Term Paper: California, Located in the Western

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California, located in the western part of the United States, is the third largest state in the nation. It is best described as a region of extremes, stretching 825 miles from its northwest corner on the 42nd parallel on the Pacific Ocean to its southeast corner on the 32nd parallel at the junction of the Gila and Colorado Rivers (Early California history: An overview). The shoreline has 1,264 miles of beaches and harbors. And, elevations run from 14,495 feet at the top of Mount Whitney to 282 feet below sea level at Death Valley.


California's geography can be characterized by describing eight main regions within the state: Klamath Mountains, Coastal Ranges, The Sierra Nevada, Central Valley, Cascade Mountains, Basin and Range Region, the Los Angeles Ranges and the San Diego Ranges.

Klamath Mountains

In the northwestern corner of California are the Klamath Mountains (Klamath Mountains). This region has peaks and ridges 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. The Klamath River winds through the mountains for approximately 150 miles before reaching the Pacific.

The Klamath Mountains region "is one of the most floristically diverse areas of North America"(Wanket). According to Wanket, "one explanation for this diversity is that the forests of the Klamath Mountains are a surviving relict of the Arcto Tertiary geoflora, a mesophytic forest complex that prior to the Pleistocene covered much of North America."

Researches believe that the Klamath Mountain climate and the absence of large-scale geologic change has allowed taxa once widespread throughout western North America to persist as relict populations

2.2 Coastal Ranges

South of the Klamath Mountains, the Coastal Ranges from a series of low mountains paralleling California's coast from Humboldt County to San Francisco Bay (California's coastal mountains). The Coastal Ranges include many smaller chains of mountain ranges including the Diablo, Gablian, Santa Cruz and Santa Lucia Mountains, the highest of which is 4,000 feet. The Coastal Range is home to California's renowned Redwoods and is the long seam of the San Andreas Fault

The materials of the Coastal Ranges are some of the most sedimentary to be found. In fact, "the sea floor sediment -- sandstones and shales -- that make up the Coast Rages were crumpled so completely that it is difficult to discern individual layers of sedimentation." (California's coastal mountains). Ranges are also noted for being steep, folded, and dipping west to ocean. "A spectacular example" is the Franciscan Formation, at the cliffs at Devils Slide in San Mateo County (California's coastal mountains).

2.3 The Sierra Nevada

The Sierra Nevada Mountains, often called "the Sierras," is located mostly in eastern California. "Though only half as high as the Himalayas and only a fraction of the length of the Andes, the Sierra Nevada packs more diversity and more superlatives into its 400 miles length than any other mountain range on earth." (Introductions to a Sierra Nevada Gallery).

The height of the mountains in the Sierra Nevada gradually increases from north to south (Sierra Nevada (U.S.)). Thhe crest near Lake Tahoe is roughly 9000 feet high; the crest near Yosemite National Park is roughly 13000 feet high; and Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet, is the highest point in the continetal United States. South of Mount Whitney, the range rapidly diminishes in elevation. Rivers flowing west from the Sierra crest eventually drain into the Pacific Ocean, while rivers draining east flow into the Great Basin and do not reach any ocean.

There are many notable geographical features in the Sierra Nevada (Sierra Nevada (U.S.)):

Lake Tahoe is a large, clear freshwater lake in the northern Sierra Nevada, with an elevation of 6225 feet and an area of 191 square miles.

Hetch Hetchy Valley, Yosemite Valley, and Kings Canyon are majestic, glacially-scoured canyons on the west side of the Sierra.

Yosemite National Park is filled with stunning waterfalls and granite domes. Yosemite Falls is the world's 6th highest waterfall.

Groves of Giant Sequoias, the most massive trees in the world, occur along a narrow band of altitude on the western side of the Sierra Nevada.

Sierra Nevada is the second largest continuous wilderness area in the contiguous United States and has the greatest measured snow depth in this country (Introduction to a Sierra Nevada Gallery).

2.4 Central Valley

As its name imples the Central Valley is in the central portion of the state of California (California Central Valley). Major cities in the Central Valley include Sacramento, (California's state capital), Stockton, Fresno, Redding, and Bakersfield. This very large valley is a vast agricultural region drained by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. The northern area (north of the Mokelumne River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta) is called the Sacramento Valley; the southern area is called the San Joaquin Valley. "To talk of the valley is to talk of agriculture. It could hardly be otherwise when five of the top ten agricultural counties in the U.S. are in the San Joaquin Valley, with Fresno, Kern and Tulare year after year ranking 1-2-3." (Parsons, 1987).

2.5 Cascade Mountains

The Cascade Range stretches over 700 miles across Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and Southern British Columbia, running parallel to the Pacific, about 100-150 miles inland. Although often described as a northern continuation of the Sierra, Nevada Mountains, "the Cascades are not an extension of the Sierra Nevadas. They are a completely separate range with different origins. The Cascades are largely volcanic; the Sierras are fault block mountains." (Cletheroe). In California, there is still one active volcano called Lassen Peak located in the southern Cascades. In California, Mount Shasta is also part of the Cascade Range.

2.6 Basin and Range Region

The Basin and Range Province contain the southeastern deserts of California (The geography of California). In the north, much of the area is a lava plateau that was formed thousands of years ago when the region was flooded with molten lava flowing out of cracks in the earth's surface. In the south, much of the area is wasteland and includes the Mojave Desert. Death Valley lies near the California-Nevada border and features some of the most inhospitable territory in the world. Death Valley has been described as, "the loneliest, the hottest, the most deadly and dangerous spot in the United States" (Background, Death Valley). Two areas of the Basin and Range Region, the Imperial and the Coachella Valleys near the California border with Mexico, have benefit from large irrigation projects that have made farming feasible (The geography of California).

2.7 The Los Angeles Ranges

The Los Angeles Ranges, between Santa Barbara and San Diego counties, are a group of small mountain ranges that extend east to west (The geography of California). Because most mountain ranges in California run generally from north to south, the Los Angeles Ranges are sometimes called the Transverse Ranges to emphasize their difference in direction vs. other ranges. Included in the Los Angeles Ranges are the Santa Ynez, Santa Monica, San Gabriel, and San Bernardino mountains. The Santa Monica Mountains extend offshore to form the Northern Channel Islands of Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel off the coast of Santa Barbara County. Three hundred miles east, the Transverse Ranges terminates, dropping off into the Mojave and Colorado Deserts (California's coastal mountains).

Severely folded, twisted, and uplifted, these mountains exhibit extreme differences in geologic age." (California's coastal mountains) Further, the terrain is markedly different throughout the Los Angeles Ranges. Sedimentary rocks are most common on the western slopes while granitic and metamorphic rock dominate in the more rugged eastern mountains.

2.8 The San Diego Ranges

The San Diego Ranges cover most of San Diego County in the southwestern corner of California (The geography of California). These mountains, often called the Peninsular Ranges, include the Agua Tibia, Laguna, and Vallecito mountains that plunge into the Coachella and Imperial Valleys. The Peninsular Ranges extend southward into the Mexican peninsula known as Baja California. Containing peaks of over 10,000 feet the Peninsular Ranges are steep, narrow, and northwest trending (California's coastal mountains).

3.0 Conclusion particularly striking aspect of California's physical environment is its diversity. Few places in the world and none in the rest of North America exhibit the diversity of natural environments found in California." (Michaelsen and Chamberlin) Further, states Michaelsena and Chamberlin, "a second noteworthy aspect of the physical environment is its highly variable and contradictory nature." The description of California's eight main regions: Klamath Mountains, Coastal Ranges, The Sierra Nevada, Central Valley, Cascade Mountains, Basin and Range Region, the Los Angeles Ranges and the San Diego Ranges provided in this paper explain why Michaelsen and Chamberlin make their dramatic claims regarding California's geography. As shown, each region is unique and makes its own special contributions to California's diversity and beauty.


Background, Death Valley. Exploratorium. Retrieved January 16, 2005 from Web site: http://www.exploratorium.edu/learning_studio/news/january98/mainstory_jan98.html

California Central Valley. Wikipedia. Retrieved January 16, 2005 from Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Central_Valley

California's coastal mountains. California Coastal Resource Guide. California Coastal Commission. Retrieved January 16, 2005 from Web site: http://ceres.ca.gov/ceres/calweb/coastal/mountains.html

Cletheroe, J. Cascade Mountains, British Columbia, California, Oregon and Washington State.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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