California’s diverse geography gives rise to dozens of different ecosystems, each of which has its own unique native plants and animals. Botanical gardens, zoos, and wildlife preserves abound throughout the state, giving visitors ample opportunities to smell the flowers, pet the animals, and learn about the complex and varied life that abounds all through the Golden State.
The most famous trees native to California are undoubtedly the redwoods. The coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) grows on the North Coast and down through the Bay Area  all the way to Big Sur . Coast redwood trees perch on cliffs overlooking the sea, but most of the best groves are inland, in the mountains. The Redwood National and State Parks do the best job of showcasing these grand trees, though any hiker in the Santa Cruz Mountains can reach out and touch soft redwood bark.
The truly immense redwood trees don’t grow along the coast—they’re much farther inland. The giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) grow in the Sierra Nevada mountains. These redwoods can live for thousands of years and grow to unimaginable heights. The museum at Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park  includes a wonderful interpretive display describing the life cycle of the giant sequoia, including information about the importance of fire to the health and propagation of these trees. Sequoia groves grow aplenty in Yosemite National Park , Calaveras Big Trees, and a few other select spots in the Sierras.
One famous California tree isn’t a tree at all. The desert-dwelling Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) is actually a member of the yucca family. You can’t miss a Joshua tree—from a distance, it almost resembles an honest-to-goodness deciduous tree. But when you get up close, the scaly “bark” starts to look strange and the “leaves” even odder—spiky and big. Larger Joshua trees can get up to 15 feet tall with dozens of leafy “branches” at their tops. While the best place to see forests of Joshua trees is, of course, in Joshua Tree National Monument, Joshua trees thrive in the Mojave Desert ecosystem—they’re all over the Mojave Preserve and can even be found alongside the desert’s highways.
California’s state flower is the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). The pretty little orange blossom grows just about everywhere, even on the sides of the busiest highways. Though most California poppies are bright orange, they also appear occasionally in white, cream, and even deeper red-orange.
If you spot California’s most infamous native reptile, keep your distance. Several varieties of rattlesnakes are indigenous to the state. The Pacific Northwest rattler makes its home in Northern California, while more than half a dozen different rattlesnake varieties live in Southern California, including the Western diamondback and the Mojave rattlesnake.
All rattlesnakes are venomous, though death by snakebite is extremely rare in California. Most parks with known rattlesnakes in residence post signs alerting hikers; your best bet to keep safe is to stay on trails and avoid tromping off into meadows or brush. Pay attention when hiking, especially when negotiating rocks and woodpiles, and never put a foot or a hand down in a spot you can’t see first. Wear long pants and heavy hiking boots for protection (from snakes, plus insects, other critters, and unfriendly plants you might encounter).
California isn’t the tropics, but its vast population of wildflowers attract an array of gorgeous butterflies. The Monarch butterfly has become an emblem of the state. These large orange-and-black butterflies have a migratory pattern that’s reminiscent of birds. Each winter, the butterflies fly south from their summertime wanderings to cluster in several groves of eucalyptus trees throughout the temperate coastal zone. As they close up their wings to hibernate for the winter, their crowding and dull outer wing color makes them resemble clumps of dried leaves, thus protecting them from predators. In spring, the butterflies begin to wake up, fluttering lazily in the groves a bit before flying north to seek out milkweed on which to lay their eggs. Santa Cruz  and Cambria  are two great places to visit the California “butterfly trees.”