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The Geography of California

Click here  for a few definitions.

Longitude / Latitude Longitude: 114° 8' W to 124° 24' W
Latitude: 32° 30' N to 42° N
California map
California base and elevation maps
East to West
North to South
560 miles: greatest distance East to West.
1,040 miles: greatest distance North to South.
Geographic Center
The geographic center of California is located 38 miles east of Madera.
Longitude: 120° 4.9'W
Latitude: 36° 57.9'N
Borders California is bordered by Oregon to the north. In the south, California shares an international border with Mexico. To the east, Nevada and Arizona share the California border. California meets the Pacific Ocean on the west.
Total Area California covers 163,707 square miles, making it the third largest of the 50 states.
Land Area 155,973 square miles are land areas.
Water Area 7,734 square miles of California are covered by water.
Highest Point The highest point in California is Mt. Whitney at 14,494 feet. Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous 48 states. Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in Alaska, rises 20,320 feet above sea level and is the highest point in the United States.
Lowest Point The lowest point in California is in Death Valley. Death Valley lies 282 feet below sea level and is the lowest point in the United States.
Mean Elevation The Mean Elevation of the state of California is 2,900 feet above sea level.
Major Rivers Sacramento River, San Joaquin River, Colorado River
Major Lakes Lake Tahoe, Salton Sea, Owens Lake, Searles Lake

The Land

California land forms graphic California is the third largest state, behind Alaska and Texas, and runs almost 800 miles from north to south. It is not surprising that it offers a contrasting landscape and a diverse topography. California's general coastline is 840 miles long. Along much of the coast, the Coast Ranges rise from the shore in steep cliffs and terraces. Southern California has many wide, sandy beaches. California's topography can be characterized by defining eight main regions within the state;

Klamath Mountains: In the northwest corner of the state are the Klamath Mountains. They are comprised of many small forest covered ranges and are higher than the coastal mountains to the south. Many mountains range from about 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. The small ranges are separated by deep canyons.

Coastal Ranges: The Coastal Ranges in the north reach inland 20 to 30 miles extend from the Klamath Mountains in the north south to Santa Barbara. The Coastal Ranges include many smaller chains of mountain ranges including the Diablo and Santa Cruz Mountains. Some of the valleys separating these ranges are the Napa Valley, north of San Francisco and the Santa Clara and Salinas Valleys to the south. The Coastal Range is home to California's legendary Redwoods and, less fortunately the San Andreas Fault. The San Andreas Fault enters California from the Pacific Ocean near Port Arena and extends southeast into the state. Earthquakes are caused by movement of the earth's crust along this fault.

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite, Tunnel View
Courtesy of Robert Holmes
The Sierra Nevada: The Sierra Nevada mountain range in the east runs about 430 miles from north to south and forming a giant wall rising to over 14,000 feet. The range varies from around 40 to 70 miles wide. Many peaks in the range reach over 14,000 feet above sea level, with Mt. Whitney, at 14,494 feet, the highest peak in the United States south of Alaska. Mountain streams and glacial action have cut deep valleys into the western part of the Sierras. Yosemite Valley is one of the most spectacular of these valleys. Visit the Sierra Nevadas at the United States Geological Survey.

Central Valley: The Central Valley lies between the Coastal Range and the Sierra Nevada range and is home to the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers. Sometimes called the Great Valley, the Central Valley is about 450 miles long from points in the northwest to the southeast. A level, broad fertile plain, the Central Valley is the most important farming area west of the Rocky Mountains and comprises about three-fifths of California's productive farmland.

Mount Shasta
Mount Shasta
Courtesy of Robert Holmes
Cascade Mountains: The Cascade Mountains extend north from the Sierra Nevada mountain range. They were formed by volcanoes unlike the other mountain ranges in California and support one still-active volcano; Lassen Peak. Lassen is 10,457 feet high and located in the southern Cascades. The Cascade Mountains are also home to Mt. Shasta, once and active volcano. Mt. Shasta rises 14,162 feet above sea level.

Basin and Range Region: The Basin and Range Province contain the southeastern deserts of California. The Basin and Range Region is part of a large region that extends into Nevada, Oregon, and other states.

In the north, much of the area is a lava plateau. This was formed thousands of years ago when the region was flooded with molten lava flowing out of cracks in the earth's surface.

In the south, a good deal of the area is wasteland and includes the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert. Death Valley lies near the California-Nevada border and features some of the most inhospitable territory in the world. Some areas of the Basin and Range Region have been made quite productive, however, due to large irrigation projects that have made farming feasible. Two of these areas are the Imperial and the Coachella Valleys near the California border with Mexico.

The Los Angeles Ranges: The Los Angeles Ranges, between Santa Barbara and San Diego counties, are a group of small mountain ranges that extend east to west. Because of this general east-west direction, the Los Angeles Ranges are sometimes called the Transverse Ranges. Most mountain ranges in California run generally from north to south. Included in the Los Angeles Ranges are the Santa Ynez, Santa Monica, San Gabriel, and San Bernardino mountains. Sometimes the San Jacinto and Santa Ana Mountains are included as part of the Los Angeles Ranges.

The San Diego Ranges: The San Diego Ranges cover most of San Diego county in the southwestern corner of California. These mountains, sometimes called the Peninsular Ranges, include the Agua Tibia, Laguna, and Vallecito mountains and extend southward into the Mexican peninsula known as Baja California.

The general coastline of California is 840 miles long. Much of the coast is characterized by the Coast Ranges rising from the shore in steep cliffs and terraces. In southern California many wide, sandy beaches can be found.

Snow Blows From the Slopes of Mt. Whitney
Snow Blows From the Slopes of Mt. Whitney Purchase print
From the peak of Mt. Whitney to Death Valley, California's topographic diversity is exemplified. Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the 48 contiguous United States, and Death Valley, the lowest point in the United States, lie only 85 miles from each other.

Read more about the major land areas of California, including the Cascade Range, the Klamath Mountains, and the Mojave Desert. This interesting overview is provided by the California Department of Conservation.

For more about the Coastal Geography of California, visit these pages from the California Coastal Resource Guide by the California Coastal Commission.

( California Close-up )

Climate (All temperatures Fahrenheit)
Highest Temperature The highest temperature recorded in California is 134°, Fahrenheit. This record high was recorded on July 10, 1913 at Greenland Ranch in Death Valley. This makes for a real hot day!
Lowest Temperature The lowest temperature was recorded on Jan 20, 1937 at Boca. -45° below zero does not make for good Beach weather!
Average Temperature Monthly average temperatures range from a high of 92.2 degrees to a low of 14.3 degrees.
Climate As would be expected in such a large and diverse land area as California, the climate is varied. The climate along the coast is mild; cooler along the central and northern coast. Southeastern California is hot and dry. Most of California is marked by only two distinct seasons; a rainy season and a dry season. The rainy season runs from October to April in northern California and from November to March or April in southern California.

Average yearly precipitation for California, from 1971 to 2000, is shown on this chart from Oregon State University.

The World Almanac of the U.S.A. by Allan Carpenter and Carl Provorse, Copyright © 1998.
David W. Eakins and Tom L. McKnight, "California," World Book Online Americas Edition,, August 14, 2001.
California. C-Ch. Chicago: World Book, Inc., 1988. 38. Print.
The United States Geological Survey Website, August 1, 2001.
To Arkansas geography. To Colorado geography.


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