California Geography Essentials
California is super-sized by any metric. The third largest U.S. state comprises more square miles than many countries, with a land mass that’s more than three times the size of Greece and four times bigger than Iceland.
To see a good chunk of California in one trip, you need to strategize. The state’s elongated outline sprawls across nearly 900 miles, stretching from its northern border with Oregon to its southern border with Mexico. Put the pedal to the metal and you might make the north-to-south drive in 15 hours. (It’s about the same distance as driving from New York City to Jacksonville, Florida.) Spin your wheels west to east across the skinny part of the state, and you’ll still need most of a day. From Santa Barbara to Needles, California is 350 miles wide.
Even in California’s metropolitan regions, distances are great. Planning to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles? You’ll need a full day to cover nearly 400 miles. Cruising Southern California on a theme park road trip? The route from Universal Studios Hollywood to SeaWorld San Diego spans 125 miles. Hitting the beaches in Los Angeles and Orange County? Figure on 90 miles between Malibu’s tony shoreline and Laguna Beach’s rocky coves.
And if you’re hankering to see California’s majestic desert parks, plug this number into your itinerary: 230 highway miles separate Death Valley’s dazzling badlands and Joshua Tree’s astounding rock formations.
California’s largest county, San Bernardino, covers more than 20,000 square miles—more land area than Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Even in smaller counties, towns are often far-flung, both in miles and character. Within the boundaries of winery-rich Sonoma County, historic Sonoma Plaza’s artisan cafes and boutiques lie 85 miles from the laidback beach hamlet of Sea Ranch, where the seaside climate makes summer days 20 degrees cooler. On California’s eastern side in Inyo County, winter drops deep, powdery snow in Bishop’s high mountains, but 165 miles away, the low desert at Furnace Creek bakes under a summer-like sun.
All this rambling geography translates to vast and varied scenery. Find your landscape in 840 miles of coastline, 25,000 square miles of desert, or a smattering of snow-capped volcanos. Stand among the planet’s tallest trees in the temperate rainforest of far northern California, or visit North America’s hottest and driest point near the state’s eastern border. Explore the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a 400-mile-long string of saw-toothed peaks that cradles Lake Tahoe, one of the world’s largest alpine lakes, and Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet.
The bottom line: California is grand in scope and scale. Give yourself plenty of time to go the distance. To that end, here are some time and distance calculations to help you plan your next visit. (Note: drive times are approximate and vary depending on when you travel.)
San Diego to Anaheim: 95 miles/153 km (2 hours)
San Diego to Los Angeles: 120 miles/193 km (2.5 hours)
Anaheim to Los Angeles: 27 miles/43 km (1 hour)
Los Angeles to Palm Springs: 105 miles/169 km (2 hours)
Los Angeles to Santa Barbara: 95 miles/153 km (2 hours)
Yosemite National Park to Sequoia National Park: 160 miles/258 km (4 hours)
Yosemite National Park to Death Valley National Park: 250 miles/403 km (5 hours)
Sacramento to Redding: 160 miles/258 km (2.5 hours)
Sacramento to San Francisco: 90 miles/145 km (2 hours)
Reno to San Francisco: 218 miles/351 km (4 hours)
San Francisco to Napa: 50 miles/ 80 km (1 hour)
San Francisco to Sonoma: 45 miles/72 km (1 hour)
San Francisco to Yosemite: 200 miles/322 km (3.5 hours)
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