Welcome to Golden State
From the ancient forests of Redwoods State & National Park to the waterfalls of Yosemite and the stark desert of Joshua Tree, you’ll find natural treasures almost impossible to comprehend in the state of California. This West Coast wonderland is one of the most diverse states in the nation, and it’s also the most populous — over 39,000,000 now call this vast arm of the Pacific home.
The Golden State has long been seen as a mythical land of milk and honey, drawing starry-eyed prospectors, Hollywood hopefuls and migrants seeking refuge from within the U.S and far beyond its borders. Over the last 10 years, the population has grown by just over six percent, adding nearly 2.3 million new residents to the state’s 53 counties, from tiny Alpine to megalithic Los Angeles. Some settle in the state’s bustling metropolises like L.A., Sacramento and San Francisco, while others find their niche in eastern mountain hamlets or cool, secluded canyons.
But whether you’re searching for the perfect wave to crest in the Pacific Ocean or you’re on the cusp of a technological breakthrough in Silicon Valley, California is a place to get lost in the wilderness and find yourself anew.
What It’s Like Living in California
Huge Population and Diversity
California’s enormous and diverse population brings with it great benefits … and a lot of challenges. The critical mass of residents helps to sustain an incredible cultural scene and a strong job market, but it also means a high cost of living and crowded conditions.
The greatest concentration of Golden State residents is in Los Angeles County, which is far and away the most populous in the state with over 10,000,000 people living here — enough to form its own state. But San Diego and Orange Counties — both southern neighbors are the second- and third largest, each exceeding 3,000,000 residents.
This population density has led to startling overcrowding in the most popular areas, like San Francisco. It also means that the state faces the worst housing crisis of any in the nation. California would need to add 1,000,000 more homes to meet demand.
With a large population, another known challenge of living in California is traffic. Though Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco all have well-developed public transportation systems, commute times in California are still some of the longest in the country. The average Los Angelino spends 29.4 minutes getting to work, and Bay Area residents spend over 30. And that’s if you’re traveling by car. Residents relying on public transportation can expect to nearly double their transit times.
But living in the Golden State has plenty of upsides, too. (If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be so many people clamoring to live here.) One of the greatest assets is having access to some of the most prized public lands in the entire world — national parks, sandy beaches, and all the sunny weather you can handle. Read more about some of them in our National Parks of the West Coast guide.
Another upside? California’s cultural scene. Residents will find global cuisine, world-renowned museums and concert halls, and a bevy of ever-diverting theme parks (if you need a break from all that high-brow stuff).
California is best known for its sunny and mild climate, which is largely consistent from day to day. However, it can fluctuate wildly from year to year. Seasonal extremes, like snowfall or scorching temperatures, are usually restricted to the high mountains or the depths of the inland deserts. But the state is suffering more markedly each year from the effects of climate change, which bring punishing droughts, floods, wildfires and mudslides to areas across the state.
In the northern half of the state, the average temperature is only in the mid-50s °F. Many coastal areas, like San Francisco, are legendary for fog.
In the southern reaches, annual temperatures average in the mid-60s °F. Even when the mercury climbs into the 80s °F, the air rarely ever feels humid. As you move away from the coasts, the terrain becomes more arid (except in the mountains), and temperatures are generally warm. In Death Valley, you can feel temperatures above a staggering 120 °F.
Rather than experiencing four seasons, Californians really have just two — a dry season and a wet season — or a brown season and a green season. The rainy months are generally November through March. The state has an average of only 22.9 inches of rain.
The best time to move to California is generally between March and June, after the rainy season has passed and before the threat of extreme heat has arrived.
California Cost of Living
California’s cost of living(*) is currently the fourth highest in the nation. The housing market is one of the primary culprits. Rent across the state averages a whopping $1,698 per month — $500 more than the national average. In 2020, the median home value in the state was an eye-popping $573,200, but housing has increased sharply since then. In January 2023, the median sale price of existing homes in the state was just over $751,000. Rates across the state have declined sharply over the past year, but most residents still struggle to balance the proportion of their incomes being diverted to living expenses.
Housing prices in January 2023 were lowest in the Far North region, where the median sale price was $367,000. The Central Valley’s median was $425,000, Los Angelinos paid $700,000, Southern California’s price tags settled at $738,250 and the Central Coasters fetched prices of $894,500. Not surprisingly, the San Francisco Bay Area topped them all with a median sale price of $1,000,000.
At $84,097, the median household income in California is considerably higher than the national level, but often not enough to offset the elevated levels of other living expenses. Another cost you’ll find in California? Sales taxes. The statewide tax rate of 7.25% is the highest in the country, but since most states allow districts to impose an additional tax on sales, the average statewide rate puts California only in 7th place, in the company of Illinois, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nevada and even Texas, a state that prides itself on its low taxes.
What does all this mean for residents? For one thing, lower- and middle-income residents are moving out. In a 2022 United Van Lines Annual Movers Study, California topped the list of outward-bound moves. Nearly 22% of those who participated in the survey cited affordability as their reason for relocating. Additionally, the Public Policy Institute of California found that nearly 40% of residents had seriously considered leaving the state because of the cost of housing.
Strong Job Market
Having recovered all of the 2.7 million jobs lost during the pandemic — and even added ones — California’s civilian labor force had 1.9 million jobs and its unemployment rate held steady at 4.1% from October through December 2022. According to United Van Lines 2022 Annual Movers Study, 50% of people who relocated to California in 2022 did so for jobs.
With a GDP of $3.35 trillion — 14.6% of the total U.S. GDP — California currently has the fifth-largest economy in the world. It’s also one of the most dynamic. California’s trade, technology, media, tourism and agriculture sectors lead the pack. Exports from the state accounted for 10% of the U.S. total in 2021, and the trade, transportation and utility industries employed more than three million people. While these fields are currently dominant, keep your eye on the renewable energy sector, which is now California’s fastest growing industry.
Of course, California wouldn’t exist without its agricultural base. The Golden State is still the nation’s top agricultural producer, and its 400-plus commodities are among the nation’s most diverse, from dairy ($7.57 billion) to almonds ($5.03 billion) to rice ($1 billion). Grapes are a $5.2 billion-dollar industry in California, but thanks to the more than 4,000 wineries, you don’t have to drink them all in one place. With 615,000 acres of wine grapes, California is the country’s leading producer of wine and the world’s fourth-largest.
Then there’s the state’s other top crop — technology. Silicon Valley is home to some of the world’s largest corporations, including several of the state’s 50 Fortune 500 companies: Apple, Facebook, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Alphabet, Inc. (parent company to Google), are all based here. The technology sector supports 1.88 million jobs in the state — more than twice the number of any other state in the nation.
But would California even be California if it weren’t for Hollywood? As the movie capital of the world, nearly 156,000 people are employed in the entertainment/film/media industry in Los Angeles alone, and the industry employs 740,000 workers across the state. Creative fields as a whole — including graphic design, fashion, fine and performing arts — generate $209 billion in annual labor income and support over 2.5 million jobs.
California has some of the best colleges and universities in the nation, creating a talent pipeline like no other, and drawing the world’s top researchers to the state.
The University of California is one of the most highly regarded public university systems in the world, supporting 10 campuses across the state along with 280,000 students and 227,000 faculty and staff. Compellingly, 55% of undergrads from the state attend the institution tuition-free, and, at 86%, the school has a high matriculation rate.
UC Berkeley is tied with UCLA as the #1-ranked public university in the world, according to the U.S. News & World Report. Berkeley also has the highest number of top-ranked graduate programs, from English to chemistry to political science. UCLA is well-known for its film studies programs and its athletics; it also has one of the top three hospitals in the country.
Additionally, California is home to stellar private colleges, including Stanford University, known especially for its business school, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), USC and Pomona, along with top-notch art and design schools, like CalArts and ArtCenter.
A Dream Place for Travel
With mountain ranges, deserts, valleys, canyons and the Pacific Ocean, California’s vast and varied terrain is made for adventure. The Golden State has 33 National Park Service managed lands, historic sites and monuments, along with numerous state parks, where you can explore the area’s lesser-traveled trails.
One of the most unusual sites is Death Valley — the hottest, driest and lowest place in the country. The salt flats of Badwater Basin are on the must-see list of this national park. The almost never-ending white crust of this long-evaporated lake makes for an unforgettable one-mile hike surrounded by the towering Black Mountains and Panamint Range.
Joshua Tree National Park lies at the intersection of two deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado. The park’s namesake tree — a curious member of the agave family that looks like a cross between a cactus, palm and pine — grows only in the western, Mojave half of the park. Joshua trees aren’t the only sight the park has to recommend it, though — springtime can bring spectacular blooms of native wildflowers. Plus, the park is home to many animals, including black bears, bighorn sheep and mountain lions.
If you’re feeling parched after all this desert hiking, head over to Point Reyes National Seashore, where you can set out on coastal or forest hikes or spend a day whale watching on the cliff-ringed beaches of the Pacific. But you likely won’t be alone — be on the lookout for the elephant seals who inhabit the area. Remember, day-trippers — you are mere visitors, and this is their beach!
One of the best places for a coastal hike is Crystal Cove State Park on Laguna Beach. You can take your family on an easy three-mile hike, or a strenuous nine-miler through the rugged backcountry, later treating everyone to a well-deserved snack at the Crystal Cove Shake Shack (no relation to the national chain) before heading down to the beach. The park has a 12.3-acre historic district, where you can see — and stay in — charming coastal cottages from the 1930s and ’40s.
In addition to its powerful surf, California is also a land of giants. If you wish to walk among them, be sure to check out Muir Woods, Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Park and Redwoods National and State Parks to see some of the most exceptional, towering trees on Earth. Hungry for more California national park adventures? Delve deeper into our National Parks of the West Coast guide.
History buffs will want to explore some of the state’s national historic parks as well. Essential spots to get you started are the San Francisco Maritime National Park, Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front, and the Tule Lake National Monument, where innocent Japanese Americans were forcibly incarcerated during World War II.
Lake Tahoe is a bi-state treasure in the northern part of the state, one with a laid-back, resort vibe all its own. This mountain-ringed retreat has long been a favorite destination of urban dwellers desperate to escape the city smog. The crystal-clear (and cold!) freshwater lake is a soothing counterpart to the paradoxically turbulent Pacific, offering year-round adventures, from biking to skiing to swimming, along with great restaurants, hotels, arts and entertainment. Heavenly’s Adventure Peak is the perfect place to take the fam for a day of snow tubing in the winter or ropes course climbing in the summer.
And what family can resist California’s theme parks? If your family is looking for an insider’s look at the movie biz, start at Universal Studios Hollywood, where you can get a behind-the-scenes look at all the action, and even get up close and personal with the prehistoric future on a wild and wet ride through Jurassic World. Not to be overlooked is Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim, San Diego’s SeaWorld, and LEGOLAND California and Sesame Place in Carlsbad.
Of course, there are loads of indoorsy things to do in California, too. There are world-class art museums like the Getty, LACMA, the Broad and the Hammer; science museums like the Aerospace Museum of California, the Computer History Museum and the Griffith Observatory; and historic sites such as the Ronald Regan Presidential Library and Museum and the National Steinbeck Center, which celebrates California’s beloved novelist.
If, on the other hand, you’re wanting to get up close and personal with Los Angeles’ famous Hollywood sign, you can! Take a hike through Bronson Canyon, where you can spy the sign from behind, or hike the trails of Griffith Park for a fun three-mile loop with a great view of the iconic monument.
One of the coolest spots off the beaten path in L.A. is the artist-run Velaslavasay Panorama, which features rotating exhibits of works in 360°. Currently, the venue showcases a panoramic painting of an urban Chinese landscape spanning the decades from 1910 to 1930, but previous exhibits have depicted California’s own landscape, reimagined as it might have been 200 years ago. The space also features smaller immersive exhibits, like the dioramic Nova Tuskhut, as well as gorgeous gardens outside.
California isn’t just a state that grows a lot of America’s food — it’s also where a lot of America’s favorite dishes have originated. From tender-crisp California-style pizza to the classic Cobb salad and trendy avocado toast, this state is a hotbed of epicurean culture.
One of the things that makes California’s food so exceptional is the diverse population — you’ll find food here from all over the globe, from Nicaragua (try Sabor) to Nigeria (try Ilé). But don’t expect food traditions to stay neatly in their boxes in this state. You’ll also find hundreds of creative restaurants that refuse monolithic cultural convictions.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, Kinara blends traditional Indian flavors with Italian and Latin American influences, so you’ll find Mexican samosas on the menu as well as a mango dhamaka pizza, both of which are delicious. Meanwhile, at Bar Hermanito, you find cheeky avocado fries and adobo cauliflower alongside hamachi sashimi, along with an assortment of category-defying cocktails.
With the largest Mexican American population in the country, you won’t have to look hard to score some of the finest tacos, flautas and empanadas north of the border. Mírame in Beverly Hills incorporates the finest local produce and seafood into its contempo-traditional menu. The Dungeness crab tostadas, salmon skin chicharron and lamb mulita are all standouts.
Leonor’s in Studio City was vegetarian before veggie was cool. Founded in the late ’80s, this unassuming, family-owned, organic eatery has all your favorite Mexican classics without the meat. Soyrizo burritos, broccoli tamales and vegan hot chocolate satisfy every carnivorous craving, guilt-free.
California is also known for its bakeries. If you’re in the San Diego area, your new BBFF (that’s your buttery best friend forever) is destined to be Izola. This is where the best croissants in America are born, from the chocolate almond variety that’s prepared with house-made frangipane to the completely unexpected Moroccan black olive croissant, ribboned with Valrhona and earthy, dry-cured delights.
As a coastal city, Californians are treated to some of the best seafood in the world, from Pacific red rockfish to Dungeness crab and oysters. In the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, Sotto Mare has built a reputation on its famous cioppino — an enlivening fish stew that originated in the city.
Sushi lovers will rejoice in the L.A. scene, where you’ll find five-star indulgences like Sushi Kaneyoshi in Little Tokyo, where an omakase course will set you back $300 well-spent dollars. Or you can try beloved, lower-priced favorites like Sushi Gen, where the $25 salmon collar lunch special will make you glad you got out of bed in the morning.
Perhaps the most satisfying valley in all of California to explore is Napa, where you can experience some of the world’s finest wine. Napa Valley encompasses the region between Santa Rosa and Sacramento. Its unique geography makes it possible to grow even the most elusive of grape varieties, like Pinot Noir. One of the most interesting times to visit the area is during wild mustard season, where the vineyard’s interstitial plantings of mustard greens burst into golden blooms, typically from January-March.
Prepare for Your Move to California
When you’re ready, professional movers from United Van Lines can help you move to California. Get a moving quote from United Van Lines.
Our full-service moving packages are designed to make your move to California hassle-free. Our expert team will handle all the details so you can focus on settling into your new home. You can keep track of all the details with the MyUnited Move Portal.
Moving cross country to California? United Van Lines’ long-distance movers can help you move to California from anywhere in the U.S. We’ll manage your packing and unpacking, storage, car shipping — even debris pick up and more.
Moving locally within California? Our California movers provide services for local moves in California independently under their own businesses and brands.
Looking for a moving checklist for California? Get our week-by-week moving planner to keep everything in order.
Whether you want to move yourself or have us to handle everything for you, United Van Lines has the moving resources, services, and tools you need to acclimate to your new home.
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