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California Geography

California is the third largest state in the United States (Texas and Alaska are larger land wise) and it is the most populated state. Being such a large geographic area, there are many faces to California, from the lowest point in the United States at Death Valley (-282') to her highest point, Mt. Whitney (14,496', named after a well known State Geologist - the one who battled with John Muir over the formation of Yosemite). Rivers, lakes, canyons, valleys, and sagebrush covered hills spread out in between. It all comes together to make California a state of wonderful contrasts. The lowest point and the highest point are less than 100 miles apart, demonstrating the rapid diversity of this land of contrasts this is shaped by California's geography.

Rainfall - and the plants, animals and humans it influences - are equally diverse. The coastal ranges can measure from 120-160 inches of rain in a year, while the inland desert areas can go for several years without measurable precipitation. Likewise temperatures can range from sub zero at high elevations in the mountains, and up to 134 degrees Fahrenheit in the desert - the hottest recorded temperature in the western hemisphere.

Mary Austin, author of Land of Little Rain, said about California " Not the law, but the land sets the limits". And so it has been true, California life since the original inhabitants has been shaped by the land more than the laws man has imposed upon his own society ... but modern development is changing that in ways we must learn to pay close attention to.

In the last 100 years it has become man who is impacting the most severe changes on this landscape. California may have the greatest number of unique organisms in the continental United States, but it also has the highest number of threatened species. Vast rainforests, river-side (riparian) habitats, wetlands (where the inland rivers meet or where they reach the sea), and costal sage brush natural communities that thrived for tens of thousands of years are now on the verge of near or total loss as a result of man's development of California in the last 100 years.

To better understand what California is, and what it is important to protect and save, let's take a look at the regions that make up her geography. In the months ahead, we will also study the plants and animals that live on this complex and diverse landscape. For now, let's get a handle on the land itself.

Seven States

Some scientists and authors have described California as being seven states with in one state. Take a look at your California wall map. We are now going to learn to chart the areas they call the seven states. First step, locate where you are on the map. Now, draw your own map of California, and place an X where you are.

Next, pay attention to the California mountain ranges as they are major influences on where water falls, and where it does not, and thus shape the characteristics of each of the seven states.

Mountain ranges

Northern range: California holds the southernmost portion of the cascades, with Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen anchoring the southern end of the range that extends up to Canada.

Coastal ranges: these extend from san Francisco north to cross the Oregon border, and south, west of the San Andreas fault to San Luis Obispo and include Big Sur.

Transverse ranges: these mountains are unusual in that they run east west from Point Conception, behind Santa Barbara, and behind behind Los Angeles.

Peninsular ranges: south of the Los Angeles river down to the border of Mexico, these mountains separate the Channel waters of the Pacific from the inland deserts of Southern California.

Sierra Nevada: this north - south mountain range is the largest continuous range in California, and abruptly marks the division of the Pacific side of the state from the Great Basin side where it meets Nevada.

On your own map of California, draw in the major mountain ranges - five all together. Now using this map, you will also be able to see the areas that these ranges of peaks divide and influence, and we can now work to identify the seven 'states' of California.

First trace these areas on your map with your finger - or on the wall map :

1. The Mojave, Colorado, and Great Basin Deserts that extends from behind the Transverse and Peninsular ranges (behind Los Angeles), across to the Arizona and Nevada borders, and up behind (east) of the Sierra Nevada.
2. The Sierra Nevada and its foothills
3. The Cascade Range (Mt Shasta and Mt Lassen and the dry lands behind (east of) them called the Modoc Plateau (actually part of the Great Basin Desert).
4. The northernmost Coastal ranges with their tall redwoods and temperate rainforests and that include the Klamath Mountains.
5. The central Valley, west of the Sierras and east of the coastal ranges.
6. The central Coastal ranges from Point Arena north of San Francisco down to just north of Point Conception.
7. The transverse and Peninsular ranges that comprise coastal Southern California and several of the Channel Islands.

Now go ahead and draw boundary lines on your map showing the seven states, which are actually bio-climates shaped by California geography.

Who are we studying that have lived in the backcountry areas of these seven states?

Match the Native California Tribe to their backcountry region and/or to their mountain range, and place their names on your map:


After you have completed your map, click here to see if your tribal locations are correct.