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The little college town to our north presents lots of opportunities to appreciate the arts, the outdoors, good food and plenty of beer, wine and more.
About an hour and a half north of Sacramento, Chico skirts a state university that educates some 17,000 students every year. The Butte County town is a pretty spot with a vibrant downtown, a thriving arts community, shopping and dining options, nightlife galore and lots of trees. It’s also home to a huge and glorious municipal park that follows along Big Chico Creek, which flows into the Sacramento River, and attracts hikers from all around the state. Even in the dead of winter, visitors will find plenty to do. You might run into fog, but you also might discover it’s bright and sunny in Chico when we’re socked in down here. Go for the day, or stay for the weekend.
Chico’s galleries stay open late the first Saturday of every month so that arts fanatics can experience the First Saturday art walk, with music, wine tasting, people-watching and, of course, art. Even if it’s not Saturday, make sure and stop in James Snidle’s Chico gallery, where he displays some of his own bright, eclectic paintings, along with other area artists’ works. The Vagabond Rose Gallery is stuffed with local creations, and the Chico Art Center, in the historic train depot, holds art classes, a studio tour and exhibitions throughout the year. Pay attention to the public art on display throughout Chico’s downtown, from mosaic benches to colorful murals.
Want to see a show? Attend a performance at the Chico Theater Company—My Fair Lady starts Jan. 14. The Chico Cabaret is great fun, with musical theater and comedy so fast-paced you’ll wonder where the time went. At the Blue Room Theatre, the Young Company stars talented local children, the Main Stage delights with new performances every couple of months, and every other Wednesday night is Extreme Number 1 Improv Night. Catch a movie at the indie-flick Pageant Theatre, where you can snuggle on one of the couches and munch on fresh-made popcorn. Go on Cheap Skate Monday Nights and get in for $3.
Wander around downtown Chico, which abuts California State University, Chico, and Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, and you’ll find charming shops, including home décor stores Grapes & Ivy, The Address For Stylish Living and the venerable (and always delightful) Zucchini & Vine. Made in Chico, just as the name says, is packed with items made or grown here—jewelry, artwork, crafts, locally grown nuts, Klean Kanteens. (Did you know the first ones were made in Chico in 2004?) Lyon Books & Learning Center sells new and used books, and invites authors in for readings and open houses. At Katie’s Corner, find women’s clothing, handbags, artwork and some of owner Katie Vaclavik’s handmade quilts. Another Chico favorite, Bird in Hand, is stacked and stuffed with gift items—books, calendars, toys, puzzles and a whole section of yo-yos. In fact, The National Yo-Yo Museum is in the back of the store and on Saturdays, you can get a free yo-yo lesson between noon and 2 p.m. This place has the largest collection of yo-yo memorabilia in the nation and includes the world’s largest yo-yo, weighing in at 256 pounds.
Downtown Chico is packed with bars catering to student nightlife—drinking and dancing happen on nearly every corner, especially during the school year. One must stop: Madison Bear Garden. Located in the old Lusk building, the Bear is a Chico institution, a memorabilia-on-the-wall hangout for students and others with a hankering for beer, shots, and greasy food that goes with beer and shots. (A towering Bear burger with a side of curly fries hits the spot.) It smells funny in there, but what do you expect with four bars, a dance floor and a nightlife scene that’s been cranked up loud for 35 years?
Those looking for a more upscale dining experience should try Christian Michaels for Duck Two Ways, Crush Italian Cuisine & Lounge for fritto misto or cioppino, or 5th Street Steakhouse for, yep, steaks. If you’re seeking authentic Mexican food, check out the El Paisa taco truck for perfect chicken tacos. For pizza, Woodstock’s Pesto Primavera on whole wheat tastes great on a winter evening. For wine and small plates, Monks Wine Lounge & Bistro is a good option, with its intimate bar/dining area and live music several times a week.
Another required Chico stop: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. & Taproom, where a beer sampler yields 16 different shot-size brews. Take the tour to learn about Butte College and Chico State student Ken Grossman and his dreams to start a brewery, which he did in 1979. Admire the huge brewing and fermentation tanks, the filtration system and bottling area, then retire to the tasting room. Grab a meal while you’re there—wood-fired pizzas, meats grilled over almond wood and the like.
Top things off with an ice cream cone from Schubert’s—all the ice cream is housemade and a favorite is the Chico Mint: chocolate ice cream with mint chips (a swap from the familiar chocolate-chips-in-mint ice cream that you get at the grocery store).
Bidwell Park, a 3,600-acre municipal park, is Chico’s most beautiful outdoor asset. The park runs along both sides of Big Chico Creek Canyon and farther up about five miles into the foothills. Manzanita Avenue divides the park into its two sections: Lower and Upper. Lower Park—with One-Mile Recreation Area (where during the summer Sycamore Pool, a concrete-encased section of Big Chico Creek, is packed with children), Caper Acres (a children’s fantasy playground) and Cedar Grove (Shakespeare in the Park and other cultural events are held here)—draws families to its shady creek banks. Upper Park beckons to hikers with its more rugged terrain, some 70 miles of hiking, mountain biking and equestrian trails. Start at Horseshoe Lake, where the pier lures anglers to try their luck, and wind your way through oaks and pines, over rocks, alongside the creek. The Yahi Trail, open only to pedestrians, affords some of the best views along Big Chico Creek. Just after sundown, come to the Kiwanis Chico Community Observatory and peer through the Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes at stars and planets. On Sundays, the observatory opens from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for solar viewing through the solar telescope. Also in Upper Park is the Peregrine Point Disc Golf Course, which opened this past year after a long fight for a course in Upper Park.
The Chico Museum, located in the former Carnegie Library, showcases Butte County’s and Chico’s history with exhibits celebrating the area’s agricultural
roots (think rice), its natural landscapes (flora, fauna and, nearby, flat-topped mountains) and migratory inhabitants (birds). Visit the 26-room, three-story Italianate-Victorian Bidwell Mansion, where Chico’s founder, John Bidwell, and his wife, Annie, entertained guests in the late 1800s. The park is on the list for possible closure in May, due to state budget cuts, so go for a tour while you still can. The portrait of John Bidwell has eyes that follow you up the stairs, and women will take one look at the corset exhibit and be grateful that the fashion trend has gone out of style.1
Not far from Chico are several more attractions worth exploring.
Sutter Buttes—On your way to Chico, you’ll see these majestic mountains off in the distance just outside Yuba City. Access to this “world’s smallest mountain range” is limited because the land is privately owned by ranchers and farmers, but Middle Mountain Foundation leads guided hikes during fall and spring. Spring starts in February for MMF, so visit the website to find out when the next hike happens. Hikes offered could include a moonlight stroll, a bat-watcher’s outing, a geology trek in Bragg Canyon and various hikes of different levels of difficulty. middlemountain.org
Lake Oroville—With the Feather River Fish Hatchery, Oroville Dam (the nation’s tallest dam) and all manner of boating and fishing options, Lake Oroville happens to be the official starting point of the California state water project and the reservoir by which Northern California’s water storage is judged every spring, based on its levels. Climb up to the 47-foot viewing tower for a gorgeous and expansive view of Butte County.
Feather Falls and Gold Country Casinos—Tempt your fortune at these Indian casinos, both located in Oroville. With hotels, restaurants and games to appeal to all level of gambler, these two lucky stops (we hope!) run all kinds of promotions and deals. featherfallscasino.com; goldcountrycasino.com
New Clairvaux Vineyard—About 25 miles from Chico in Vina, the New Clairvaux Vineyard is the first Cistercian winery in North America. Tended by the Cistercian monks, New Clairvaux is in an old brick building on abbey property. Visit the winery and find out about its original ownership (Leland Stanford), the current work of the monks and winemaker Aimée Sunseri, and—of course—taste some wine. newclairvauxvineyard.com
Photos from top: Chico Art Center by Jon Cummins; Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. & Taproom courtesy of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.; Tuscan and Lovejoy rock formations in Upper Bidwell Park by Jon Aull