What’s so special about California?
It’s not exactly news, but it has to be said: the United States is huge and very diverse – it’s sometimes hard to think that Alaska and Florida, Hawaii and Maine are part of the same country. But even in just one of the 50 states there may be incredible variety. None more so than in California, where KE hosts its West Coast summer programs.
California is the third largest state, but, with a population of around 40,000,000, it’s the most populous. If it were to break away from the rest of the country, it would be a pretty important place in its own right – in fact, it would have the world’s 6th largest economy.
Although a lot of people live there, most of California is largely empty. In the north, you’ll find huge forests; in the south, empty deserts. In the Sierra Nevada mountains, capped by snow (as the Spanish name suggests), is Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the US outside Alaska, while just over 100km away is the second lowest place on earth – and in the summer, possibly its hottest.
In the midst of these great wilderness areas, you’ll find some of America’s most spectacular national parks. The most famous are probably Yosemite, with its towering cliff faces, and of course that very low, very hot place – Death Valley. But there are others: Joshua Tree, not that far from Los Angeles, then King’s Canyon, Sequoia, Redwood and Lassen Volcanic. Right in the center of the state, but on the Pacific Coast, is the Big Sur – an almost uninhabited area of forest and spectacular coastline.
Inland California focuses on the great Central Valley, 700km long and up to 100 km wide. This is an important agricultural area, but there’s also a lot of heavy industry towards the south. More to the north, you’ll find the state capital, Sacramento, an impressive city, both modern and traditional, and visited by many KE students based at UC Berkeley.
Californians tend to see their state as consisting of two distinct parts: the north (NorCal) and the south (SoCal). Both parts are dominated by one huge urban area in which most of the population live.
The big metropolis in the north is of course San Francisco. The city itself stands on a fairly small, hilly peninsula. Up and down the hills, the city spreads from San Francisco Bay across to the Pacific Ocean. It’s famous for its bridge, the Golden Gate, its prison island, Alcatraz, and its celebrated Pier 39; more generally, for its elegant streets and for its relaxed and tolerant outlook. It’s also one of the most prosperous places in the US. But San Francisco proper is home to just 10% of the people who live in its conurbation. Over 8,000,000 people live in the San Francisco Bay Area. This huge area, hugging the shores of the Bay, includes a number of separate cities, for example, Oakland, and then Berkeley, where KE has its West Coast summer center. It also embraces the diverse cities which go together to create Silicon Valley, home of some of the cutting-edge companies so prominent in the US and on an international stage today.
San Francisco is a very popular place for international students. In addition to UC Berkeley, the Bay Area offers Stanford University in the very heart of Silicon Valley, and a number of other great institutions, such as the University of San Francisco; both of these campuses are seen on our KE study visits. Not far away is UC Davis, also visited by many of our students.
If the San Francisco area is big, that’s nothing compared to the great metropolitan area which dominates Southern California. Los Angeles is truly immense. Around 23,000,000 people live in an area which spreads for mile upon mile, until mountains, desert or ocean finally stop it. Or, in the one direction remaining, until you reach San Diego, and then the very abrupt end which is the border with Mexico (although the urban landscape actually carries on beyond that). It’s around 100 miles (160km) across greater LA from east to west – so you should allow at least two hours’ fast driving time to complete the trip!
LA has many claims to fame, among them, of course, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Disneyland and the celebrated film studios – and the great surfing beaches on the coast. But it’s also a major study destination, with students from far and wide attracted to institutions such as UCLA and Caltech – not to mention a long list of other great universities, less famous internationally, perhaps, but still offering a very high standard of education.
It’s not surprising, given its size and topography, that the climate in California is quite varied. In the summer, the whole state is generally dry and largely sunny; in the winter, it’s still sunny most of the time, but there are rainy days from time to time, these more frequent to the north, towards the coast or in the mountains.
As for the temperatures, well, most places are cool to warm in the winter – in the mountains, it’s seriously cold; and nowhere, not even the deserts, is particularly hot. But it’s in the summer that you find the big differences: in most inland areas, it’s ferociously hot; in LA, it’s moderately hot; but then, on the northern coastline, it’s remarkably cool, especially around San Francisco, where the wind coming in off the Pacific is always chilly. Our students are often surprised when we tell them to take a warm jacket as they walk across the Golden Gate Bridge; but seriously, you need it, even in the middle of summer!
Whenever you visit, wherever you go, you can be sure of some memorable experiences in California. In some respects, it’s probably as you imagine it to be; in others, it can hardly fail to surprise. It is a special place, with a unique combination of attractions.
For more information about KE programs in California, check out our website for more details.