Chico: City of Trees and Creeks

Holly was on the hunt for information about the historic Chico Normal School where her grandmother studied and lived in the famous Bidwell mansion. I wanted to investigate watersheds. So we drove Lucita Papayita, our tangerine-colored Prius C, to Chico, city of trees.

What a perfect time to be in Chico! The students and teachers at what is now Chico State were gone for Thanksgiving vacation and the ubiquitous trees had turned multiple shades of gold and red.

I’ve been to Chico before, but I had never investigated Bidwell Park along Big Chico Creek, one of the country’s largest municipal parks at 3,670 acres and 11 miles long. Rather than underground the creek or turn it into a concreted channel, the people of Chico had the foresight to create a park around it. Little Chico Creek and a couple of others also flow through town. The park is delightfully civilized, with accessible picnic sites and trails, but also feels wild. Holly went to school here for a couple of years and remembers swimming in pools on the creek. The pool we visited, called One Mile Pool, was dammed to look and serve as a swimming pool with ladders and a walkway over the dam.

Big Chico Creek also runs through the college campus, creating a park-like feel with many foot bridges, all of which we had to cross. We were accompanied on our otherwise quiet campus walk by a loud chorus of leaf-eating machines. Downtown we had to walk a block out of our way here and there to avoid the leaf blowers and the toxic air they generate. I guess it’s the price residents pay to live amongst these deciduous trees, which include huge native oaks and sycamores as well as non-natives planted as early as 1865.

Maps show both Chico creeks originating in the Sierra Nevada on 6,000-foot Colby Mountain near Humboldt pass. They flow down from the mountains on either side of State Highway 32, which connects Orland at Interstate 5 to the country near Lake Almanor and Mount Lassen. We drove east from the city of Chico toward the headwaters of the Chico creeks. Lucky for us Highway 32 climbs up the ridge between the two creeks. Wide, deep canyons of scrub and gray pine open up on both sides of the road, exposing volcanic cliffs. It’s a thrilling ride looking down on either side until coniferous trees close in at a higher elevation–a relatively young mixed forest of Ponderosa pine, Doug fir and Incense cedar.

We set our sites on the Old Humboldt Road, the wagon trail (paved, according to the map) built in the 19th century to get over the Sierra Nevada in this part of the country. The turnoff took us to Butte Meadows, the headwaters of many streams. We crossed from Butte into Tehama County (formed in 1856 from parts of Butte, Colusa and Shasta Counties) and continued until snow and ice on the road started to seem hazardous. We will have to wait until summer to make it over Humboldt Road. But this journey had launched us into the fresh, chill air of the high mountains, and a whole new ecosystem. Here we got close to the headwaters of Colby and Butte Creeks, and several unnamed others, all part of the sprawling Sacramento River watershed. I’m glad to see that these creeks all have their active defenders and keepers. The Butte Environmental Council maintains a website with more information on the watershed: Becnet.org. Also see the Butte Creek Watershed Conservancy: Buttecreekwatershed.org. The Big Chico Creek Watershed Alliance is at www.bigchicocreek.org.

While in town we took a tour of the Bidwell mansion near campus (now a state park) and visited the Chico museum, where we learned about the Mechoopda tribe of the Maidu Indians and its association with Chico’s founder, John Bidwell. http://www.chicomuseum.org. The tribe maintains its own website: http://www.mechoopda-nsn.gov.

We had driven to and from Chico on back roads with views of the imposing Sutter Buttes from both east and west. And on the clear cool day we approached the city we got a good view of snow-capped Mount Lassen to the north. Even the highways were dressed in their fall best. Caltrans has planted ornamental Chinese pistache trees that go unnoticed until they turn fiery red. The walnut orchards were carpeted with gold from fallen leaves. Peach orchards shone gold and orange. Even the tules in irrigation ditches sported fall hues. We didn’t have to fly to Vermont for color. We found it right here in Northern California.

By Molly Martin

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