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Chico, Calif.: Weekender

Join grads, art lovers and fans of country fairs in the valley.

Bidwell Mansion is a Victorian-era icon built by John Bidwell.
Photo caption
Bidwell Mansion is a Victorian-era icon built by John Bidwell.

When John Bidwell galloped into Butte County on the heels of horse thieves back in 1847, he encountered a valley so pretty he was almost stopped in his tracks. Instead, he kept on going, caught the thieves, and turned them over to his boss, John Sutter. A year later Bidwell witnessed history when gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in the Sierra; he turned prospector and made a fortune. But he never forgot the verdant valley he'd seen near Chico Creek, 90 miles north of Sacramento. By 1850 he'd traded his gold for 26,000 acres, planted wheat, and planned a new town.

Chico continues to surprise visitors. The area is as lush as it was when Bidwell first spied it, thanks to the 3,670-acre park bearing his name (one of the country's largest municipal parks) in the middle of town. Yet it also boasts sophisticated theater, fine dining, and a flourishing local arts scene.

May is a good time to visit, before summer temperatures climb. Folks come for two big events during the Memorial Day weekend—graduation ceremonies at California State University-Chico and a country carnival known as the Silver Dollar Fair. (Be aware that parking and lodging will be at a premium.) The fair features rides, jugglers, hypnotists, rodeos, auto races, and lots of music. Otherwise, Chico's a quiet burg where you can wander the streets of the downtown and the trails in Bidwell Park or steep yourself in original art and regional color.

Start by learning about the pioneering founders. "You can't drive through Chico without noting the Bidwell name," says Amber Sweezey, a tour guide at the elegant, pink Bidwell Mansion, a Victorian-era icon near both the CSU-Chico campus and the small but lively downtown. Bidwell was a progressive fellow, one of the first Northern Californians to install an indoor toilet, a tidbit you discover during the tour. The ballroom upstairs never felt the step of waltzing feet, as Bidwell's wife Annie was a prohibitionist who also frown-ed upon dancing.

The Bidwells would be dismayed to know that the university built on their former cherry orchard was, in 1987, dubbed "the craziest campus in the nation" by Playboy magazine. Across the street from campus, you can take a stroll through the downtown area between First and Eighth along Broadway and Main. Chico has earned a reputation as a city of arts by tucking various works into its numerous cafés and onto every blank wall. Take note of the many murals, such as Downtown Kaleidoscope at First and Broadway. Chico is also home to the colorful National Yo-Yo Museum, a collection of vintage Terminators, Silver Bullets, SuperYO Samurais, and the world's largest wooden yo-yo, all squeezed into a corner of the Bird in Hand toy emporium. Every October, owner Bob Malowney hosts the National Yo-Yo Contest. While downtown, stop in at the Chico Museum on the corner of Second and Salem to see a re-creation of a mid-1800s Taoist temple and to learn more local history.

Creativity takes to the streets in early May with the Artisan Faire. More than 85 craft vendors display handmade wares—no factory-produced pieces allowed.

After a taste of art, visit one of the many downtown eateries. Cory's Sweet Treats and Gallery offers hearty plates of eggs and waffles, while the Upper Crust Bakery serves up scones. Vegetarians will appreciate Chada Thai Cuisine; carnivores can chow down on barbecue with sweet Texas sauce at Smokin' Mo's. At upscale Christian Michael's Ristorante, the menu has pumpkin ravioli, coq au vin, and terrific crab cakes.

For the performing arts scene, settle in on the front-row sofa at the tiny Pageant Theatre, the only independent cinema in town, to watch the kind of films Hollywood would never produce. Over on First Street, at the Blue Room Theatre, actors perform Beckett, Mamet, and new works that send audiences off to debate their merits over lattes at Moxies Café and Gallery.

Take time to spend a lazy afternoon exploring the treasure of Chico, Bidwell Park. At One-Mile Recreation Area, near the entrance to Lower Bidwell Park, dams across a portion of Chico Creek create a welcome swimming hole. Families enjoy the children's playground, and many visitors take to the winding paved paths on foot, bike, or horseback beneath a leafy canopy. In 1937, Warner Bros. Studios chose the oaks here as the backdrop for filming The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn.

Five miles away, Upper Bidwell Park has a terrain that is wild and open, its grassy slopes dotted with brush. Slabs of basalt crown a peak near sparkling little Horseshoe Lake; the hill is crisscrossed with hiking trails roamed by people and dogs.

A few good reasons to visit Chico's south end: fat crepes at Kramore Inn, coffee-glazed almonds from Maisie Jane's, and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Found-ed in 1979 by a couple of CSU-Chico students with scrounged machinery, this last is now the country's ninth largest brewery; nationally, more bottles of its pale ale are sold than any other. A tour lets you ogle the gleaming three-story fermentation tanks and inhale the fragrance of hops steeping in the nascent ale. The spent hops are fed to the brewery's own cattle, which you can better appraise in the form of burgers served in the brewpub.

Don't assume Chico goes to bed early, just because it's in a rural setting. The Midnight Blues Society holds one heck of a jam session in, of all places, the lounge at the Holiday Inn. A guy who looks as if life had run him over with a semi slouches to the mike, pulls out a harmonica, and wails a solo that could make even Annie Bidwell tap her foot.