Land of Geographic Extremes
California’s odd shape permits its northern port city of Eureka to be the most westward city in the continental United States—yet its southern port city of San Diego lies farther east than Reno, Nevada.
In no other state are there so many variations in topography. Death Valley, the lowest area on the continent, is only 76 miles from Mt. Whitney, the second highest peak in the nation. It is home to the oldest stem tree on earth: 2,500 year-old “General Sherman,” a 25-foot diameter sequoia in Sequoia National Park. The 450 mile-long central valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, providing more than half of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts grown in the United States. California is the third largest of the fifty states; only Alaska and Texas are larger. Its boundaries encompass 163,707 square miles, of which 7,734 square miles are covered by water. At 60 miles long and ranging from three to twelve miles wide, San Francisco is the world’s largest landlocked harbor. The Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles is the largest outdoor amphitheater in the United States.
California’s vast size and geography both contributed to its historical development. Located on the very periphery of Spain’s holdings in the New World circa 1520, access to it in the small ships of that day was hindered by the often volatile Pacific Ocean, and for overland travel, miles of arid wasteland to the east. These difficulties were not experienced to the same extent when Spain colonized present-day Texas or New Mexico; but California remained isolated because, for the 16th Century Spaniards and natives living in Mexico, traveling to the place then known as Upper California was tantamount to going to the moon.
When at last Imperial Spain could no longer postpone settling the region or risk losing it, King Carlos dispatched Franciscan padres who established 21 missions. The irony is that when gold was discovered in California’s foothills during American occupation, men from around the world endured every hazard and privation, every dangerous sea voyage or stretch of wilderness on land, just to get there in a hurry.