Take a hike

The author follows his girlfriend down the great Yahi Trail into Upper Bidwell Park

Hannah Dillard… The avid mountain-biker and outdoor enthusiast blazed the trail for the author.

Hannah Dillard… The avid mountain-biker and outdoor enthusiast blazed the trail for the author.

Photo by Howard Hardee

As someone who came to Chico State from Alaska as part of a year-long exchange program, and then returned to the city to live after graduating, I can say that the best path to venture down at the beginning of your Chico journey is one of those running through Bidwell Park. There are a dozen major trails (and many minor, unnamed ones) throughout the 3,670-acre park, each offering an introduction to the amazing natural resource—and a chance for adventure.

All of the park is worth exploring, but the trails along Big Chico Creek in Upper Park are the most scenic, diverse and—most important in the summer months—cool. Of those, my personal favorite is the Yahi Trail, which begins near Horseshoe Lake and mostly follows the creek upstream for four miles along its north side, providing easy access to popular swimming spots: Alligator, Bear, Salmon and Brown’s holes. If it’s your maiden hike, choosing the Yahi will leave a first impression that will make you want to spend as much of your time as possible in Bidwell Park.

“Yahi is one of the greatest trails, maybe anywhere, but definitely in Northern California,” said Jon Aull, a naturalist at the Chico Creek Nature Center. “It’s really spectacular; it’s something you’d find in a national park. You have the dramatic scenery in the deep canyon, the volcanic formations, and those sheer cliffs.”

On a recent spring day my girlfriend, Hannah Dillard—an avid mountain-biker and outdoor enthusiast—and I decided to take the Yahi together. As per usual, Hannah led the way, keeping the pace brisk and the conversation animated.

We opted to begin about a mile in, where the trail runs past the Day Camp parking lot. Though the trail leading up to Day Camp from Horseshoe Lake—which commonly serves as a starting point for Upper Park adventures—is worth checking out, Hannah and I agreed that the most appealing scenery begins on the roughly half-mile approach to Bear Hole.

The dry and dusty portions of Yahi Trail along the rim are quite a contrast to the lush, protected sections near the edge of (the at-times dangerous) Big Chico Creek.

Photo by Howard Hardee

That’s where you begin to see Lovejoy basalt formations, black volcanic rock millions of years old that stands in stark contrast to the blue creek water. The creek is generally shallow, wide and slow-moving downstream from Bear Hole, but becomes turbulent as it flows through and over the basalt rock (a sign along the Yahi warns of “extreme water dangers”). However, there are plenty of easily navigated side trails leading to relatively tame swimming holes, none more popular than Bear Hole. As Hannah and I passed by, sun-revelers were sprawled on rocks in the water while a handful of kids jumped into the creek from an overhanging rock ledge.

For a short stretch, the trail is made of concrete—broken in parts and entirely deteriorated in others—remnants of a New Deal-era project that also includes the diversion dam just up the creek from Bear Hole. The dam offers a high point from which to jump into a deep, clear pool: As we watched, a group of college-age kids took turns diving in.

From the dam we climbed a narrow, half-eroded concrete staircase wedged between boulders and continued along the Yahi toward Salmon Hole. Aull said the 1.6-mile section of the Yahi between Bear and Salmon holes is his go-to trail when taking visiting friends or family to Upper Park, and it’s easy to see why. The canyon walls turn into cliffs roughly 100 feet high, and the trail follows close to the edge, high above the creek, providing some of Upper Park’s most awesome vistas.

As we approached the area above Salmon Hole, Hannah pointed out a serious rock climber belaying the sheer rock face and suggested (jokingly) we should untie his rope—certainly not considerate park etiquette. Rather, we paused to admire the calm waters of the swimming hole and the canyon beyond.

Hannah, being the daredevil she is, chose to diverge from the easy trail at that point in favor of a narrow path along the edge of the cliff, the canyon at a dizzying distance below. Over a particularly tricky spot that required a good hand-hold and a stretch, she paused to shoot me a look that suggested I wasn’t bold enough to follow. Although I thought I had long since stopped doing stupid things in the name of impressing girls, I crossed the gap and did my best not to look hesitant (or down).

From there, the trail took us through a wide-open stretch of dry grass and exposed rock. Though it wasn’t a particularly hot day, taking a dip in the creek began to sound appealing. We left the Yahi at Devil’s Kitchen—a series of pillar-like Lovejoy-basalt rocks popular with rock climbers—and gingerly made our way to the creek, mindful of the poison oak lining the overgrown trail.

We found a sandy spot next to the creek and went for a swim. Hannah complained of the cold water, giving me a solid opportunity to call her a “weenie” and so forth. By the time we got back up the Yahi Trail, the sun was touching the rim of the canyon. We decided to head back, reaching Day Camp roughly four hours after setting out.

The giant chunks of black Lovejoy basalt formations that have tumbled into the canyon have formed striking pools and warm spots for sunning oneself along Big Chico Creek.

Photo by Howard Hardee

Aull emphasized that as Chicoans, we’re lucky to live in such close proximity to such a “spectacular outdoor area,” and encouraged those who haven’t yet done so to explore the park and seek adventure. As our afternoon hike proved, even a short excursion can be memorable.

“You can have those experiences in Upper Park,” Aull said.


Your first stop: the Internet, where you can access every trail, park resource, and recreational and volunteer opportunity Bidwell Park has to offer at the following helpful sites.

Chico Creek Nature Center/Bidwell Park info center


City of Chico

www.chico.ca.us (select “Bidwell Park” department)

Friends of Bidwell Park