More than a century ago, Annie Bidwell, wife of Chico founder Gen. John Bidwell, secured an amazing legacy in Chico when she donated the majority of the cherished land that carries on the couple’s name.
Her gift of about 2,500 acres to the city of Chico in 1905 established Bidwell Park. And thanks to the city’s purchase of additional property over the years it has grown into a 3,670-acre preserve—and one of the largest municipal parks in the United States. The park is the natural heart and soul of the community, and is one of the first places locals tell visitors to explore.
Divided by Manzanita Avenue, the 11-mile stretch of land comprises two distinct park sections. The area to the west of the street is known as Lower Park. The land on the east, which extends into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, is known as Upper Park.
Chicoans relish Lower Park with its flat grassy knolls that are shrouded in shade provided by a thick canopy of trees. Picnic areas are scattered throughout the area and can be reserved by contacting the city Parks Department. One of the most popular spots on hot Chico days is Sycamore Pool at One-Mile Recreation Area. There’s really no way to miss the swimming area, which is essentially built into and fed by Big Chico Creek.
One of the park’s biggest claims to fame is that the Sherwood Forest scenes in the original Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn and company, were filmed there, among the groves of oaks and sycamores.
Upper Park, which extends five miles along both sides of Big Chico Creek Canyon, ranges in terrain from slight to steep slopes of mostly undeveloped land. Much of the area is environmentally sensitive, so please obey all special rules.
The park is home to a variety of well-marked trails for hiking and biking, including the popular North Rim Trail that runs up and along the top of the canyon and the pedestrian-only Yahi Trail that follows Big Chico Creek. Among several popular swimming sites is Bear Hole, which is bordered by volcanic rocks that form near-vertical cliffs. On hot summer days, the areas adjacent to the water are lined with sun worshippers and their colorful beach towels.
Near the main entrance to Upper Park is Horseshoe Lake. Fishing is allowed there, but be sure to check the regulations. It’s fed by runoff—and gets pretty low at times—but still supports a population of bass, bluegill, crappie and catfish. The shoreline is undeveloped except for a platform that extends out into the lake. It’s actually for practicing fly casting, but has become a popular spot for anglers of all types. Horseshoe Lake is also the site of the annual “Hooked on Fishing, Not on Drugs” fishing derby for children.
For those dog lovers out there, the lake and trail system are also favorites of our four-legged friends. Dogs are allowed off leash on the north side of Upper Park Road but must be kept under effective control. If your dog doesn’t come when you call, keep it on a leash. Most dog owners who frequent the area with their pets are responsible, and problems are few and far between.
Across the road from the lake area is Bidwell Park Golf Course. Big Chico Creek runs through this public course, which offers 18 holes set amid some of the North State’s most beautiful natural scenery. There’s also a complete pro shop and snack bar. It’s not unusual to see deer on the fairway or in the surrounding areas. In fact, all of Upper Park abounds with wildlife, including ducks, geese, squirrels, snakes, lizards and a wide variety of birds. It’s surprising what you can see if you take the time to be quiet and observe.
Hooker Oak Recreation Area
This popular playing-field area is the site of several local softball and baseball leagues and is a favorite spot for kite flying. A nice playground gives the kids something to do. Take Vallombrosa Avenue, turn left on Manzanita; Hooker Oak is on the right.
Five-Mile Recreation Area
At the foot of Upper Bidwell Park, Five-Mile is either a kicking-off point for forays into the canyon or a great destination on its own. Picnic tables, barbecues and ample space make it a popular spot for large group gatherings. Take Vallombrosa east to the end, turn right on Manzanita, left on Centennial, and the area is to the left.
North Rim Trail
This popular biking, hiking and equestrian trail starts at Wildwood Avenue just past the entrance to Upper Bidwell Park. It traverses the north rim of this wild and rugged canyon park. A series of steep but generally well-maintained switchbacks down to Upper Park Road is the payoff for a steep, rocky, uphill mountain bike ride, and hikers enjoy great vistas of the valley.
For the adventuresome soul, this lesser-known but highly enjoyable trail is one of the more rugged in the park. The trailhead is beyond Five-Mile where Centennial dead-ends at Chico Canyon Road. The trail runs through the old police pistol range, above Bidwell Park Golf Course all the way up into the newly purchased south side of the canyon. A nice, four-hour mountain biking or hiking loop is to go up the South Rim Trail to Bear Hole, lounge a while on the less-populated south side of Bear Hole and then cross the creek for a return on Upper Park Road or the creekside Yahi Trail. (Erosion on the Yahi is a big problem, so only hikers—no bikers or equestrians—are allowed on it. Seriously!)
Designated Trail System
Erosion is one of the biggest problems in a park that hosts tens of thousands of people every year, so several trails have been designated to keep the park healthy. Trails A, B and C run beneath the North Rim and offer various levels of difficulty for bikers and hikers. Going off the trail is in most cases illegal and in all cases frowned upon. All trails are closed when they are very wet. Dogs are allowed off the leash only north of Upper Park Road.
Kiwanis-Chico Community Observatory
Astronomers and amateur stargazers alike were thrilled when donations allowed the observatory to open in November 2001. There’s a huge telescope with which to see the night sky. It’s a great family outing. Open Thurs.-Sun. 45 minutes after sundown and for three hours after, weather permitting.
One-Mile Recreation Area
Soaking up the sun, swimming in the huge Sycamore Pool (open during summer), throwing a Frisbee with a friend, taking a leisurely stroll by the creek or picnicking beneath the towering valley oaks and white-barked sycamore trees is what One-Mile is all about. With its barbecues, horseshoe pits and playing fields, One-Mile is located just a few blocks from downtown and is easily reached through entrances on Fourth or Fifth streets.
Got kids? Bring ’em here! The Caper Acres fantasy playground is a favorite with the park’s younger crowd. They will enjoy the slides, jungle gyms and fairytale-themed contraptions, and parents will enjoy how easy it is to keep an eye on it all. There’s even a “treehouse” play structure. Next to One-Mile’s Sycamore Field, Caper Acres is open daily except Monday, when it is closed for maintenance.
Entrance is off East Eighth Street. It’s a great bike ride to the grove from One-Mile down South Park Drive, which runs the southern length of Lower Park and is closed to automobile traffic.
Chico Creek Nature Center
The Chico Creek Nature Center has been growing, both in size and popularity, since the nonprofit organization was established in 1982. Besides being the interpretive hub for Bidwell Park, the center is home to a living-animal museum and wildlife display, free nature walks and events, year-round interactive exhibits and spring and summer camp sessions and educational programs for children. Enter off of East Eighth Street just beyond Cedar Grove. Call 891-4671 for exhibit hours and other event schedules.