Chico offers excellent places to hike within a drive of an hour or two of the city, but Bidwell Park is the place to hike close to town. Visitors passing through the area will enjoy joining the locals for a hike or a dip in the swimming holes along Big Chico Creek.
Bidwell Park slumbered in obscurity until very recently, when the April issue of Walking magazine listed it as one of the nation's top 10 wildflower walks. Now, early reports from hikers indicate that travelers are already going out of their way to stop at Bidwell Park to check the spring displays of tidytips and California sandwort.
The park's namesake is John Bidwell, who built the town of Chico in the early 1860s. Bidwell owned a 22,000-acre Sacramento Valley ranch that included wheat fields, vineyards, orchards and sheep. He was a one-term congressman (1865 to 1867) and ran unsuccessfully for governor on the Republican, Independent and Prohibition Party tickets.
Chico (Spanish for "little") is no longer little. Greater Chico boasts a population of more than 100,000 and a California State University campus. Certainly there's nothing little about 3,670-acre Bidwell Park, an urban-rural preserve that any community would be proud of.
From the park's Rim Trail, hikers can enjoy vistas of the Sacramento Valley, Sutter Buttes and the Coast Range. Volcanic outcroppings in the hills and lava layers in the creek bed betray the land's connection to the Cascades.
My favorite walk in the park follows the Rim Trail on an eastward ascent across the park's upper lands, then drops to the Yahi Trail, which follows Big Chico Creek for a saunter past the swimming holes. If an eight-mile hike sounds like too much work, head directly over to the Yahi Trail for an easier three-mile or so round-trip hike along the creek.
Directions to trail head: From California 99 in Chico, exit on East Avenue and proceed east 2.5 miles to the turnoff on your left (Wildwood Avenue) for Bidwell Park. Drive 1.75 miles into the park and leave your vehicle in a lot on the left side of the park road.
The hike: Join the leftward path leaving the lot, soon passing two more trails and climbing 0.5 mile to meet the Rim Trail. Turn right and begin a steady but mellow ascent over blue oak- and gray pine-dotted slopes. With the climb come increasingly good views of Chico and the big Sacramento Valley.
About 2.75 miles along, the trail tops out and begins a lackadaisical descent that brings you to the park's dirt road at the 4.5-mile mark. Turn right and walk on the road 1.25 miles to a turnout and the 100-yard connector trail leading to Salmon Hole. This basalt-lined pool is a good place to take a dip.
Continue on the dirt road another 0.5 mile to Bear Hole, another favorite swimming spot. Follow the signed Yahi Trail down-creek under a canopy of cottonwood and oak. The Yahi Trail intersects the road 0.4 mile short of the trail head. Turn left and return to the parking area.
McKinney's book "Day Hiker's Guide to Southern California" is available through The Times for $16.45; call (800) 246-4042.
WHERE: Bidwell Park in Chico
DISTANCE: 3 miles round trip along creek or 8-mile loop with 700-foot elevation gain.
TERRAIN: Blue oak-dotted bluffs above Big Chico Creek.
HIGHLIGHTS: Sacramento Valley views, swimming holes.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Moderate
FOR MORE INFORMATION: City of Chico Parks Department, P.O. Box 3420, Chico, CA; tel. (530) 895-4972