Whenever I say to anyone that I'm from California, they either reply with a nonchalant semi-rhetorical “Oh, LA?” or raise their eyebrows slightly jealously with a look on their face that assumes exactly the same.
However, unbeknownst to many, there is another half to the state that is roughly the same size as the UK, and it too has its stereotypes. A strange, eclectic mix of aging hippies, ski bums and fundamental Republicans co-exist (mostly) peacefully to the north of San Diego, Los Angeles and their year-long mono-climate. My family's home town of Grass Valley seems to accommodate all of these three social groups with mesmerizing effect, being merely 45 minutes from the mountains to the east and the central valley to the west. The former allows ski bums their seasonal pursuits and hippies the privacy to quietly go about growing their legal 'medical' marijuana, while the latter epitomizes the heartland of American rural conservatism. Here are some things to do in Northern California that would rival anywhere else in the US…
There are in fact 30 ski resorts in California, the vast majority of which are in the mountainous north. Legendary resorts such as Squaw Valley USA, which hosted a winter Olympics back in the 60s, and Northstar at Tahoe boast some of the best terrain in the US. The 2010-11 season saw the Lake Tahoe region get in the list of top 5 resort areas with the most snow in the world.
From Yosemite National Park to Mount Shasta, from the Tahoe National Forest to the Mendocino Coastline, Northern California is still an unbridled wilderness. My best summers have been spent packing up a jeep with food, driving off into the middle of nowhere then walking off further into the middle of nowhere and living on a lake or riverside.
Arguably this pastime has a much more general application to the US as a whole rather than just Northern California, but narrow the scope down and the gastronomy is superb. San Francisco showcases one of the most diverse demographics of any city, and therefore an amazing array of food from Chinese to Italian to local seafood. Up in the mountains, the emphasis is on sustainability and whole foods, which leads to a wide range of produce and localized styles. Of course, if the mainstream is more your thing, the usual fast food joints exist, from the positively outstanding (In-N-Out Burger) through the mediocre (Taco Bell, Carl's Jr), to the abysmal (Wendy's, Burger King, Jack In The Box).
Again, a big favourite for all Americans. However, the NorCal coastline is not a sight to be missed. The Pacific Coast highway from Marin County up to the Oregon border is dramatic, impressive and exhilarating. Not to mention the great town names one comes across on the journey of 400 miles: 'Eureka' and 'Big Lagoon' were personal favourites.
In short, NorCal is worth discovering just for how different it is to what people expect when California is mentioned.