Road block

A gate prevents people from driving deep into Upper Park—should it stay locked?

This gate at Diversion Dam on Upper Park Road has turned away motorists for nearly four years.

This gate at Diversion Dam on Upper Park Road has turned away motorists for nearly four years.

Photo by Howard Hardee

From a view on the north side of Big Chico Creek, something glinted in the grass below the south rim of the canyon.

Without raising his binoculars, Doug Laurie knew the sun was reflecting off an abandoned Isuzu Trooper. He had hiked to it years ago. Sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s, the 65-year-old outdoorsman recalled, it crashed through the rail on Highway 32 and into a gully below. The vehicle hasn’t moved since coming to rest on a slope with basalt rocks and blue oaks, and Laurie always takes a moment to spot it while passing through the area in Upper Bidwell Park known as the Devil’s Kitchen.

“If I’m on my mountain bike, it’s where I catch my breath,” he said. “I always look up and, yep, the Isuzu Trooper is still there.”

It’s a visual reminder that cars, trucks and SUVs have passed into some of the park’s wildest reaches for a long time, only usually via the recommended route: Upper Park Road.

Every summer dating back at least to Laurie’s youth in the ’60s, the road provided motorists with easy access to swimming areas such as Day Camp and Alligator, Bear, Salmon and Brown’s holes. Not so much anymore. More than half of the road is currently inaccessible to automobiles, including entrances to Salmon and Brown’s holes. Out there, city officials say, the road has deteriorated to the point of being impassable, even dangerous—so, for nearly four years, they’ve kept it closed with a locked gate.

The road block galls Laurie. He’s documented damage to the road with photographs and hounded city employees to restore motor access. Even in its current sorry condition, he says, it remains passable. “The picture being painted is that the whole road is ruined,” he said. “It’s bullshit. We know that’s not the case. … This is about the city blocking reasonable access to the park.”

“Reasonable access” has different interpretations, depending on whom you ask. Hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians can easily go around the gate or use Upper Park’s vast system of designated trails, and some of those park users prefer that motorists keep out. Thad Walker, for instance, is an avid mountain biker and trails advocate. During a recent interview, he said that a wild-feeling place unspoiled by vehicle traffic is something worth preserving.

“If you open it all the way up to cars, you take away that backcountry experience,” he said. “It’s so close to town. I mean, how fast can you get out there and be in a fairly remote natural environment?”

Erosion damage on Upper Park Road beyond the gate at Diversion Dam.

Photo by Howard Hardee

As this ideological divide emerges, the city’s Park Division is beginning to explore how to fix the road. The public process kicked off during the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission’s Natural Resources Committee meeting on Sept. 13. Within the next few weeks, the commissioners were told by park officials, a contractor will conduct a survey of damage to the roadway. The next step is to solicit community input, which will help city leaders decide how to improve the road and to what extent, if any, motor vehicles will be permitted.

“It’s not as simple as ‘make the improvements or don’t,’” said Janine Rood, park commission member and executive director of Chico Velo Cycling Club. “It’s about being thoughtful about what uses we as a community want to promote for that road.”

What sorts of outdoor recreation should deep Upper Park accommodate? The debate will shape its access road.

The temperature hovered around 100 degrees on the afternoon of July 6. Laurie was taking an informal, city-guided tour of Upper Park Road with Dan Efseaff, the city’s parks and natural resources manager, and Erik Gustafson, public works director-operations and maintenance. The CN&R tagged along.

With Efseaff driving, the group set out from Horseshoe Lake, where Wildwood Avenue turns into Upper Park Road. It starts out paved, passing the iconic Monkey Face rock, and turns to dust and gravel as it parallels Big Chico Creek through increasingly remote sections of the 3,670-acre park. From end to end, the road is roughly 4 miles long.

Laurie pointed out the entrance to Day Camp, a shallow swimming area along the creek. It was the site of a day camp in the ’70s, he said, and he was a camp counselor. As a young adult, he worked all sorts of jobs for Chico Area Recreation and Park District. He went on to earn his master’s degree in recreation from Chico State, completing his thesis on motor vehicle access to recreational areas. Laurie then worked for the California Conservation Corps and California State Parks before retiring in 2010.

Now, when he’s not fishing in the Feather River, he’s doggedly advocating for full access to local public lands. “This is a public road,” he emphasized.

And it’s pretty well maintained up until it reaches the entrance to Diversion Dam, a concrete structure upstream of Bear Hole that swimmers use as a platform for jumping into the creek. That spot is about 1.7 miles from Horseshoe Lake, and it’s where the locked gate blocks motorists.

Most of the time, at least. On this particular day, someone—perhaps frustrated that the gate had been locked through Fourth of July weekend—had taken heavy-duty bolt cutters to the iron chain. The road was wide open.

From left: Erik Gustafson, the city’s public works director-operations and maintenance; Doug Laurie; and Dan Efseaff, the city’s parks and natural resources manager, pictured on July 6.

Photo by Howard Hardee

It’s a recurring problem, Efseaff said. “Pretty frequently, people cut the lock off and throw it in the bushes.” In other cases, four-wheel-drive vehicles have gone past the gate by driving over a grassy embankment to the side.

As the party pressed on, about 15 vehicles were spotted beyond the Diversion Dam. Gustafson radioed for a park ranger to come clear everyone out.

One of the first drivers headed in the opposite direction was at the wheel of a rumbling diesel pickup truck. He stopped, rolled down his window, and looked at Efseaff’s light SUV with a critical eye. “You’re not going to make it very far in that thing,” he warned.

Indeed, from that point forward, the passage narrowed, in places allowing only one-way traffic, and became steep and rough. Everyone got jerked around on the bumpiest sections. However, at no point was the road impassable. Efseaff was able to maneuver around the deepest ruts. Slowly, he made it to the end of the road, then turned around in a cul-de-sac past Brown’s Hole and returned to Horseshoe Lake, the vehicle and its occupants all in one piece. The trip took about two hours.

Drivers don’t always fare so well past the Diversion Dam, Efseaff said. Since the gate has been locked, a handful of people who have made their way around it have gotten stuck and had to get towed.

“That’s an issue in terms of park staff resources,” Gustafson said. “When somebody gets stuck on the side of the road, it consumes the rangers for hours.”

Historically, the gate at Diversion Dam has been locked off and on since the ’90s, according to a report Efseaff prepared and presented to the Natural Resources Committee. It was closed to vehicles on Sundays and Mondays, giving hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians free rein. To prevent damage during the wet season, it was closed seven days a week from Nov. 1 to May 1. Typically, the road was graded prior to the peak summer months.

Four winters ago, a storm forced a complete closure, Efseaff’s report says. More than 2 inches of rain fell on Chico in one day, followed by nearly 5 inches over the next four days. Minutes from a Bidwell Park and Playground Commission meeting on Dec. 17, 2012, show that Efseaff made an announcement: “At this time, the Upper Park road has sustained a large amount of damage due to a recent winter storm and the road will remain closed probably until the end of spring,” he said.

That was right around the time the city, facing an immense general fund deficit, drastically cut its budget and laid off employees in every department. As such, the funding never materialized to repair and reopen Upper Park Road, and “over the years, the road had degraded to the point of not being sustainable or maintainable with available resources,” Efseaff’s recent report reads.

Upper Park Road in the evening.

Photo by Howard Hardee

The gate stayed locked and the road deteriorated, but it wasn’t forgotten. The matter came up during a Chico City Council meeting last March, when the panel discussed vehicle access in Bidwell Park. Mayor Mark Sorensen took the opportunity to express his frustration with the closure of Upper Park Road and suggest that it wouldn’t take much work to make it drivable.

“We could take a couple farm boys, a 5-yard dump truck and a front-loader, and we could have it done in a day, in terms of fixing the deep ruts,” he said.

Over the past few years, Efseaff says, the city has brought in small amounts of base material and graded the road, focusing maintenance mostly on the areas leading up to Bear Hole. Due to the road’s original design and poor upkeep, however, drainage and erosion are continual issues.

Unlike, say, modern U.S. Forest Service roads, Upper Park Road isn’t raised above its surroundings and is instead sunken into the landscape. When it rains, it becomes a temporary riverbed. The problem is made worse by about 60 roadside culverts—most of which are blocked by vegetation or damaged beyond usefulness, Efseaff says. As a result, heavy rainfall washes away the road’s surface material, exposing bedrock.

During a recent phone conversation, Gustafson acknowledged that, at this point, Upper Park Road needs a complete overhaul, the cost of which would “be pretty astronomical,” he said. Off the cuff, he estimated that designing and building the road would run the city between $750,000 and $850,000.

“That sounds like a lot, and that is a lot,” he said.

Still, Gustafson says he’s determined to move the project forward. In the last several months he’s repeatedly told the CN&R that Upper Park Road is a priority for his department.

“It’s doable and it’s going to have to be budgeted accordingly,” he said.

And the city is finally budging. In June, as part of its 2016-17 budget, the City Council approved a capital project cost of $57,000 for a physical survey of the road to assess the cost of improvements. A contractor will complete the survey within the next few weeks, Gufstafson said, and if there’s money left over, it will go toward temporary repairs to make sure service and emergency vehicles can get in and out.

This map of Upper Bidwell Park shows Upper Park Road designated in red.

No matter what form the improvement plan takes, it will require an environmental impact review and approval from the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission and then the City Council, he said.

“The policy decisions are going to drive the cost,” Gustafson said. “If the policy calls for full access, we’re going to need to ask the council for the budget dollars to get full access.”

The direction the city takes will be heavily influenced by public input, Efseaff said.

For example, if people overwhelmingly want to drive to all of the park’s swimming holes, the city may bring the road up to modern standards, he said. If preserving the feeling of remoteness is considered more of a priority, a different tack would be turning it into a narrower path for hikers and bikers and keeping cars, trucks and SUVs out for good.

Walker, the mountain biker, pitched the latter approach during the recent Natural Resources Committee meeting. He proposed restricting access to Upper Park Road past the locked gate to “human-powered recreation.” Converting the road into a hiker-biker thoroughfare to serve as the backbone of the trail system would be more affordable to design, build and maintain, Walker said.

He’s a Chico Velo board member and director of Chico Velo Trailworks, a group that supports the creation and maintenance of trails. Since he’s relatively new to Chico, he’s never shared remote Upper Park Road with motorists and doesn’t want to start.

“It’s kind of a graded experience,” he said. “At Monkey Face, the trails are wider, there are more people and not a lot of rough terrain. As you get further into the park, the trails get narrow and become more technical. You see fewer people; you don’t see cars.”

Chico Velo’s board hasn’t taken an official stance on Upper Park Road, Rood said, but as executive director she has leeway to express her personal opinion. And, as a member of the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission, she ultimately will vote on the issue. She tends to agree with Walker: “It’s great to ride up there without cars and dust,” she said.

Michael Jones, an avid hiker, also knows what it’s like to choke on dust kicked up by the tires of passing vehicles on Upper Park Road. As the founder of the Chico Hiking Association, he, like Laurie, champions public access to Bidwell Park, but he tries to see both perspectives.

“As a hiker, I like it closed to private vehicles,” he said, “but that’s selfish and I’m not sure that’s good public policy. If by doing that you’re making people drive farther away … you’re not properly utilizing what Annie Bidwell gifted us.”

Laurie explained why he feels so strongly about unlocking the gate at Diversion Dam and fully opening Upper Park Road. Nostalgia is part of it, he admits.

In an album, he keeps sepia-tone photos of summers past on Big Chico Creek, a reminder that Upper Park has changed since he first explored it. Custom homes have encroached on the south rim of the canyon. Power lines have gone up, rope swings have come down, and hardly anyone remembers that there used to be an actual day camp at Day Camp.

Laurie says he’s not alone in feeling that way. He advocates for park access on behalf of longtime locals who have “childhood memories they’re now locked out of.” There’s more to it, though. For Laurie, it’s wrong to exclude people who are physically unable make it far into the park under their own power—people with disabilities, the elderly and parents with very young children.

“There is an extensive trail system for equestrians, hikers and mountain bikers,” he said, “but there’s only one access road to Upper Bidwell Park.”