Chico’s 3,600-acre natural playground

Bidwell Park

Photo By Tom Angel

If you’re in downtown Chico looking for a park entrance, here’s an easy route: Find Fourth Street, a one-way. Follow it in its proper direction about six blocks until you see a big gate. Prepare to be impressed.

When Chicoans want to show off for out-of-town guests, they head straight to Bidwell Park. A drive through the lush park whets one’s appetite for a dip in Sycamore Pool, a game of Frisbee or a hike through the more rugged Upper Park. In fact, locals are known to escape to the park for a mind-cleansing lunchtime picnic or power walk.

What makes our city’s park so great?

First of all, there’s plenty of room to explore.

Gen. John and Annie Bidwell, Chico’s founders, donated the original 2,238 acres for the park back in 1905. At the same time, they gave the city Children’s Park, downtown on First Street. Both are held in the public trust. In 1995, the Chico City Council purchased and added 1,380 acres to Upper Park, making it at the time the third-largest municipal park in the nation.

It is also one of the most diverse and pristine parks in America. There’s really no park like it anywhere.

Home of Big Chico Creek, Sycamore Pool, Bidwell Golf Course and Big Chico Creek Canyon—to name a few of the most popular features—the park is the natural heart and soul of the community and regularly tabbed by News & Review readers as the best thing about Chico.

The park is governed by the city of Chico through the Bidwell Park and Playgrounds Commission and therefore, as per Annie’s wishes when she deeded the park to the city, there shall be no glass containers, alcohol or hunting (except to remove noxious animals) anywhere in the park.

There are two distinct sections to the park—Lower and Upper. Lower Park is a ribbon of mostly riparian land that follows Big Chico Creek from downtown to Manzanita Avenue, about four miles to the east. Upper Park, which encompasses both sides of Big Chico Creek Canyon, continues eastward from there for five miles into the foothills.

Much of Upper Park is sensitive, undeveloped canyon land and has special rules for use. Please follow them. They are imposed for the continued good health of the park and for the safety of the public.

Various picnic areas and playing fields in Lower Park can be reserved for events and reunions of all sorts by contacting the city Parks Department at 895-4972.

One of the park’s longest-lasting claims to fame is that the Sherwood Forest scenes in the original The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn and company, were filmed there among the majestic oaks and sycamores in 1938. It’s easy to see why: This urban forest is unmatched. The park’s theatrical tradition continues every summer with the annual late-summer Shakespeare in the Park productions in Cedar Grove.

For outdoor exercise, Bidwell Park is a premier choice of venues. A significant stretch of South Park Drive is closed to automobile traffic, so bicyclists, joggers, skaters and pedestrians share the wide, paved street unbothered by motor vehicles. There are also multitudes of dirt trails, both in Lower and Upper Park, for jogging, mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking.

YOU BOYS, STOP THAT FIGHTING <br>Every summer Shakespeare in Park presents the works of the Bard of Avon in an outdoor theater setting.

Photo By Tom Angel

North Park Drive is open to cars (one-way going west) and allows vehicle access to the rustic picnic spots located all along the north side of Big Chico Creek in the Lower Park. The park is beautiful during all times of the year, but spring brings a colorful explosion of flowers. Please respect the park and, most of all, enjoy.

Upper Park

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 picnic destination on its own. Picnic tables, barbecues and ample space make it a popular spot, along with One-Mile, for large group gatherings. Take Vallombrosa to the end, turn right on Manzanita, left on Centennial, and the area is to the left.

North Rim Trail
This popular biking, horseback riding and hiking trail starts at Wildwood Avenue just past the entrance to Upper Bidwell Park. As its name implies, it traverses the north rim of this wild and rugged canyon park. A series of steep but generally well-maintained switchbacks down to the Upper Park Road is the payoff for a steep, rocky, uphill mountain bike ride, and hikers enjoy great vistas of the valley.

South Rim Trail
For the adventuresome soul, this lesser-known but highly enjoyable trail is one of the more rugged trails in the park. The trailhead is beyond Five-Mile where Centennial dead-ends into Chico Canyon Road. The trail runs through the old police pistol range, above Bidwell Golf Course all the way up into the newly purchased south side of the canyon. A nice, generally unpopulated four-hour mountain biking or hiking loop is to go up the South Rim Trail to Bear Hole, lounge awhile on the less-populated south side of Bear Hole and then cross the creek for an easier 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.

Horseshoe Lake
A good jumping-off point for hiking or biking on the Upper Park Road or on the trail system. Horseshoe Lake is the site of the annual Fishing Derby and a fun place for kids to fish all year around.

Kiwanis-Chico Community Observatory
Astronomers and budding astronomers 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, for three hours thereafter, weather permitting.

Lower Park

One-Mile Recreation Area
Sitting in the sun, throwing a Frisbee with a friend, taking a leisurely stroll by the creek or picnicking beneath the towering, white-barked sycamore trees and valley oaks 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 either the Fourth or Fifth street entrances.

Caper Acres
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 various other fairy-tale thematic contraptions, while parents will enjoy how easy it is to keep an eye on it all. There’s even a “treehouse” play structure. Next to the One-Mile playing field, Caper Acres is open daily.

Cedar Grove
The site of Chico’s Shakespeare in the Park production every summer, Cedar Grove is exactly what its name implies. The 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 the 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 center 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.

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