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California: Healthcare Employment Location Guide

California is one of, if not the most popular, state for nurses to seek employment. Good pay, fair patient ratios, plenty of resources and unlimited options for adventure attract nurses from all over the country. It is also a great place to start your travel nursing career, as many hospitals are willing to take first-time travel nurses. With its beautiful landscapes, sun-kissed cities and terrific nursing pay, it’s no wonder California is nicknamed “the Golden State.”

Top Locations to Live in California

San Francisco Bay Area

San Francisco is one of the most popular cities for travel nursing. San Francisco and its iconic Golden Gate bridge draw people from all over the world. Its proximity to popular spots like Napa, the northern California coast, Lake Tahoe and Big Sur makes it an excellent place for exploring all California has to offer. San Francisco’s hilly neighborhoods house some of the country’s most notable food spots and unique entertainment options. San Francisco is laid back, industrial and hipster all at once. 

So many spots in and around San Francisco make it a great place to visit, live and work. You’ll find open space, beaches, hills and almost anything you can think of in the San Francisco Bay area.

San Francisco, as well as its sister city, San Jose, is also renowned for its extremely high cost of living. Living with roommates or renting a room is a great solution to help reduce housing costs. Oakland is across the bay and offers travel nursing opportunities and slightly cheaper living options. Just southeast of San Fran, Santa Clara is another popular city (and almost equally expensive) for travel nurses. Check out our guide to working in San Francisco for more Bay Area information and tips.

Northern California

Beyond San Francisco is another side of Northern California, often called “NoCal.” The Central Valley includes Bakersfield, Fresno, Sacramento and Redding. Other northern California cities that travel nurses love are Eureka, Santa Rosa and Crescent City. These places are popular with travel nurses because of their high-paying jobs and relatively low cost of living (for California). People love the rocky coastline where the cliffs meet the ocean, and you can watch the marine life play close to shore. Some of the most beautiful parts of California are between San Francisco and Oregon. Explore the Redwoods, hike the Lost Coast Trail or take a road trip up Highway 1 for some of the most scenic coastlines in the country. Many of the healthcare systems with multiple locations throughout California have a presence here.

San Diego

Almost every travel nurse I have met says they want to go to San Diego. The year-round mild weather, fun atmosphere, beautiful beaches and stunning sunsets add to the city’s appeal. The cost of living only slightly trails San Fran, but there are more options for affordable neighborhoods, and rental rates haven’t quite reached the peak rates of San Francisco. Check out our San Diego Healthcare Employment Location Guide for neighborhood information and great entertainment ideas.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles is popular among travelers due to its southern California location and many facilities that hire travel RNs. From central LA to San Clemente, the area includes the cities of Long Beach, Torrance, Newport Beach, Manhattan Beach, Huntington Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Marina del Rey, Laguna Beach, Mission Viejo and Aliso Viejo, with nearly 100 facilities that hire travel nurses. A lot of these facilities are very friendly to first-time travel nurses.

The cost of living is high, but not nearly as high as San Francisco, and is very neighborhood dependent. Pay is comparable to other California cities, and jobs are plentiful. The major issue in LA is the traffic. Traffic is a problem at all times of day on all major highways. And “taking the side streets” is not an option for getting where you need to go. Finding housing options as close to your facility as possible makes a big difference in your commute. 

Inland Empire

The term “Inland Empire” (IE) is widely used amongst California residents. For those unfamiliar with the area, it includes the cities of Riverside, San Bernardino, Palm Springs, Escondido and Loma Linda. The lesser-known wine region of Temecula is also located within the IE. The pay in this area rivals other major California cities, but you can benefit from a lower cost of living in some of the IE towns. Rentals are still higher than the US average but much more affordable than in the most popular areas of California. There are tons of facilities throughout the region that hire travel nurses. When you live in the IE, you can bask in the luxury of Palm Springs, make a quick two-hour drive to Big Bear for some mountain sports fun, or drive three hours to the coast for an overnight trip.

Central Coast

Stretching from Ventura to Santa Cruz, the California Coast draws dreamers from all over the nation. The most popular travel nursing jobs are found in Ventura, Oxnard, San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Santa Cruz. Pay and cost of living can vary as both tend to increase the closer you get to LA or San Francisco. The towns are smaller and more charming, and the coast is a hot spot for surfing, swimming, sunbathing and hiking. Highway 1 is the winding road that runs parallel to the coast and is one of the most famous drives in America. Big Sur (the section of highway between Carmel and San Simeon) is full of amazing sites, marine life, awesome camping and hiking, and has some of the most breathtaking sunsets you will ever see.  

Popular California Attractions

Exploring the diverse state of California requires time since it has approximately 163,696 square miles of area to take in. For those who venture here, you will always be satisfied with the options for your free time. Start with these sites to taste California’s classic scenery and beauty.

  • Death Valley National Park, Yosemite National Park, Big Sur
  • Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood
  • Sequoia National Park, Redwood National and State Parks
  • Point Reyes National Seashore
  • Joshua Tree National Park
  • Sierra Nevada Mountains
  • Hollywood, Lake Tahoe and the surrounding area
  • Napa Valley
  • Temecula Wine Country
  • Channel Islands National Park
  • Santa Monica Pier
  • Hearst Castle
  • Fisherman’s Wharf

Average Nurse and Allied Health Pay Rates in California

California is known for its high healthcare wages and even led the list of our Top 5 Highest Paying Staff RN Locations in 2023. Great pay makes the state super attractive for travel assignments, allowing people to experience all sunny CA offers. On the downside, the Golden State is also known for its ever-increasing cost of living. Some cities and regions have a better pay-to-cost-of-living ratio, especially if you look for locations away from the coast and the major cities. 

In late February 2023, Vivian had 1,000s of staff and travel jobs posted for registered nurses and allied health professionals at hospitals and other healthcare facilities throughout the state. For all travel nursing jobs in California, the average weekly pay was $3,039, with a max weekly pay rate of $5,850. Staff nursing jobs in California saw averages of $59/hr with a max staff pay rate of $104/hr. The following table displays some average and max pay rates for travel RNs and various allied health roles across a sampling of cities during this period.

Discipline & Location Average Pay Rate Max Pay Rate
Travel Registered Nurse – Los Angeles $2,998/week $5,592/week
Travel Registered Nurse – San Francisco $3,362/week $5,264/week
Travel Surgical Tech – Long Beach $1,800/week $2,206/week
Travel Radiology Technologist – San Diego $2,370/week $3,626/week

Pay rates will vary by facility and role and can change based on seasonal demand for certain positions.

Special Considerations for Travel Nursing in California

California has one of the strongest nurses’ unions in the country. Hospitals tend to treat their nurses well, and patient ratios are mandated. Break times are consistently honored with an extra nurse available to cover lunches.

The popularity of California ensures a steady stream of staff and agency nurses to fill the schedule and allow units to meet required patient-to-nurse ratios. This also means there are tons of travel nurses to make friends with and possibly share housing costs.

There are several large hospital systems, such as Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Medical Foundation and Dignity Health, with locations throughout the state. There are also countless smaller community hospitals, some part of a more extensive network. It’s often nice to work for a healthcare system spread across the state to make finding your next job easier. 

As you consider travel assignments, I want you to know that California has one of the longest licensing processes in the country. Licensing can take a while to process due to the sheer volume of applicants, so it’s essential to plan ahead. You can no longer go to the Board of Nursing office and obtain a temporary license. You must apply online through the State of California’s BreEZe system. I recommend applying for your license at least six months before your anticipated start date to avoid additional stress in the travel nurse application process.

Best Time of Year to Be a Travel Nurse in California

Travel nursing in California tends to see an increase in the spring and summer months as tourism increases and America’s most populous state becomes even more crowded. Spring is the best time to enjoy the picturesque flowers, coastlines and greenery that is California. Summer is the perfect time to see all the sights, but tourists are known to overwhelm the state, and it can be packed at the most popular locations.

There is nice weather year-round in many areas and other spots that see quite a range of temperatures. New extreme weather patterns from the Bay Area to Sacramento to Lake Tahoe are making the climate a bit more unpredictable, but you are still likely to see more mild weather there than in other parts of the country. There can also be wildfires in late summer/early fall due to excessive heat and lack of rainfall. 

Snow can still be present at higher altitudes as late as July, and from fall through winter, the higher elevations have excellent conditions for skiing. However, if you’re looking to stay warm year-round, check out locations in the southern part of the state.

Getting Around California

Known for Route 66, Pacific Coast Highway 1 and its massive interstate highways, California is famous for its car-loving culture. Whether you bring your own vehicle or rent a car, you’ll enjoy one of the country’s most extensive free roadway systems, with only a few toll roads and bridges along main routes. If work takes you nearby, don’t miss a drive across San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge (toll required) or Big Sur’s incredible cliffside Bixby Creek Bridge that overlooks the stunning coastline.

Most major California cities have their own bus line for public transportation, and many counties also offer regional transit systems to help you move about. California has several subway and light rail systems, including LA’s Metro Rail and the Bay Area’s Rapid Transit line. National transit providers such as Greyhound and Amtrak have a presence throughout the state and could be an excellent choice for sightseeing trips.

If cycling is your passion, there are cities with designated bike lanes all around California, including Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Trail paths. Many buses and trains are also bicycle-friendly and allow you to bring your bike aboard.

Start your California job search today. You can research current salary data for staff and travel roles and filter by discipline, specialty and location using Vivian’s comprehensive Healthcare Salary Tool.

Rachel Norton BSN, RN

Rachel Norton became an RN in 2007 and has been part of the Vivian team since 2019. She has always worked in critical care, and spent the first 12 years of her career working in a surgical neuroscience trauma ICU. She's also worked as a flight nurse, started travel nursing in 2010 and continued working in the ICU until joining Vivian full-time in 2022. As a user researcher, Rachel advocates for healthcare workers to help bridge the gap between employee and employer expectations.

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