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WHERE TO GO
California is the third largest state in the US, covering nearly 160,000 square miles: keep in mind that distances between the main destinations can be huge, and that you won't, unless you're here for an extended period, be able to see everything on one trip.
In an area so varied it's hard to pick out specific highlights. You may well start off in Los Angeles, far and away the biggest and most stimulating city: a maddening collection of freeways and beaches, seedy suburbs and high-gloss neighborhoods and extreme lifestyles that you should see at least once, even if you make a quick exit for more relaxed locales. From Los Angeles you have a number of choices. You can head south to San Diego a smaller, up-and-coming city, with broad, welcoming beaches and a handy position close to the Mexican border, or you could push inland to the Californian desert areas, notably Death Valley as its name suggests, a barren inhospitable landscape of volcanic craters and windswept sand dunes that in summer (when you can fry an egg on your car bonnet) becomes the hottest place on earth. It's a logical trip from here across to the Grand Canyon via Las Vegas; though not in California, we've included these last two in Chapter Three of the guide. An alternative is to make the steady journey up the Central Coast, a gorgeous run following the shoreline north through some of the state's most dramatic scenery, and taking in some of its liveliest small towns, notably Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.
The Central Coast makes the transition from Southern to Northern California a break that's more than just geographical. San Francisco, at the top end, is California's second city, and quite different from LA: the coast's oldest, most European-looking city, it's set compactly over a series of steep hills, with wooden houses tumbling down to water on both sides. San Francisco also gives access to some of the state's most extraordinary scenery, not least in the National Parks to the east, especially Yosemite, where powerful waterfalls cascade into a sheer glacial valley that's been immortalized by Ansel Adams and countless others in search of the definitive landscape photograph.
North of San Francisco, the population thins and the physical look changes yet again. The climate is wetter up here, the valleys that much greener, flanked by a jagged coastline shadowed by mighty redwoods, the tallest trees in the world. Though many visitors choose to venture no further than the Wine Country and the Russian River Valley on weekend forays from the city, it's well worth taking time out to explore the state's northernmost regions, a volcano-scarred desolation that's as different from the popular image of California as it's possible to be.
WHEN TO GO
California's climate comes close to its subtropical ideal. In Southern California in particular you can count on endless days of sunshine from May to October, and warm dry nights though LA's notorious smog is at its worst when the temperatures are highest, in August and September.
Right along the coast mornings can be hazily overcast, especially in May and June, though you can still get a suntan or sunburn even under grayish skies. In winter temperatures drop somewhat, but more importantly it can rain for weeks on end, causing massive mudslides that wipe out roads and hillside homes. Inland, the deserts are warm in winter and unbearably hot (120°F is not unusual) in summer; desert nights can be freezing in winter, when, strangely but beautifully, it can even snow. For serious snow, head to the mountains, where hiking trails at the higher elevations are blocked from November to June every year: skiers can take advantage of well-groomed slopes along the Sierra Nevada mountains and around Lake Tahoe.
The coast of Northern California is wetter and cooler than the south, its summers tempered by sea-breezes and fog, and its winters mild but wet. San Francisco, because of its exposed position at the tip of a peninsula, can be chilly all year, with summer fogs tending to roll in to ruin what may have started off as a pleasant sunny day. Head a mile inland, and you're back in the sun.