California occupies an outsized place in most minds. In the popular imagination, California is all palm trees, sunshine, and Hollywood starlets. But there’s more to the nation’s most populous state, and one of the world’s top 10 economies (it's currently neck and neck with Brazil), than just the film industry and temperate weather.
1. According to one story, its name comes from a Spanish romance novel. Las Sergas de Esplandián, the fifth book in a romance series by Spanish writer Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, was published in the late 15th/early 16th centuries, a few decades before the Spaniards came upon California for the first time. California is described as an island inhabited only by black women, and ruled by Queen Calafia.
Image Credit: Nicolas Sanson via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
2. And Europeans did initially think it was an island. Early maps depicted California as its own island off the coast of Mexico. It was only later that explorers discovered that what is now Baja California was a peninsula. The Mexican territory of Alta California, established in 1824, encompassed not only what is now known as California, but Nevada, Utah, parts of Wyoming, and other western states.
3. It’s one of the only states that rests on two major tectonic plates. The San Andreas Fault, which runs up southern California through the San Francisco peninsula, separates the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. Most of the U.S. is on the North American plate, though the Pacific Plate is also slipping beneath the North American plate in the Gulf of Alaska.
4. Southern California has about 10,000 earthquakes a year, though most of them are too small to feel. The earliest earthquake reported in the state was in 1769 near Los Angeles.
5. The first state park was created there. President Abraham Lincoln signed the act granting the land within the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California in 1864. The land was eventually returned to the federal government to become part of Yosemite National Park.
6. It’s home to the world’s largest living tree. General Sherman is a giant sequoia whose trunk volume is estimated to be about 52,500 cubic feet, and it’s 275 feet high. A naturalist named it in 1879 for his commanding officer in the Union cavalry during the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman.
7. It’s home to the world’s largest artichoke … made out of concrete. The 20-foot-tall artichoke statue is outside a restaurant called the Giant Artichoke in Castroville, a 6500-person town that grows nearly all of the state’s—and by extension, most of the nation’s—artichokes. The artichoke is such a big part of California's crop output that in 2013, the lieutenant governor made it the state vegetable.
In 1947, Castroville hosted its inaugural Artichoke Festival, and, as a publicity stunt from which both parties would benefit, convinced a rising starlet to serve as its first Artichoke Queen. Her name? Marilyn Monroe.
9. It’s full of rocks. According to the California State Library, it’s home to a wider variety of rock types than any other state. It was the first state to name an official state rock, choosing the green-and-blue serpentine in 1965. In 2010, the California state legislature introduced a bill to strip the mineral of its designation, as serpentine is linked to asbestos. It did not pass.
Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park.Image Credit: iStock
10. It hosts an annual marathon race between the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States. Each year, runners compete in the Badwater 135, an ultramarathon that stretches across a 135-mile course from Death Valley’s Badwater Basin (elevation: 282 feet below sea level) to Mount Whitney (elevation: 14,505 feet). As the crow flies, the distance between the two is only 76 miles.
11. It’s integral to space exploration. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, located at the California Institute of Technology, is the leading center for the space agency’s robotic solar system exploration missions, like the Mars rover Curiosity.
12. If you’re drinking craft beer, there’s a good chance it’s from California. The state has more craft breweries than any other, according to the Brewers Association, and makes more than 3.4 million barrels of craft beer per year.
13. It produces a surprising amount of cheese. Wisconsin may be known as the cheese state, but California has been upping its cheese production steadily for the last few decades. The state produced 2.4 billion pounds of cheese in 2014, compared to Wisconsin’s 2.9 billion pounds.
14. Happy cows come from California … or do they? Since 2000, the California Milk Advisory Board has been running commercials picturing cows hanging out in scenic California pastures. “Real cheese comes from happy cows,” the commercials repeat. “Happy cows come from California.” PETA later sued the organization saying that the board couldn’t prove that California cows were happy with industrial farming conditions. The lawsuit was tossed in 2012.
15. It’s an anti-smoking pioneer. In 1990, the Californian city of San Luis Obispo became the first city to ban indoor smoking in all public spaces, even in bars and restaurants. In 1998, the rest of the state followed suit.
16. It takes a progressive stance on other issues too. Recently, the state has become the first to ban the use of “Redskins” as a public school mascot, single-use plastic bags (legislation that passed but is currently on hold), and is implementing new energy efficiency standards on power-guzzling plasma televisions.
17. The hottest temperature ever officially recorded on earth was in California. In July 1913, temperatures in Death Valley National Park reached 134°F.
18. The first Chinatown established in America was in San Francisco. Chinese immigrants flooded to the West Coast during the Gold Rush and the construction of the trans-continental railroad. Racism and exclusionary laws preventing Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens drove them to form their own community within the city. The original San Francisco neighborhood was destroyed in the wake of the 1906 earthquake, but was rebuilt into the tourist destination it has become today.
19. The current governor was one of the youngest and the oldest in state history. Jerry Brown has been California’s governor since 2011, but he also ran the state from 1975 to 1983. A loophole in the 1990 law limiting a California governor to two terms allowed him (and the three other former governors still living at the time) to run for office again. When he was elected in 1974 at the age of 36, he was the youngest governor of the state since 1863. Now, at 77, he’s the nation's oldest governor.
20. Only one president has been born there. Though President Ronald Reagan served as the state’s governor from 1967 to 1975, he was born in Illinois. The only Californian president was Richard Nixon, who was born and raised near Los Angeles.
The Channel Islands. Image Credit: iStock
21. Some of the earliest human remains found in the Western Hemisphere have been discovered there. Named Arlington Springs Man, this individual’s remains were uncovered in 1959 on Santa Rosa Island, part of southern California’s Channel Islands. This person likely lived around 13,000 years ago, as scientists confirmed in 1999.
22. It boasts some of the earliest evidence for a seafaring economy in North America. In 2011, researchers discovered the archaeological remains of sophisticated stone projectiles on the Channel Islands. The evidence points to a diverse ocean-based economy among the area’s inhabitants as much as 12,200 years ago.
23. It has an ocean and a sea. Millions of years ago, the Salton Sea in Southern California was part of the Gulf of California (that strip of water that separates Baja from the rest of Mexico) but later was separated by silt from the Colorado River. Several ancient lakes occupied what was now the Salton Sea, but the body of water is actually quite modern. In the early 1900s, the Colorado River broke through the irrigation system of Imperial County, just next to the Mexican border, and flooded the area, which included a salt factory. The expansive salt deposits, in addition to salts from the river, made the new, 35-mile-wide “sea” salty.
24. Samuel Clemens wasn’t born in California, but Mark Twain was. The Missouri-born Clemens headed to California in 1864, finding work at a San Francisco newspaper. During a winter sojourn at a cabin in Jackass Hill, Twain heard a story about a jumping frog. That tale became “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” a story that made a name for the humor writer and convinced him that writing was his future.