Your guide to the Californias (and there are 3)

California in the United States is Alta California (or Upper California) but there are also two other Californias (Baja California – or Lower California).

In the United States, people often think of the US state of California as, well, California. But it is one of three states to bear this name. In Mexico, there is also Baja Californa (Baja California) and Baja California Sur (Southern Baja California).

The West Coast of the United States and Mexico is an utterly beautiful region and is packed with tourist sites, world-class restaurants, and lodging options. Next time we’re in California, be sure to check out the other Southern Californias!

The story of why there are three Californias

Together, the three states may be referred to as “The Californias” or “Las Californias“. This is because historically the term “Californias” referred to the vast northwestern region of Spanish America and the sprawling province of the Californias. Later was the collective name for Alta California and the Baja California Peninsula.


The Three Californias:

  • The State of California
  • Baja California
  • Baja California Sur

So when the United States defeated the Mexicans in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1846, they only took control of Alta California (Upper California). This left Mexico with Baja California (or Baja California).

Alta California (aka California) was admitted to the Union in 1850 as the state of California (the region of Atla California which had more inhabited coastal regions) while the vast sparsely populated interior areas of Alta California took longer to be admitted and became Nevada, Utah, along with parts of other states.


The U.S. state of California

Today, California has grown into the most populous and wealthiest of all US states. It is home to approximately 40 million people (more than all of Canada) and is the third largest state in the United States by land area.

  • Cut: 163,696 square miles (423,970 km2)
  • Population: 40 million

It is the heart of the country’s film industry (Hollywood in Los Angeles) and innovative startups (Silicon Valley in the Bay Area). California’s economy is worth over $3.2 trillion and if it were an independent country it would be the fifth largest in the world.

The state is remarkably diverse and has more national parks than any other state in the United States. Some of its national parks have international recognition, including Yosemite, Sequoia, and Death Valley National Parks. The state includes everything from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Pacific Coast, Mojave Desert, Central Valley wine regions, and more. Its climate varies from a warm Mediterranean climate to temperate rainforests, snowy alpines and arid deserts.


Before the advent of European settlement, what is now California was one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse regions of pre-Columbian North America.

Related: Skip Los Angeles: These California Cities Are Very Underrated

Mexico – Baja California

Baja California is located just south of the state of California and is one of Mexico’s 32 federal entities. It gained statehood in 1952 (having previously been a territory).

  • Cut: 70,113 kilometers2 (27,071 square miles)
  • Population: 3,769,020

It occupies the northern half of the Baja California Peninsula (and Guadalupe Island). It is bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Gulf of California to the east.


Most of its nearly 4 million residents live in the main cities of Mexicali, Ensenada and Tijuana. Most of the people here are mestizo and come from other parts of Mexico. There is also a large immigrant population from the United States due to its proximity to San Diego and its comparatively lower cost of living.

The backbone of the state is the Sierra de Baja California mountain range – it divides the state having distinct weather patterns. Its geography ranges from beaches to deserts to forests. East of the mountain range is the Sonoran Desert.

It also has an important wine region in its Valle de Guadalupe.


Related: The Ultimate Foodie’s Guide to California’s Mexican-Inspired Cuisine

Mexico – Baja California Sur

Further down the Baja California Peninsula lies the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. The state occupies the Baja California Peninsula south of the 28th parallel. It is the second least populated state in Mexico and one of the youngest in the country. It did not gain statehood until October 8, 1974 (having previously been a territory).

  • Cut: 73,909 kilometers2 (28,536 square miles)
  • Population: 800 000

While Baja California is perhaps best known for cheap shopping in Tijuana for medicine and the like, Baja California Sur is best known as a tourist spot.

It is home to the tourist resorts of Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo, both located at the southern end of the peninsula. Tourism is a very important part of the local economy. Tourists come to see gray whales migrating inshore to breed while Land’s End’s natural rock arch is an Instagrammer’s paradise.

There are three tourist regions in the state:

  • Guerrero Negro at Ciudad Constitution: Located in the North
  • La Paz to Todos Santos: Centrally located
  • Los Barriles in Cabo San Lucas: Located in the South

Next: Your California Tour FAQ, Finally Answered

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