Where Does Northern California End And Southern California Begin?

White and red California State Flag with grizzly bear image

If you ask a thousand Californians where the dividing line is between Northern and Southern California, you will probably get a thousand different answers. This question has been long debated in the Golden State. The state covers a massive area and has many regions that are unique and can be distinguished from one another. So, where does NorCal start, and SoCal begin?

Generally speaking, the boundary between Northern California and Southern California is the northern border of San Luis Obispo, Kern, and San Bernardino counties. These counties form a nearly perfect straight line through the middle of the state.

Of course, this is just one way of dividing the State of California. There are lots of other definitions and commonly accepted terms to describe different parts of the state. Continue reading for a detailed explanation of why the North-South line is difficult to define.

More Than One Way to Divide California

Californians are proud of their state, its history, and its culture. But what would a state be without a little rivalry?

You’ll quickly find that the residents of Northern California are in constant competition with the residents of Southern California. So naturally, they’ll argue that their cities have better people, cuisine, tourist attractions, and weather. But the most important question to ask is which part of the state is considered NorCal and which part is SoCal?

There is no debate that everything north of the San Francisco Bay Area is Northern California. It’s also well known that everything south of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area is Southern California. But what happens in between can get a bit confusing.

Many people refer to this “gray area” of the state as Central California. This is because this part of the state is where most of the state’s agriculture happens.

The central area can be further divided into regions. The coastal part of the state that runs between Los Angeles and San Francisco is often referred to as the Central Coast. The Central Valley is the massive valley that runs up the middle of the state. The Sierra Nevada region is in the middle of the state and runs between the Central Valley and the Nevada state line.

For the sake of this post, the dividing line is the northern border of San Luis Obispo, Kern, and San Bernardino counties. But it’s important to understand that there isn’t one single definition of Northern versus Southern California.

Populations of Northern California and Southern California

Using the definition of NorCal and SoCal described above, Southern California has a significantly higher population. Despite having only 10 of the 58 counties in California, Southern California has a population of nearly 24 million people.

Traffic jam on Los Angeles freeway

This population fact shouldn’t be too surprising as the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area is the second-largest population center (after New York City, of course) in the United States. In addition, the 48 counties that are generally considered to be part of Northern California are home to about 15 million people.

California is the most heavily populated US state and is home to about 12 percent of the American population.

What Does Northern California Have that Southern California Doesn’t?

There are many differences between Northern California and Southern California. Therefore, it’s much easier to look at the different categories separately.

Climate – Northern California enjoys cooler temperatures year-round which are excellent for people who don’t enjoy the heat. But the weather in Southern California is much better for sitting out at the beach.

Landscape – Northern and Southern California both have a wide variety of landscapes, including mountains, valleys, lakes, and beaches. However, one thing you won’t find in Northern California is a desert. The crown jewels are Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree National Park in southern California

Wine Country – Both Northern and Southern California have their own versions of wine country. Northern California is better known for its world-famous Napa Valley. In Southern California, the Temecula Valley is home to many of the vineyards.

Food – NorCal proudly hosts four of the US’s 12 three-Michelin-star restaurants. With its location close to Napa Valley and produce from the Central Valley, this is the place to eat. However, Southern California can claim the title for best Mexican food.

Entertainment – Southern California may be the winner in terms of entertainment. Being the home of Hollywood, there are more entertainment venues for concerts and other productions. Plus, Southern California is home to several major amusement parks and zoos such as Disneyland, Universal Studios, and the San Diego Zoo.

Transportation – Northern California has a much better public transportation system thanks to BART that runs through San Francisco and the Bay Area. The people of Southern California tend to rely more on driving cars.

Bay Area Answers Fun Fact: California produces over 17 million gallons of wine each year.

Other Posts of Interest

Is Northern California More Expensive than Southern California?

Deciding which is more expensive is a difficult question to answer depending on where you chose to live or visit. Both Northern and Southern California have urban and rural cities. Outside of the expensive city limits, you can find more reasonably priced real estate and living costs. There is something for every person’s budget.

However, if we are comparing just the major cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Francisco is the more expensive city. The cost of living in San Francisco is about 26 percent more expensive than in Los Angeles.

Check out our detailed comparison of the two cities in our blog post Is It More Expensive to Live in San Francisco or Los Angeles?

NorCal Beaches versus SoCal Beaches

China Cove at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Most people dream of beach vacations when they plan a trip to California. The Golden Coast is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful coastlines on the planet. However, the part of the state that you chose to visit will determine your beach experience.

Northern California has many beautiful beaches. Some of the most popular beaches are in Carmel, Half Moon Bay, and Monterey. But keep in mind that they are very different from the ones in Southern California. Many are rocky or at the base of steep cliffs.

The temperatures year-round are also a bit cooler, so the frigid water of the Pacific Ocean may be unbearable for most swimmers without a wetsuit. However, if you are looking for scenic walks along the coast and beautiful vistas, NorCal takes the win.

The beaches of Southern California are more along the lines of what you see in the movies — sandy beaches, palm trees, and lots of sunshine. Popular spots include Venice Beach, Santa Monica, and Huntington Beach.

The water is still cold in Southern California, but you can at least take a break to warm up in the sun. You’ll also find more watersports like stand-up paddleboarding, surfing, and snorkeling.

Exploring a Diverse State

The bottom line is that both Northern and Southern California have great things to offer people. You almost have to see both to get the whole California experience.

Visitors are usually astounded by the amount of variety there is in the State of California. From snow-capped mountains to palm tree-lined beaches to expansive urban centers, there are activities for everyone.

While the debate between Northern California and Southern California may not be decided any time soon, it’s clear that the state as a whole deserves to be on top of places to visit in the United States.

Photo of author


Ever since I was little I have been a traveler at heart. It all started when I was six years old and my family took a road trip to Alaska. I enjoy visiting new places and revisiting some of the great locations that I have been to already.