Great Treks: Upper Bidwell Park in Chico

02/12/2012 12:00 AM

10/01/2014 1:06 PM

CHICO – Robin Hood once cavorted here – OK, so it was Errol Flynn in the 1938 movie "The Adventures of Robin Hood." In any event, he was smart enough to dress in leg-warming tights.

Here I am at expansive Upper Bidwell Park, the verdant jewel of this college town, on a late January morning so cold that the radio said there was a hard-freeze warning. I'm thinking a lot about warmth and jewels and, even before starting this month's Great Trek, am regretting wearing shorts rather than Flynn-approved tights to traverse scenery that passed for the Sherwood Forest on screen.

Yet, to paraphrase "Gone With the Wind" (another film partially shot at Bidwell Park), frankly, people don't give a damn about the chilly temperature and some scribe's shivering.

They want to know about the Upper Bidwell Loop, a 9.5-mile trek that takes you through lava mud flows and riparian woods, affords postcard views of Big Chico Creek's pronounced coulee and offers side trips to swimming holes and a host of recreational splendors.

They might also want to know how Chico, a town of slightly more than 60,000, came to possess the country's third-largest municipal park – behind only Los Angeles' Griffith Park and Phoenix's South Mountain Park.

At 3,670 acres, more than three times the size of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, Bidwell is divided into lower and upper sections, as geographically different as they are beautiful. The lower trail, featuring playgrounds, bandstands, picnic areas and both paved and dirt trails, is more accessible to the community at large.

The larger and wilder upper trail is where hardy Chicoans (and their many dogs) come to escape suburbia, lose themselves in nature and – so we're told – occasionally go au naturel in watery spots such as Bear Hole (or Bare Hole, as some call it).

Both lower and upper Bidwell Park, and really Chico's very existence, sprang from the toil and benevolence of John and Annie Bidwell. The couple parlayed their Gold Rush fortune – patriarch John was John Sutter's bookkeeper – into a 28,000- acre ranch in what they would develop into a town and the State Normal School at Chico (now California State University, Chico).

After John Bidwell's death in 1900, his widow began thinking legacy and, five years later, signed over the deed to nearly 3,000 of their acres surrounding the creek to the city. Annie Bidwell had two provisos: that the park remain as pristine as possible, with no commercial or residential development; and that, in keeping with Bidwell's temperance-movement activism, alcohol be banned.

Happily, her wishes (mostly) have been granted. College students have been known to imbibe in the confines. And, sure, there's a golf course and shooting range that were added over the years, but they are tucked away and not visible from the primary trails in the upper park. In 1995, when developers wanted to build a housing tract on city-owned land bordering the upper park, the City Council rejected the bid and rezoned the land to open space.

Open, it certainly is. From panoramic spots along the North Rim Trail you can see the Sacramento Valley, the Feather River flood plains and the Sutter Buttes off in the distance.

But it's the up-close views, along the trails, that are more compelling. The best way to get a full picture of the park, geologically and botanically, is to do the Upper Bidwell Loop. It's not exactly easy to traverse (see the box for shorter and less- strenuous trail alternatives), but well worth the effort.

You start at Parking Area B, slightly less than a mile after the park entrance. The staging area for the North Rim Trail – the first 3.6 miles of the trek – is at 300 feet elevation. At little more than two miles along the North Rim, you find yourself at 1,300 feet above sea level.

Funny, but it didn't seem like that steep a climb. Maybe that's because you're distracted by the lava scree that makes you mind every step. This part of the North Rim is all rocky beds, though you occasionally can detect slightly smoother paths near the edges where others have trod.

Because it had hardly rained, the hillside and grasslands along the North Rim were still brown. But, come spring, wildflowers such as poppies, larkspur and lupines provide a colorful canvas.

At 2.2 miles, you reach a plateau (where you think the climbing's over, but don't be fooled). Go off path to a palisade, where you can peer over and see the whole canyon below, including parts of Big Chico Creek, the five varieties of oak trees and gray pines and the trails you will follow on the back end of the loop.

The last mile of the North Rim Trail turns into single track, with fewer rocks and some rolling hills. The intersection with the B Trail comes at 3.6 miles. The sign gives you a choice of continuing straight for a half mile to the North Rim Point or turning right for 1.5 miles on the B Trail.

Make the right turn on B, and you'll plunge off the rim onto a single-track adventure that, to me, was the highlight of the loop. Not only is it primarily downhill on gentle switchbacks, this trail is less denuded than the North Rim.

That's good, in that you are shaded by the live oaks dotting the hillside, but not so good when you notice a preponderance of poison oak. If you don't stray too far from the trail, you shouldn't be affected or afflicted too much.

Nearing the end of the winding B Trail, you reach a junction with the Middle Trail, which runs the length of the park and is less vertical. Feel free, if you want to cut some distance and effort off the trek, to turn right and return all the way to the parking lot. But I highly recommend continuing a bit farther to the Upper Park Road fire trail, where you'll turn right and follow it several miles on a slightly downhill trajectory.

Along the way are parking areas at which you can briefly detour off the fire road and sneak gorgeous views of the creek, such as the Devils Kitchen part of the creek off of Parking Area R. You'll pass a few swimming holes just off the fire road, including Salmon Hole and Bear Hole. In summer months, college students flock to these areas. Sometimes they wear clothes.

Nearing Bear Hole (Parking Area L), about 7.5 miles in, you walk around a vehicle gate, then veer left to Parking Area K. That's where you pick up the flat Yahi Trail, a 1.4-mile section that parallels the creek and is rife with riparian woodlands.

It's not the smoothest of trails, but it's rich with wildlife first trod upon by the Maidu Indians. You pass the lilylike soap plants and leafy yerba santa, which the Indians reportedly rolled up and smoked for medicinal purposes. The redbuds had yet to bloom but the deer grass was tall.

A few hundred yards along the Yahi Trail, near Day Camp (Parking Area H) there are said to be grinding rocks the natives used to turn acorns into flour. I couldn't find them; maybe you'll have better luck.

At the end of Yahi, cross the Upper Park Road near Horseshoe Lake and take the well-groomed Middle Trail back to the staging area to complete the trek.

I'm happy to report that, by journey's end, the temperature had warmed to make the going comfortable in T-shirt and shorts.

Check back with me in the summer, though, when I'd likely give anything for more shade and a little chill on this loop. In sweltering August, even Robin Hood would lose the tights and maybe take a quick skinny dip in Bear Hole.

UPPER BIDWELL PARK LOOP

Directions from Sacramento: Take Highway 99 to the East Avenue exit. Go three miles east on East Avenue. Just after the road changes to Manzanita Avenue, look for the sign saying "Upper Bidwell Park." Go straight at the sign for less than a mile. Turn left at the North Rim Trail (Parking Area B) sign. Drive 100 yards and park.

ROUTE (9.5 miles)

From the trailhead, go uphill on the North Rim Trail, past the junction with the Middle Trail and beyond a landmark, the Easter Cross. Continue on the North Rim Trail until the next junction at 3.6 miles. Turn right on the B Trail and plunge down on switchbacks to the canyon floor. Take the B Trail 1.5 miles to the Upper Park Road (a dirt fire road), and turn right. Stay on the fire trail until you pass Parking Area L and a metal gate. Go around the gate to Bear Hole and veer left past Parking Area K. Pick up the Yahi Trail, turning right. Follow it about 1.5 miles until it ends at the Upper Park Road. At Horseshoe Lake, follow the Middle Trail back to Parking Area B.

EASIER ROUTE (7 miles)

Take North Rim to the B Trail. When you reach the junction with the Middle Trail, turn right and follow the Middle Trail back to Parking Area B.

EASIEST ROUTE (5 miles)

From Parking Area B, go a few hundred yards on the North Rim Trail and turn right on the Middle Trail. Go 2.2 miles to Parking Area N. Turn right and take Upper Park Road for .5 miles to the Lower Trail, where you'll go 1.5 miles to the Middle Trail. Return to Parking Area B.

Difficulty: Easy (Middle to Lower trails); moderate (North Rim to B to Middle); strenuous (North Rim to B to Upper Park to Yahi to Middle)

Toilets: Yes, at Bear Hole

Poison oak probability: High

Will there be blood? A decent chance. The B Trail, mostly downhill on switchbacks, has some rocky spots. The North Rim Trail, made up of lava mud flows, is rocky but uphill.

Probability of getting lost: Slim

DOWNTOWN CHICO

Directions from Sacramento: Take Highway 99 to Exit 385 in Chico (Highway 32). Go left on Eight Street, right on Main Street into downtown. Or, Take Interstate 5 north to the Orland exit, then take Highway 32 east to Chico.

SHOPPING

Made in Chico. 127 W. Third Street. (530) 894-7009.

Open Monday through Wednesday and Saturdays 10 a.m.- 5:30 p.m.; Thursdays 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fridays 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m. -4 p.m. All locally made products, including Chico Almond Butter.

Satava Art Glass Studio. 819 Wall St. (530) 345-9014, www.satava.com.

Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. Known for its hand-blown jellyfish in glass, it sells distinctive vases and paperweights.

Bird in Hand. 320 Broadway. (530) 893-0545, www.birdinhand.com.

10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Free. Houses the National Yo-Yo Museum and a vintage toy collection. Also sells gifts, books and games.

OUTDOORS

Caper Acres and the Chico Creek Nature Center in Lower Bidwell Park. 1968 E. Eighth St. (530) 891-4671. http://bidwellpark.org.

While upper Bidwell Park is for hiking (see story), the lower park is for play and lounging.

Campus Bicycles.

330 Main St. (530) 345-2081. http://campusbicycles.com. You can rent a bike for $20 a half day and $35 for a day, and tool around this bike-friendly city.

DINING

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. 1075 E. 20th St. (530) 345-2739. www.sierranevada.com.

Free tours 2:30 p.m. Sunday-Friday; noon-3 p.m. Saturdays; restaurant and taproom open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Madison Bear Garden. 316 W. Second St. (530) 891-1639, www.madisonbeargarden.com. Open daily at 11 a.m. All burgers are under $9. Observe Chico State students in their natural habitat.

Tin Roof Bakery and Cafe. 627 Broadway, Suite 170. (530) 892-2893. www.facebook.com/ tinroofbakery. Mondays 7 a.m.-3 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday 7 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Breads and pastries galore, but also salads for the calorie-conscious. Calorie-seekers should try the cheesecake.

LODGING

Hotel Diamond. 220 W. Fourth St. (866) 993-3100.

www.hoteldiamondchico.com. Rates: $129-$389. This beautifully restored historic inn, near California State University,Chico, has 43 rooms and suites.

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