By Pete Gauvin • Photos by Matt Muirhead

Many people live for years in California without ever visiting Chico. Surrounded on three sides by farmland and set against
the Sierra foothills 90 miles north of Sacramento, Chico sits safely off major thoroughfares. Unless Chico is your destination, or you’re headed up Highway 32 to Lake Almanor or Lassen National Park, there’s little reason one would need to go there.

Thus, a lot of people miss this attractive, affable university town and never discover its civic charms or realize the richness of outdoor opportunities afforded nearby.

For residents, that’s a good thing. For despite being off the radar of many, Chico has been discovered by plenty of others. It has grown substantially in recent years, undergoing suburban growing pains and an unprecedented rise in property values for a somewhat remote valley town. The population of the “Greater Chico Urban Area” now hovers near 100,000 and average home prices near $300,000.

While some of this ‘progress’ is less than grand, there is still a lot to recommend Chico.

With its compact and lively downtown, a vibrant and leafy campus, porch-profuse older neighborhoods, the third largest municipal park in the nation, and an active population of cyclists, runners and outdoor enthusiasts buzzing through it all, Chico is like a hybrid between Boulder and the fictional Mayberry, with a little Modesto thrown in.

The outdoor ethic runs rich and deep in Chico. Stimulated by California State University, Chico, the town’s relative isolation, and the bounty and proximity of its natural surroundings, Chico has long been a breeding ground for outdoor athletes and innovators.

Companies such as Overland Equipment, Caribou Mountaineering, Moon Travel guidebooks and Jeff Lindsay’s Mountain Goat cycles, one of the first names in high-end custom mountain bikes, have got their start here. There are also companies like Knudsen Juices, which makes one of the few non-artificial sports drinks and supports many local events such as the Bidwell Classic Half Marathon (March 5th) and the Wildflower Century (April 24th).

And who could overlook one of the mightiest of microbreweries, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which if not directly related to outdoor sports, is certainly a symbiotic business. After all, based on purely observational sampling, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale would seem to be the unofficial favorite reward at the end of many a Californian’s outdoor adventure. The brewery, established in 1981 and still independent, also sponsors one of the state’s top cycling teams and its colorful jerseys are favorites with weekend warriors and century riders.

And if all notable outdoor towns must be home to at least one microbrewery, Chico’s got an edge — it’s home to two. In addition to Sierra Nevada, Butte Creek Brewing has been fermenting an impressive lineup of organic beers in town since 1996.

But if thanks goes to anyone for Chico’s pleasant blend of town and nature, it goes to John and Annie Bidwell. John founded Chico and donated the land for the university. After his death, in 1905 Annie deeded more than 2,200 acres of their ranch along Big Chico Creek to the city for a public park.

Bidwell Park

Bidwell Park, which now spans 3,750 acres, begins as a streamside urban forest near downtown with developed playgrounds and swimming areas and runs 12 miles northeast into the heart of a deep and wild canyon. Lower Bidwell offers paved bike paths and wood-chip running trails under a canopy of lofty oak and sycamore trees. Upper Bidwell has numerous rugged trails for mountain biking and trail running with splendid views and craggy swimming holes.

Two-Wheeled Town

In addition to being a capital for good beer, Chico is a capital for cycling. With flats for commuting and plenty of bike lanes in town, miles of surrounding farm roads and long climbs into the foothills for roadies, and Upper Bidwell and plenty of dirt nearby for mountain biking, Chico has something to offer two-wheeled enthusiasts of every stripe. In 1997, Bicycle
magazine chose it as the nation’s “Most Bicycle Friendly City.”

Chico might have been the site of the first off-road bike race, the Bidwell Bump a rim-thrashing, bone-jarring ride over rutted dirt and lava rock in Upper Bidwell according to storied fat-tire explorer Chuck “Bodfish” Elliot, who organized the first event in 1976.

The cycling community is supported by a bevy of bike shops and a vibrant cycling club/advocacy group, Chico Velo, which sponsors one of the top centuries in the nation, the aforementioned Wildflower Century, which draws more than 2,500 riders. This spring classic winds up beautiful Butte Creek Canyon past the Honey Run Covered Bridge to Paradise, descends back to the valley, and then circles up and over the wildflower abundance of Table Mountain before returning through rolling green hills and orchards to Chico.

Chico Velo’s website,, offers maps and descriptions for popular road rides in the area. For mountain bike routes, visit one of the local shops or pick up a copy of Mountain Biking Chico by Mark Menard (Falcon Guides, $10.95).

Water, Snow and Rock

Beyond great cycling, Chico has a lot more to offer outdoor enthusiasts. The Sacramento River, which winds down the valley only five miles west of town, offers mellow paddling for canoeists and kayakers. Nearby Butte Creek offers novice whitewater kayakers a scenic Class II+ six-mile run in spring and early summer (see description at California Creekin’, Many more North State rivers, numerous reservoirs and mountain lakes provide a wealth of other options for wild- and calm-water paddling.

For a great spring day hike or trail run, Feather Falls, at 640 feet the sixth highest waterfall in the U.S., is one of the most impressive attractions in Butte County. The trailhead is off Lumpkin Road above Lake Oroville; roundtrip is seven miles.

Rock climbers will find plenty of impressive granite in the Feather River canyon. Backpackers can head for the Ishi Wilderness, Lassen Park or the Trinity Alps. Backcountry skiers and riders can find some of the deepest, best quality snow in the state at Mt. Lassen, an hour and a half from Chico. A bumper crop of spring corn snow usually lasts well into June and makes for easy picking after the Lassen Loop Road is opened to the summit trail parking area at 8,500 feet.

Of course, when you’re pooped from all the adventure, you’ll find plenty of options to hoist a made-in-Chico microbrew back in town.