50 States in 50 Days: California: Adventure in the “Golden State”

Posted by: James Wolfe, Press Attaché

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It would be easy for one to assume that my (adopted) home state needs no introduction, but that wouldn’t be true even if there were no more to it than its most famous elements: Los Angeles (with Hollywood and Disneyland), San Francisco (Golden Gate Bridge), and Silicon Valley. San Francisco (never call it “Frisco” in front of a native!) and L.A. have many hidden elements to reveal to the visitor, which may be part of why they are two of the top five cities most visited by foreigners. California itself is the second most visited state after New York with over 6.1 million visitors in 2011 (New York had 9.5 million, 98% of whom went to New York City), just ahead of Florida (which surpassed CA for a couple years during the worst of the recent global economic crisis). Many went to L.A. (3.6 million) or San Francisco (2.9 million), or even both – a favorite itinerary for visitors is to start in one city and drive to the other along the famous Highway One coastal route through towns like Monterrey and Santa Barbara.

A view of Santa Barbara from the top of the Courthouse

Santa Barbara (my home!) – “the American Riviera” – is a microcosm of most of the elements that make the state great. The small city and its outskirts (population about 220,000) lie in a relatively thin strip of flat land and rolling hills, nestled between the Sierra Los Padres mountains to the north and the Santa Barbara Channel to the south (on the other side of the uninhabited Channel Islands is the Pacific Ocean). The charming Spanish colonial-style architecture draws many visitors, particularly to the Court House, the Presidio, and the Santa Barbara Mission, known as the “Queen of the Missions” (21 were built by the Spanish in the early 1800s in what is now California). Zoning laws keep downtown buildings to three floors or less and in Spanish colonial style, with the exception of the 7-story Grenada Theater, which is the only tall building that survived the 1925 earthquake and was recently restored to its former glory. The city offers a wide variety of culinary delights from around the world, but is best known for Mexican and fresh seafood. The nearby Santa Barbara wine country, though less famous than Sonoma and Napa in Northern California, produces some of the best Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah anywhere. (The 2004 film Sideways did a lot for the fame of Santa Barbara Pinot Noir). For those enjoying the outdoors, the town and surrounding area offer spectacular beaches for surfing, swimming, and sunning; bike routes both gentle and challenging; numerous hiking trails with spectacular views of the town and ocean or access to hidden pools, springs, and small waterfalls; and mountains with jumping-off points for hang gliders or challenging cliffs for rock climbing.

Santa Barbara Mission
A Santa Barbara winery barrel room

Rock climbing is one of the many extreme and adventurous sports for which California is perfectly suited, drawing many adherents from around the world to some of these sports’ most celebrated Meccas. For rock climbers, small coastal sites like Santa Barbara’s Gibraltar or San Ysidro Canyon would be enough to make a visit worthwhile. Larger sites like Tahquitz/Suicide, Pinnacles, Lake Tahoe, and the Needles are deservedly more famous and offer climbs that can take all day to do just one (in the Needles, be sure to use helmets, as falling rocks are a real concern). The two most famous sites, however, are Joshua Tree National Park and Yosemite National Park (included Tuolumne).

Yosemite National Park
Half Dome cliff in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is internationally famous as one of the best places on earth for climbing “big walls” – cliffs ranging in height from 1,000 to 3,300 feet (300 meters to one kilometer) that can take 3 days or more to climb. Yosemite’s most well known formations are El Capitan, Half Dome, Glacier Point and Sentinel, although there are many more to choose from. El Capitan’s “The Nose” is a route up the prominent flare in the massive, granite cliff’s face, which generally has been considered a difficult climb that requires climbers to sleep on ledges at least two night during the multi-day ascent. It also was not climbed without the aid of equipment to support the climber (as opposed to “free climbing” with the equipment being used merely to catch the climber should he or she fall) until 1993, when Lynn Hill became the first to do so after multiple attempts; she later repeated her feat in 23 hours to be the first to climb the route both free and in less than a day. The typical lodging for a Yosemite climber is to pitch a tent at the famous Camp 4, where hundreds of climbers gather every summer. Like everywhere in Yosemite, campers must hang their food in “bear bags” over lines between trees – bears will break into tents and cars in search of food!

The author of this article is climbing in Joshua Tree National Park

For those climbers who like to sleep on level ground but still long for some of the United States’ most challenging cliffs, Joshua Tree National Park in the Mohave Desert near Palm Springs is an excellent choice. The cliffs are found on the thousands of rock mounds that appear haphazardly strewn about the desert floor. They were formed 100 million years ago from cooling magma beneath the surface that was then exposed through erosion from groundwater. The resulting rock is very rough, tending to wear out both shoes and finger tips in the course of several days of climbing. Few climbs are more than 4 or 5 rope lengths (the standard rope is 165 meters), and it is easy to find all the routes one desires without ever exceeding a single rope length. In the winter, climbers will seek cliffs with a southern exposure to benefit from the sun’s warmth, while in the summer, it would be insane to climb under the heat of the sun rather than in the welcome shade. The other benefit to J.T. compared to Yosemite, besides shorter climbs, is that many are also far more accessible, not requiring mountain hikes to reach the bases. While a first glance in the daytime suggests a lifeless place other than the Joshua Trees (yuccas made famous from the cover of U2’s Joshua Tree album that can live up to 1,000 years), cacti and small desert plants, the place comes alive at night. It is a rare treat to rise before the sun (not something I’m known to do at home) and get a high vantage point to watch the coyotes, hares, and other creatures wandering through one’s campsite.

A rock in Joshua Tree National Park

Of course, there is a lot more to do in California besides rock climbing. For those interested in other adventure sports, California’s Sierra-Nevada Mountains offer excellent skiing, especially at Lake Tahoe for downhill enthusiasts, and in many places for Nordic (cross-country) skiing, a personal favorite being Sequoia National Forest with its Sierra redwoods (Also known as giant sequoias, they are the world’s largest trees by total volume, with an average height of 50–85 meters and diameter of 6–8 meters. Their coastal cousins, the California redwood, are the tallest trees on Earth, reaching up to 115.5 meters in height. California, incidentally also is home to the world’s oldest trees, the Great Basin Bristlecone pines, the oldest of which is 4,843 years old). Mountain biking, base jumping, and hang gliding are among the many other popular adventure sports that draw visitors and residents to the state’s mountains. For those more drawn to the ocean, surfing, sailing, windsurfing and kayaking are also draws.

Sierra redwood (Giant sequoias) in Sequoia National Park
California Redwood

As noted at the beginning, the state does offer much of interest for those seeking milder pastimes. Whether one is drawn to relax in wine country, take in the culture of the larger cities, seek the more urban thrills of theme parks, or just drink in the state’s beauty, there is plenty to see.

Sunset in Santa Barbara

A few facts:

California is the most populous state in the United States (nearly 38 million), the third largest (400 km wide, 1,240 km long), and has an economy that would make it the world’s eighth largest if it were an independent country. At the time Europeans arrived, it was inhabited by about 70 different American Indian tribes. The Spanish did not start settling Alta California in earnest until the 19th century, shortly before losing it to Mexico, which in turn quickly lost it to internal rebellion (the very brief California Republic) and annexation by the United States (By contrast, the Mexican state of Baja California has a longer history of European settlement). California became the 31st state of the United States of America on September 9, 1850.

California is home to three National Hockey League teams (2012 Stanley Cup winners Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, and San Jose Sharks); two National Football League teams (San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders); four National Basketball Association teams (Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings, and Los Angeles Clippers – formerly the Buffalo Braves); five Major League Baseball Teams (Anaheim Angels, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Francisco Giants – the Dodgers and Giants both having previously been based in Brooklyn, NY); and three Major League Soccer teams (Los Angeles Galaxy, Club Deportivo Chivas USA, and San Jose Earthquakes).


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