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Spring wildflowers, Upper Bidwell Park

Bidwell Park

Every town needs a

Paul Belz visits an urban park in California that offers fascinating geology, remarkable wildlife and a peaceful retreat for visitors

Big Chico Creek changes as it flows from Colby Mountain in California's northern Sierra Nevada range. Its 45-mile journey takes it through Bidwell Park, a 3,760-acre preserve surrounded by the picturesque and creative university town of Chico. The creek crashes over basalt and cuts a forested canyon in rugged Upper Park. It meanders through its flatter, oak covered floodplain in Lower Park, and passes through town on its way to the Sacramento River.

“Bidwell Park is in a very interesting location because we're near where the volcanic Cascade Mountains meet the granite Sierra Nevadas,” says Shane Romain, Chico's Parks Services Coordinator. “A portion of the park is on the Sacramento Valley floor, and it ascends to the Sierra foothills.”

The Chico Formation – a collection of deposits from ancient streams – lies under Upper Park. Lava flows hardened into dark Lovejoy Basalt that covers these rocks. The Tuscan mudflows from old eruptions in the Cascades form light colored cliffs.

The Yahi Trail in Upper Park called to my partner Kate and me in spring, when galaxies of California buttercups, purple larkspur, goldfields, and countless other wildflowers covered the green hills. Clouds of pipevine swallowtail butterflies drifted past the creek, while acorn woodpeckers zipped from tree to tree crying “a-HA-ha!”

Acorn woodpecker

Acorn woodpecker By Steve Ryan CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

These loud, redheaded birds zipped among oaks, big leaf maples and sycamores, as late spring's heat turned the hills to California's iconic gold. Monarch butterflies lit on late season buttonwillow flowers, and many fish drifted through the creek. It amazed us that it only took us 15 minutes to drive from our apartment to this trailhead!

In summer, we swam in Lower Park's Sycamore Pool. Big Chico Creek flows through this concrete pool – where everyone swims for free. A short walk leads to many picnic spots, a children's playground, and the meandering Creek's oak bordered shores.

Sycamore Pool, Lower Bidwell Park

Sycamore Pool, Lower Bidwell Park

John Bidwell grew rich as a miner during the California Gold rush, and bought parts of the 22,000-acre Rancho Arroyo Chico in 1849 and again in 1851. He married Annie Ellicott Kennedy in 1868. John died in 1900, but he and Annie agreed that they wanted to share their property with the growing town of Chico. Annie donated 1,902.88 acres in 1905, and gradually added additional territory until her death in 1918. The town purchased more land until the Park reached its current size in 1995.

“It really is an urban park,” says Romain. “It goes right through the middle of Chico, and the town grows around it. Not too many cities have something as special as Bidwell Park. We have world-class biking trails, equestrian trails, and hiking.”

The park connects Chico to its wild surroundings, and brings up issues of how the community can manage this treasure.

Special spots and wildlife

“I love Brown's Hole in Upper Park,” says Lise Smith-Peters, who preceded Romain as Chico's Parks Services Coordinator. “It's a swimming hole you have to hike to, so it doesn't get crowded.

“And in Lower Park, I like the World of Trees. John Bidwell started an experimental forestry station there in the late 1800s. He planted trees from around the world to see which would thrive in our climate. Some of his trees, or their descendants, are still there.”

There are bears and mountain lions in Upper Park. Where Bidwell Park ends, it's the beginning of Big Chico Creek Ecological Preserve – an important corridor for migratory wildlife. The animals tend to stay there, but every now and then a bear comes down the corridor.

“Once, there was a bear in a woman's garage. The California Department of Fish and Game tranquilized it and moved it back to its natural habitat,” says Romain.

Smith-Peters described a project where a webcam monitored an area where people built illegal trails. “At 11 am one day, it recorded a large black bear on Upper Park Road. Two weeks later, there was a mountain lion at the same time and place!  My daughter and I once saw a ringtail, a shy relative of raccoons in Lower Park. I always tell visitors, 'You might think you are alone, but you are not!'”

Tom Barrett served for 12 years as a Parks Commissioner. “I was turning over a log and I found horned toads,” he says. “They are supposed to be more in nearby Table Mountain and in Southern California. We were also doing work in Lower Park and we found scorpions.”

The heart of Chico

Susan Mason, a co-founder of Friends of Bidwell Park, believes that wildlife needs to be studied so the Park can remain a healthy habitat.  

“The Northern California Audubon Society monitors birds in the park, but nobody's really looking at wildlife, except for birds,” she says. “We know there are mountain lions, coyotes, and black bears, and I've seen bobcats. But we don't know much about smaller creatures.

“The park is the heart of Chico, it's the reason a lot of people move here. It gets a million visitors a year! It's wonderful having this park in walking distance. But a lot of people don't see the problems. They think 'It's green, it's good.' When I worked in Lower Park, removing invasive plants, people yelled at me, calling me 'Murderer!'”

People have used Bidwell Park for a huge range of activities. One of Annie Bidwell's cousins maintained a ranch that covered most of lower Bidwell until 1938. The military harvested cork oak bark to help make floatation devices during WW2. A Rod and Gun Club was established for fishing and target shooting – but a proposed airfield was turned down by the Parks Commission. A golf course and a community observatory sit at the border of Upper Park. The Park was also used as the site of the filming of 'Robin Hood', starring Errol Flynn in 1937.

“It's a very unusual situation because it's a public park. You can't stop people from entering and using it, even when restoration is going on,” says Smith-Peters.

“Bidwell Park is really a regional park, not just a Chico park,” Shane Romain says. “We get more traffic than Lassen Volcanic National Park. Right now, our biggest issue is a lack of funding. For 3,674 acres, we have a staff of four maintenance people. We're the only park of this size I know of that charges no user fees or parking fees.”

“The budget for the parks has been cut every single year,” adds Smith-Peters. “In 2013, it went from 10 maintenance workers to half that. Now they're down to four.”

Mason says that the money comes from the General Fund, with no dedicated funding source and most of the money coming from the sales tax. This means funding depends on how the economy is doing.

Woody Elliott – who works with the California Native Plant Society and Friends of Bidwell Park – agrees. “Since the crash of 2008, there's not been funding. The city's model now is to focus on infrastructure – things like opening and closing gates, filling potholes in Lower Park Road, picking up trash.”

Barrett adds: “The problem is the park was a donation. Because of that, everybody seems to think maintenance is free.” He agrees that the City needs a consistent fee schedule for the park. “If you want to have a picnic in the park, you need to pay a fee, but if you want to make a film or a commercial, you don't. If people are making a profit from the park, they should give back.

“Bidwell Park is a treasure on a statewide level. If Chico targeted the park and encouraged guests to visit it, that would contribute to local tourism. Biking, hiking, running, birding – there are many ways for guests to enjoy the park and bring resources into Chico!”

Community volunteers

Friends of Bidwell Park works to promote the park's cultural and ecological nature, and to keep Upper Park wild.

Sycamore Pool, Lower Bidwell Park

Big Chico Creek, Upper Bidwell Park

Bidwell Park, Chico

Bidwell Park, Chico By E Bryden, via Wikimedia Commons

“The group contracts with the city to remove introduced Spanish broom shrubs, and to collect trash in the park,” says Woody Elliott. “It also advocates lessening automobile traffic on a road into a rugged area, promoting hiking and bicycle travel instead.”

Other examples of volunteer's involvement include a volunteer-staffed community observatory, operated by the Rotary Club; trail maintenance by Chico Velo Cycling Club; and oak restoration by Butte Environmental Council. Chico Area Recreation District manages facilities like the ball park.

Romain describes how Chico's 140 Park Watch volunteers maintain a visible presence in the park and interact directly with visitors. They give directions, describe the plants and wildlife, and explain the reasons for rules such as why dogs must be on leashes.

There is also a proposed program called PALS – Partners, Ambassadors, Leaders and Stewards. “Not everyone wants to interact with the public,” says Romain. “Some want to be stewards, and do work such as restoration and picking up litter. PALS is an attempt to pull all this together.”

Interpretation and education

Nature interpretation and education are Romain's passion. “People will only want to protect what they understand,” he says. He believes that an informed and concerned community will make wise decisions about the Park's future.

Elliott agrees. “You've got to get people sensitized to what the natural resources are out there so they can vote for funds for good management.” He described an upcoming program by California State University at Chico Extension to train volunteers as naturalists and educators. “I've worked with the State Parks, so I'm a big advocate for public use – but you've got to do it in a sensitive and constructive way.”

“My goal is to have people give back to the park, to do cleanups and restoration,” says Smith-Peters. “People will connect more if they come back repeatedly. When they come here, they become invested. I had a lot of elementary school students working in the park. My message was 'This is your park. When you come back, water the plants you've put there. This is our treasure, let's take care of it.'”

Acorn woodpeckers will gather acorns in autumn when the oaks and big leaf maples turn from green to yellow and gold. These foragers will pound acorns into tree trunks so squirrels can't gather all of them. This food source will keep the birds alive in winter when many trees drop their leaves and wild fungi thrive in the forests.

This park is a treasure for Chico, and with education and community involvement, it will go from strength to strength!

Green Adventures September 2017

Paul Belz is an environmental educator and writer based in Oakland, California. Paul develops and teaches natural history workshops for preschool and school-age children, and their parents and teachers. His articles have been published by Terrain Magazine, East Bay Monthly, Childcare Exchange Magazine, Boots’n’All, Oakland Wild’s blog, and Green Global Travel. He is editing a book on bioregional education with Judy Goldhaft of San Francisco’s Planet Drum Foundation, and his poetry has appeared in a wide range of magazines. Paul is a world traveler, and an enthusiastic backpacker and camper. His other interests include cooking vegetarian feasts, long walks around his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Beethoven. Paul can be contacted via His blog is at Twitter @PaulGBelz