz of Beverly Hills and craziness of Venice Beach, knitted together by miles of traffic-clogged freeways. To the south, the more conservative metropolis of San Diego has broad, welcoming beaches, great food (featuring delicious tacos considering its proximity to Mexico) 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, mesmerizing 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.
As you might expect, a car is necessary for exploring much of California (see our feature on the best California road trip routes). A city such as Los Angeles couldn’t exist without the automobile, and in any case driving down the coastal freeways in a sleek convertible is too much fun to resist. And if you plan to do any long-distance cycling, travelling from north to south can make all the difference – the wind blows this way in the summer, and the ocean side of the road offers the best views.
Spaniard Juan Cabrillo first sighted San Diego harbour in 1542, naming it California after an imaginary island from a Spanish novel, but in 1602 Sebastián Vizcáino bestowed most of the place names that still survive; his exaggerated description of Monterey as a perfect harbour led later Spanish colonizers to make it the region’s military and administrative centre. Father Junípero Serra first established a small Catholic mission and presidio (fort) at San Diego, and by 1804 a chain of 21 missions, each a long day’s walk from the next along the dirt path of El Camino Real (The Royal Road), ran from San Diego to San Francisco. Native Americans were either forcibly converted to Catholicism or executed, with disease killing off those who managed to survive the Spanish onslaught.
Mexico gained its independence in 1821, taking control of California, but Americans were already starting to arrive, despite the immense difficulty of getting to the Mexican state – three months by sea or four months by covered wagon. The growing belief that it was the Manifest Destiny of the United States to cover the continent from coast to coast, evident in the imperialist policies of President James K. Polk, soon led to the brief Mexican-American War. By January 1847 the Americans controlled the entire West Coast, and Spanish-speaking Californios were gradually marginalized. In 1850 California became the 31st state.
The Gold Rush of 1849 made not just California, but insured that the American West would be colonized in a matter of decades. A mere nine days before the signing of the treaty that ended the Mexican-American war, flakes of gold were discovered in the Sierra Nevada, leading to a rush of prospectors from all parts of the world. It took just fifteen years to pick the land clean of visible gold, and the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, linking the gold fields to the rest of the USA. Due to cut-rate rail prices and the lure of a dry, toasty climate and bountiful citrus groves, hordes of newcomers came from the Great Plains to Southern California and helped make Los Angeles the state’s biggest city. Thanks to this migration, along with periodic real-estate booms and the rise of the film industry, California became the nation’s fastest-growing state. Heavy industry followed during World War II, in the form of shipyards and aeroplane factories.
As home to the Beats in the 1950s and the hippies in the 1960s, California was at the leading edge of global cultural change. The economic counterpart of this shift also developed when Proposition 13, in 1978, augured a national trend to dramatically cut taxes at the cost of government solvency (not resolved until the passage of Proposition 30 in 2012 signalled a dramatic reversal). The 1980s saw further right-wing gains, with a string of laissez-faire Republican governors, and the 1990s crash-landed in economic scandal, a depressed housing market, rising unemployment, gang violence and race riots in LA – compounded by earthquakes, drought and flooding.
Some of the glow has further come off the golden state in the twenty-first century, but countless new migrants – many from Latin America – continue to arrive. One of these immigrants, Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger, had the good fortune to become a well-paid action movie hero before taking his place as 38th California governor, and the misfortune to rule during the recent, severe economic recession, which helped weaken the state’s economy and pop the unemployment rate above twelve percent. By 2013 the Democrats had a majority in both houses of the state legislature, and Jerry Brown, the Democratic governor who replaced Schwarzenegger in 2011, signed a balanced budget for the state, its first in years, ushering in what Californians hope will be the beginning of a sustained recovery.