Surrounded by almond farms and dramatic rocky buttes at the northeastern border of the Sacramento Valley, this idyllic college town is still dogged by a 1980s-era frat-boys-gone-wild party-school reputation. The truth is that the school ― and the town ― are lively but no longer raucous. (That is, except when the chaos of graduation at California State University, Chico, descends in May.)
Home to sweet historic bungalows, Spanish-colonial university buildings set on a picturesque campus, and leafy tree-lined streets, Chico today generates more buzz for its arts community than for its keggers. Also noteworthy is the news about downtown's Hotel Diamond: Boarded up for almost 20 years, it was given a lavish -multimillion-dollar restoration last year by a local businessman; it's helping to bring back the city's early-20th-century vitality.
The town-and-gown scene isn't where you'll find the soul of this place, however. Head into Bidwell Park ― the get-lost-in-it large heart of town ― with its miles of lush trails, its colorful spring bloom, and Big Chico Creek rushing down from the Sierra Nevada, and you'll realize Chico's wild days are actually far from over.
Day One: Pedal the wildflower-filled park, then feast
Fluffy pink and white blooms of almond, kiwi, and prune orchards encircle the town. Catch the season's finale ― as well as the just-emerging lupines and poppies ― on your drive in, then hop out at Bidwell Park to stretch your legs along 70 miles of trails. Pull into the One Mile Recreation Area in Lower Bidwell Park for a stroll, cycle, or ― for the daring only ― a chilly dip in the swimming hole, not yet warmed by the summer sun.
At an impressive 3,670 acres, Bidwell is one of the largest city parks in the United States. Upper Bidwell (west of Manzanita Avenue) is hilly and Lower Bidwell (east of Manzanita), flat. Rent some wheels at Campus Bicycles and head for the Annie Bidwell Trail, a moderate 4.7-mile loop in a quiet section of Upper Bidwell. Nearby is Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park ― tour the 19th-century three-story, 26-room home of city founders John and Annie Bidwell.
Later, down the Esplanade (rhymes with lemonade―if you want to fit in), savor a dinner at the elegant Red Tavern. Cap the evening at the Blue Room Theatre, currently running a comedy with historic heavy hitters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli. What could be funny about that? You'll have to get seats and see.
• Bidwell Park. www.chico.ca.us or 530/896-7800.
• Campus Bicycles. Trail maps available. Rentals from $20 for 4 hours. 330 Main St.; www.campusbicycles.com or 530/345-2081.
• Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park. Fifty-minute tours begin on the hour. 12-4 Wed-Fri, 10-4 Sat-Sun; $2. 525 Esplanade; www.parks.ca.gov or 530/895-6144.
• Red Tavern. $$; dinner Mon-Sat. 1250 Esplanade; www.redtavern.com or 530/894-3463.
• Blue Room Theatre. Daedalus runs Thu-Sun Apr 6-23; tickets from $6; reservations recommended. 139 W. First St.; www.blueroomtheatre.com or 530/895-3749.
Day Two: Gallery hop, play with yo-yos, sip a shake ― or a Sierra
Wake up to '50s-style Morning Thunder Café, the spot for a hearty breakfast. For lighter fare, hit the Saturday morning farmers' market ― Chico's market is particularly bountiful and bustling since the town is surrounded by farms.
The area is also famous for glass artists, including sculptor Richard Satava, who creates stunning glassblown sea creatures. Orient & Flume Art Glass, a cooperative of glass artists, is another studio to seek out. Extend your self-led tour to several on-campus galleries, including the University Art Gallery ― and be sure to pop into the National Yo-Yo Museum: a nook in a downtown toy shop that's home to the world's largest wooden yo-yo, weighing in at 256 pounds.
With its East-meets-West sensibility ― and funny little name ― Teaz Me Fusion Café makes a perfect light-lunch stop. Then it's time to check out your choice of Chico's homegrown libations: a glass of Butte County, paired with hot buttered popcorn, at the new Monks Wine Lounge & Bistro; or free tours and frosty brews at the town's most celebrated corporate resident, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Dinner depends on your mood: sushi at Rawbar or a thick, tasty milk shake from Big Al's Drive In.
• Morning Thunder Café. $; breakfast and lunch daily. 352 Vallombrosa Ave.; 530/342-9717.
• Chico Certified Farmers' Market. 7:30-1 Sat. Second and Wall Streets; 530/893-3276.
• Satava Art Glass. Closed Sun-Mon. 819 Wall; 530/345-7985.
• Orient & Flume Art Glass. Closed Sun. 2161 Park Ave.; 530/893-0373.
• University Art Gallery. Alva Taylor Hall, First and Normal Streets; www.csuchico.edu or 530/898-5864.
• National Yo-Yo Museum. 320 Broadway St.; 530/893-0545.
• Teaz Me Fusion Café. $; lunch and dinner daily. 250 Vallombrosa; 530/895-8100.
• Monks Wine Lounge & Bistro. 4:30-11 daily. 128 W. Second; 530/343-3408.
• Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Free tours daily. Sierra Nevada Taproom & Restaurant ($$; lunch and dinner Tue-Sun). 1075 E. 20th St.; 530/893-3520.
• Rawbar. $$; lunch and dinner Mon-Sat. 346 Broadway; 530/897-0626.
• Big Al's Drive In. $; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. 1844 Esplanade; 530/342-2722.
Day Three: Fuel up on pastries before antiquing and boutiquing
Return to Bidwell Park for an early-morning jog, stroll, or bike ride and you'll be in good company ― from fellow exercisers and dog walkers to curious deer and scampering chipmunks. Appetite piqued, head straight for the Upper Crust Bakery & Cafe, where still-warm scones and muffins await. Linger with the newspaper or a good read from the Bookstore next door.
Or eat and run: There's shopping to be done. Many of the independently owned boutiques downtown are worth exploring. LuLu's Fashion Lounge and Gigi Shoe Parlor sell stylish heels and colorful skirts and tops; Zucchini & Vine is great for gourmets.
Next, take a 15-mile drive northeast, climbing up the Sierra Nevada foothills to Paradise, where good finds and great deals make it true heaven for the antiques-obsessed. A short detour on the way back takes you to the 1894 Honey Run Covered Bridge.
No visit is complete without a stop at Madison Bear Garden, the unofficial social center for Chico State students, which is plastered in antiques and photographs from the Wildcats' triumphs ― plus retro video games, a sunny back patio, and, of course, plenty of ice-cold draws.
• Upper Crust Bakery & Cafe. $; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. 130 Main; 530/895-3866.
• The Bookstore. 118 Main; 530/345-7441.
• LuLu's Fashion Lounge. 212 Main; 530/343-3545.
• Gigi Shoe Parlor. 112 W. Second; 530/345-1512.
• Zucchini & Vine. 204 Main; 530/345-3551.
• Attic Treasures Mall. 7409 Skyway, Paradise; 530/876-1541.
• Honey Run Covered Bridge. At Centerville and Honey Run Roads, 5 mi. east of downtown Chico.
• Madison Bear Garden. Burgers, salads, sandwiches. $; lunch and dinner daily. 316 W. Second; 530/891-1639.