Northern California History

The state of California is a mighty big place. Its Pacific Ocean shoreline alone is 1,264 miles long and stretches so far from north to south that it easily serves as home for everything from towering redwood forests to flat deserts of shifting sands. The geographic differences are so imposing that even native Californians distinguish one place from another by its topography. Perhaps the best-known example is the area just outside of Los Angeles, colloquially called “the Valley.”

Northern California is no different, with regions named Pacific Coast and Sierra Nevada, the latter thanks to the mountain range that sprawls down the middle of the state like a backbone gone slightly askew. But the section of California known as “northern” is more of a mental division than a geographic one, a line drawn by lifestyle. Los Angeles, with its flashy movie stars and Jimmy Choo shoe stores, creates the tone for the southern part of the Golden State, while San Francisco, with its environmentally conscious thinkers and Birkenstock outlets, sets the pace for life in the north. Yes, those are stereotypes, but as with most stereotypes, they're rooted in reality. Folks who call northern California home tend to be a bit more, well, granola. They're more one with the earth than their fellow Californians to the south.

Even within that generalized description, life in northern California is varied — just as it has been since the days of the 1848 gold rush that flooded the Sierra Nevada with white settlers from all directions.


During the first two years of the gold rush in the mid-1800s, northern California's premier city of San Francisco exploded from about 500 residents to well more than 25,000. Today nearly 750,000 people live inside the city limits, making San Francisco the second most densely populated city in the United States.

The Gold Rush

The day that brought northern California its first wave of settlers was January 24, 1848. That's when James Marshall, a foreman for Sutter's Mill near the present-day town of Colona, found pieces of shiny metal in the flume that led away from the mill's water wheel.

Those pieces turned out to be gold, and within two months, rumors had spread all the way to San Francisco that there were fortunes to be made in the wilds of California. A San Francisco newspaper soon printed the fact that there was gold in the region, and by that summer — less than six months after Marshall's discovery — newspapers on the East Coast were reporting that a gold rush was on in California.


Many families try their hands at panning for gold during a northern California vacation. Keep in mind that you can do this on a small or large scale. Some tour companies even have guides in period dress to re-create not just the experience of panning, but panning as it was back in the key gold rush year of 1849.

Some 300,000 people relocated to northern California during this time, by way of boat, railroad, and covered wagon. The prospectors came from as far away as Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Australia. These “forty-niners,” as they were known (from the year they came looking to dig up their own personal fortunes), were northern California's first major group of immigrants. Towns sprang up like daffodils on an April morning, as did churches, schools, and other foundations of civilization as we know it today. Railroads and farms began to spread, constituting the beginning of other industries that are still a major part of the area and its tourism industry. By the end of 1849, California was a state.

Other Areas Emerge

As folks flooded in, and as the clamor settled down, it was hard not to notice the area's stunning natural beauty. All around were pristine woods, beaches, lakes, rivers, and mountains, begging for hearty souls to set up homes and businesses and create towns that would last for years. Many of the most beautiful areas were, thankfully, preserved for future generations to enjoy, just as the earliest settlers did. Today, these protected natural gems stretch from Redwood National Park in California's far northwestern corner to Yosemite and Kings Canyon national parks, in the southeastern part of the northern California divide.

In between these gorgeous natural wonders, settlers discovered soil rich for planting everything from olives to almonds to grapevines. Napa County — known worldwide for its production of fine wines — actually started out as a place where people grew grain and fruit and raised cattle. Silver mining, too, took hold in this part of northern California while everyone else was a little farther to the east looking for gold.

Just south of Napa, near the budding town of San Francisco, settlers discovered the opportunities that awaited them in San Francisco Bay. European explorers had been poking around in the bay since the 1700s, but it wasn't until the mid-1800s, the great gold rush, and the MexicanAmerican War that the United States took control of this vast Pacific port. Not only was San Francisco Bay an incredible asset in terms of shipping and transportation, but it was a breeding ground for Dungeness crab, Pacific halibut, and salmon — northern California delicacies that are still much in demand today, from tourists and locals alike.


Dungeness crab is widely considered a San Francisco–area treat, but the crabs actually are harvested as far north as Alaska's Aleutian Islands. They take their name not from California, but from the town of Dungeness in the state of Washington, where a festival is held each October in their honor.

Each of these areas has developed distinguishing characteristics that set them apart. You don't think of wine when someone says “Yosemite,” you don't think of rock climbing when you hear “Napa Valley,” and you certainly don't think of hill-climbing streetcars when anyone utters the name of a city other than San Francisco.

That's why, to plan your ideal vacation, you need to break the region into smaller areas and understand what type of activities each tends to offer.

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