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Any region the size of California necessarily presents a variety of climates. When, additionally, the region in question stretches from the coast to the desert and on to the mountains, from below sea-level altitudes to higher than 4,250m (13,900ft), it goes without saying that things become even more complex.

In Southern California, you can surf and ski in the same day. The temperature change between the beaches and the mountains can sometimes be as much as 23°C (approximately 40°F). In the desert, the mercury can fluctuate just as much at a single location, with a 21°C (70°F) day giving way to a below-freezing night.

Along the Pacific Coast and on the coastal plains, where most visitors congregate, the climate resembles that of the Mediterranean, where the weather remains mild year-round.

Because the coast is regularly invaded by fog that quite naturally adds to its insulation and cools it, the mercury rarely falls below 4°C (39°F) and hardly ever exceeds 27°C (81°F). September and October are the warmest months, while December and January are the coldest. In Los Angeles, the average temperature is 24°C (75°F) in the warm season and 10°C (50°F) in the heart of winter.

Spring, and perhaps especially autumn, are the best seasons for visiting the region. Winter, from November to March, can be quite rainy, with the heaviest rainfall occurring between December and February. But for the rest of the year there is practically no precipitation. It goes without saying that summer is the season that attracts most tourists, and the dramatic increase in local populations at that time of year can cause problems. In summer, just as in spring, fog often descends in the morning and at night. Patches of fog that form out at sea sweep over the coast and only dissipate around the middle of the day.

Most winter storms come from the north, so average precipitation and the length of the rainy season diminish as one goes further south. Santa Barbara receives 432mm (17in) of annual rainfall, Los Angeles, 381mm (15in), and San Diego, a scant 254mm (10in). On the other hand, the ocean air has relatively high humidity, averaging around 65%, and makes some regions seem cooler than the thermometer would indicate.

The fog is heaviest in August and September. Then, when autumn comes, the Santa Ana winds start blowing in from the desert. These hot, dry northeast winds can reach 55 to 80km/h (33 to 48mph), carrying sand, fanning forest fires and making people more nervous than usual.

You won't be at all surprised to learn that the desert is very hot in the summer: the mercury can easily reach 38°C(100°F) and higher. However, spring is always a good time to visit since the air is cooler and the wildflowers are in full bloom. That said, autumn and winter are also pleasant.

As for the mountains, they are cold in winter, cool in the spring and astonishingly hot in summer. Precipitation is less abundant than on the coast, but the highest peaks get enough snow in winter for their much-admired ski resorts.

Northern California

Northern California stretches for nearly 650km (390mi) from Big Sur to Oregon and covers 320km (192mi) from east to west. This vast territory includes the Pacific coastline, a large inland valley and the high Sierra Nevadas, and its climate registers variations as extreme as those found on its relief map.

In Northern California, the temperature difference between the seasons is very slight. The ground hardly ever freezes, and sunburn is more often the result of harsh wind than torrid heat.

Temperatures vary only a few degrees over the course of the year (a deviation of 8°C or 14°F between January and July). One generalization can be made about this rather bizarre weather: the days are particularly pleasant (very sunny from April to September), while the nights are fairly cold.

Since winter is not severe, you will only have to worry about rain; so be sure to bring a raincoat and an umbrella. Although days are warm (you should still bring a sweater with you, however), it is highly recommended that you cover up well during the relatively cool nights.

Even summer is more springlike than suffocating, as evidenced by its July average high of around 23°C (73°F). Still, when night falls, you'll have to wear a sweater unless you're one of those people who never feels chilly.

The seasons are much more noticeable in the inland valleys, which make up a sort of climatic sub-zone. In Wine Country, the Delta and Gold Country, summer temperatures often exceed 32°C (90°F). There is less humidity, winters are cooler, and regions at higher altitudes occasionally get snow. Like the coast, this foothills region receives most of its precipitation in the winter.

The Sierra Nevada and the Cascade mountain ranges experience the greatest variations in climate. Summer days are hot and summer nights are cool. Spring and autumn bring colder temperatures and the trees even change colours (a phenomenon that is practically nonexistent on the coast, with its uniform seasons). Once winter arrives, the mercury plummets and snow falls in such abundance that the mountain ranges are transformed into spectacular ski centres.

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