More than 20,000 years ago, the first people arrived in what is now California. They walked from Asia, crossing on a strip of land that’s now submerged under a body of water between Russia and the United States called the Bering Strait. For thousands of years, hundreds of Native American tribes thrived on this land.
Europeans landed in the 16th century, with Spanish explorers leading the way. But when Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, it also gained control of California. That didn’t last long: in 1848, at the end of the Mexican-American War, California became a U.S. territory. After gold was struck in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, more than 100,000 people, nicknamed “forty-niners,” rushed to California in 1849 to seek their fortunes. Just a year later, in 1850, California officially became a state.
WHY’S IT CALLED THAT?
The name California comes from a 16th-century Spanish novel that describes a mythical paradise called California.
The gold rush probably helped earn California the nickname the Golden State, as did its golden poppies, the state flower.
GEOGRAPHY AND LANDFORMS
Follow the 1,100-mile coastline for sandy beaches, cliffs, and mountains. Or head northeast to discover forests with redwood trees that are about 380 feet tall—about as tall as a football field is long. East of the redwoods is Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous states and part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Like the heat? Travel southeast to the 25,000-square-mile Mojave Desert. The center of the state is called the Central Valley, where you’ll find miles of farmland.
Keep an eye out for black bears, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, wild pigs, deer, and elk. And search the skies for a sight of bald eagles, California condors, and California quails, the state bird. Swimming off the coast are green sea turtles, leatherback sea turtles, California sea lions, sea otters, and blue whales.
About 6,500 types of plants thrive in California. You can see Joshua trees, which grow only in the Mojave Desert; perfumed magnolia trees; thorny coral trees; purple-flowered jacarandas; and lots of cacti.
There’s a good chance that piece of fruit you’re eating was grown in California. The state is the top U.S. producer of lemons, apricots, avocados, dates, figs, grapes, kiwi, nectarines, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, and many others. And it’s not just fruit—California leads the nation in production of almonds, pistachios, and walnuts. It even grows over 90 percent of the broccoli that’s produced in the United States.
The state also produces timber, cement, natural gas, and petroleum.
—California’s Death Valley is North America’s hottest desert, with an average daily high in the month of June of 115.5°F. Tank up before you drive there. Gas stations can be 50 miles apart.
—The world’s biggest tree by volume is General Sherman, a giant sequoia tree in Sequoia National Park. It’s 102 feet around—that’s bigger than a basketball court—and may be as many as 2,700 years old.
—More movies have been filmed in California than any other state.
—Waves that reach over 50 feet high attract surfers to the state. In 1955, Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California. Since then about 750 million people have visited the park.