“It is place, permanent position in both the social and topographical sense, that gives us our identity.” – J.B. Jackson


All of what is discussed below is based on the modern day perception of California; the original inhabitants of these lands surely had and still have views of their own about boundaries, the intrinsic value of these places and the meanings attached to them.

Some background: 

jen life map
Story of my life

I grew up in Lancaster, California, a high desert city about 70 miles north of Los Angeles. A two-hour drive on the 126 would get you to Ventura, which is where my earliest beach memories formed. As a teenager, my friends and I spent Saturdays working on our tans at Manhattan and Huntington beaches, and as an adult, I lived for several years in Long Beach. I did a brief stint in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, a hamlet in North County San Diego, and spent a significant amount of time in Palm Desert, where my then-boyfriend-now-husband-of-26-years lived. We made semi-annual treks to his cousins’ place in Gustine, a town of dairy and almond farms in the Central Valley, and to San Francisco to visit our art friends. My mom lived in the San Fernando Valley, so I spent a lot of time in North Hollywood. I also worked in Sherman Oaks and Woodland Hills for a year. Prior to the boyfriend-now-husband, I once accompanied a friend to Santa Cruz, where I made out with some surfer from Los Gatos. When I was 18, I spent a Halloween in Isla Vista. I traveled down to Baja several times as a teenager via Tijuana and once in my early 20s via Calexico.

I didn’t venture north beyond San Francisco until I was 25, which meant that my understanding of California’s geography consisted of knowing how long it took to drive from Lancaster to San Diego (three hours), from Long Beach to Hollywood (30 minutes unless traffic), from Cardiff to Palm Desert (two hours) and that getting to San Francisco was best done by plane. The farthest any sane person might consider driving would be to Santa Cruz, a distance so vast that all the bumper stickers announcing one had arrived in NorCal seemed only logical.

And then, that fateful year, my little family and I road-tripped to Seattle, stopping in Humboldt County on the way and my SoCal-centric view of the world came undone. A few years later we moved to Eureka. For a while, we’d get calls from friends in L.A. announcing they were heading to SF for the weekend and wanted to “stop by.” We’re five hours further north, we’d explain. “You moved to Oregon?” they’d ask. No, still California, we’d answer. They usually gave up at that point, sure we were the ones confused.

Early in our Humboldt days, a friend mentioned he was going “down south” for the weekend. “Oh, where?” I asked. Santa Rosa, he said.

We’ve lived in Humboldt nearly 21 years now.

I took my daughter, my son and my son’s friend to Carmel and Big Sur last month – an eight-and-a-half-hour drive south from our home on Humboldt Bay. The friend grew up in Arcata, has family in Redding. When we took a stroll in Carmel, he marveled at the white sand. “These SoCal beaches!” he exclaimed.

I once asked a bunch of people from L.A. and San Diego where they thought the dividing line was. Several insisted Santa Cruz is in Northern California. In the first chapter of my life, when everywhere I wanted to go could be reached in under two hours (sans traffic), I would’ve wholeheartedly agreed. After two decades in Humboldt County, I could only laugh.

The job I’ve held for the past three years requires significant travel up and down California’s coast, with the occasional foray to Sacramento. I keep a room part time in San Francisco, out at the beach, down by the zoo.

In the past year, I’ve driven from Humboldt to as far south as San Diego. I bounce back and forth from San Francisco to San Clemente, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo… I have little grasp of places inland, but I know California’s coast.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


The question is ever only where Northern California begins. No one ever asks where SoCal starts.

Northern California is both a matter of physical geography and an imagined ideal. In many ways, assuming a NorCal identity carries with it an implied rejection of SoCal stereotypes.

For example, Santa Cruz imagines itself a world away from the warmer waters of Southern California, hence the self-determination, regardless of geographical reality, that it is “NorCal.” (Back in 2004, Santa Cruz fought – and lost – against Huntington Beach to claim the official title of “Surf City USA,” another example of the inherent rivalry.)

Similarly San Francisco prides itself on actively not being L.A.

Los Angeles prides itself on being completely itself.

The Redwood Curtain is a real thing, as is the Emerald Triangle.

If you understand that Central California exists, that’s likely because you live in Northern California.

If you don’t know about Central California, you probably live in SoCal.

One could argue that if you live in SoCal, you don’t really need to know where anything else is because you’re living the dream: sunshine, temperate weather, beaches, epic sunsets. (Unless you want to escape the crowds and maybe surf some more rowdy waves.)

If you live on the North Coast, you don’t really need to know where anything else is because you live in a paradise of redwoods, rivers, lagoons, delicious fog, ridiculous beauty. (Unless you want to remember what it’s like to feel the sun’s warmth on your bare skin more than three months out of the year or maybe not have to wear 5mm of neoprene just to enjoy the ocean.)

SoCallers can get mighty defensive if you try to explain how big California actually is to them.

NorCallers can be real smug about living so far away from everybody else.

Living in Humboldt might ruin you for appreciating beauty elsewhere.

Wikipedia says California “is often geographically bisected into two regions, Southern California, comprising the 10 southernmost counties,[86][87] and Northern California, comprising the 48 northernmost counties.[88][89]

For the record, the exact center of California is North Fork.

The reckoning

When I asked this on Facebook, the responses were all over the place. Big Sur earned a lot of nods and a significant number of people pointed out the need to factor Central California into the equation. (I didn’t include the concept of Central California because I wanted to see if people would bring it up on their own.)

Locations that could be the dividing line, according to the people who responded, include:

  • Ventura (haha)
  • Santa Barbara
  • Bakersfield
  • Fresno
  • Big Sur
  • Santa Cruz
  • South Bay (SF South Bay, not L.A. South Bay)
  • San Francisco
  • Marin County (aka the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge)
  • Sonoma County
  • Mendocino County
  • Ukiah
  • Willits
  • Where the mildew starts (excellent answer)
  • From a geography teacher: “…here is the objective answer. CA has 9°30′ of latitude (32°30′ to 42°N), or 3°10’ each for southern, central and northern segments. Using major roads (SR 1, US 101, I-5), the divide goes as follows: southern/central boundary at 35°40’N: Morro Bay (SR 1), Santa Margarita (US 101), Buttonwillow (I-5)
    central / northern boundary at 38°50’N: Fort Ross (SR 1), Sonoma County Airport (US 101), Sacramento (I-5)” (He also included the subjective answer of Ukiah, above, because it’s your last chance for In-N-Out if driving north.)

My take

jen with map

Central California exists. It starts at Point Conception.

If you live below San Francisco, you can’t claim to live in NorCal – it’s just not geographically logical. (Sorry, but really, look at a map and do the math.)

As one person commented, “I’ve never heard anyone rep CenCal,” which is maybe true, but Central California is wonderful. Fewer people, warmer weather. The true sweet spot of the California coast!

OK, but where does NorCal start?!

Weather-wise, surf-wise, culture-wise, San Francisco qualifies – but then I think about Marin and how different it is from Del Norte (pronounce it “Del NORT”) County. So then I lean toward Sonoma – except we’re not yet to the Redwood Curtain. Nor does the Emerald Triangle encompass Sonoma. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but Mendo, Humboldt, Del Norte, Trinity – that’s what I think of as truly North – something happens in that stretch from Santa Rosa to Hopland – the neighborhoods slip away, the ratio of trees to houses increases, one no longer worries about traffic jams (looking at you, Petaluma!), but instead about mudslides and finding a gas station. The Avenue of the Giants is within grasp; the highway winds through forests, not alongside shopping malls. Maybe we need more sections? SoCal, Central Cal, Bay Area, Northern California, the Far North…

Oh, California is such a big state! No wonder people keep wanting to break it into smaller pieces.

Except I don’t want to – I love California. Maybe not all the parts equally, but I want to keep it together, to better understand the bonds between north-south, east-west, the Central Valley and the Central Coast. The love of place California’s residents hold for their particular locale is not so different, even if the view varies greatly, even if within the regions contradictions exist: The regions contain multitudes.

“There is no line, California is like a well-made tequila sunrise.” – NV, from Facebook 

Drawing lines for political reasons – the creation of voting districts or other sorts of territories – requires measuring miles, calculating population, assessing topography. But drawing lines for personal reasons reveals what’s in our hearts – how we see ourselves, where we’ve lived, where we’ve traveled, where we long to be, where we feel at home, what we claim as ours and what we take responsibility for.

“It’s not a binary state of north and south. It’s north, middle, and south with lots of grey.” – RM

“Is that fog?” – KHA

With both the political and personal in mind then, I suppose we must consider the moment you exit the Golden Gate bridge northbound the moment you enter Northern California. It makes sense: Bridges are only built when a divide exists.

I want more bridges.

My heart lives in Humboldt, but I enjoy eating tacos in L.A., surfing till my skin peels from too much sun in San Diego, living part-time in the Outer Sunset, driving from San Francisco along the coast to Santa Cruz, soaking in the vintage California vibe Ventura and Pismo Beach exude, digging the timeless surf scene at SanO, diving into lakes in the Trinity Alps, kayaking rivers in the Central Valley and the lake in Chula Vista, checking off which coastal counties I’ve surfed off of – Sonoma the lone one left – and on and on. What a joy to connect California’s dots, to form my own map, adjust the boundaries as new experiences come to me, to have friends and family forming a different sort of topography, one delineated by love instead of mountains and valleys.

Recommended (an exceedingly brief list)