California includes just about every geographical feature imaginable, from alpine lakes to parched and delicate deserts to active volcanoes and sun-swept Pacific beaches. The state is trisected vertically by mountain ranges, with valleys in between, and terminates west at the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Many rivers flow west as the ocean wears away at the land, creating coves, waterfalls, and immense bays.
To the east, the Sierra Nevada mountain range looms above all other geography, with craggy snowcapped peaks, alpine lakes and meadows, and gold-producing foothills. The northern mountains—Shasta and Lassen—are the southern tip of the Cascade Range that stretches far into the Pacific Northwest, all the way through Oregon and into Washington.
This youthful volcanic chain is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, contributing recent eruptions by Mount Lassen and Mount St. Helens. Though it’s been a while since Shasta’s fires last burbled to the surface, the mountain is classed as dormant, not extinct; if she ever blows again, the effects on the whole of the American West will be staggering.
At the foot of the Sierras sits a giant fertile valley that is the produce capital of the state, and much of the West. Maps and books refer to it as the San Joaquin Valley, but Californians usually call it the Central Valley, and much of the state’s massive agriculture industry resides here.
To the south, deserts rule the landscape. California boasts two distinct desert regions: the northern and higher-elevation Mojave Desert, and the southern and low-elevation Colorado Desert (which encompasses Anza-Borrego State Park and the southern half of Joshua Tree National Monument).
The coastal region is bounded by a mountain range, famed in the north for forests filled with enormous coast redwood trees. The northern coastline winds along soaring craggy cliffs overlooking rocky beaches and coves, while the southern coastline tends toward the broad, sandy beaches that California is famous for.
© Liz Hamill Scott from Moon California, 2nd Edition