John Elk III
Water fun at Big Chico Creek
On campus at Chico State
Softball in Lower Bidwell Park
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.