Butte County is a land of remarkable contrasts. North of Sacramento, between the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada, it’s a diverse agricultural region where citrus groves thrive and a growing range of specialist crops, such as lavender, have made Butte County a destination for agritourism. Follow the Sierra Oro Farm Trail and you’ll discover olive oil producers, cherry orchards and the collection of wineries that have put Butte County on the California wine map.
Home to Chico’s iconic Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, the county also helped pioneer America’s craft beer movement and today an assortment of newcomers have joined the local brewing community. With its vintage city centre filled with shopping and dining and a vibrant arts scene centred on Cal State University Chico, Chico blends small-city charm and a surprising sophistication.
Give yourself time to experience the charm of the county’s other historic towns, including such spots as Oroville, Biggs (which despite its name is actually Butte County’s smallest municipality) and Gridley. Read on to discover more of this beautiful region in Northern California.
With a centre of stately 19th-century buildings and a leafy canopy of thousands of street trees, the city retains strong links to its past. That’s especially true at Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, where you can tour the grand, three-storey Italianate home of city founder John Bidwell. Along with his wife Annie, who donated nearly 890 hectares of land to the city following her husband’s death, Bidwell is responsible for Chico’s remarkable Bidwell Park. Now stretching for 17 kilometres from the heart of town into the foothills, the park gives Chico a municipal park and recreational destination that cities with many times its population (of roughly 100,000) would envy.
Generations of Californians first discovered Chico on their university tours to Cal State University, Chico. With a campus adjacent to both the city centre and Bidwell Park, Cal State Chico influences the life of the city and gives the community a wealth of cultural attractions. The bell tower of Trinity Hall rises over this beautiful university, where Big Chico Creek meanders among the buildings, and the Petersen Rose Garden, with 50 types of roses and 350 bushes, brightens the campus. Take a stroll around campus on a self-guided walking tour and check out the outstanding concert series at Laxson Auditorium, the grand, 1931 venue that has hosted appearances by everyone from Nobel Prize laureates to musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma and Willie Nelson. You can also learn about world cultures and aspects of local history at the university’s Valerie L. Smith Museum of Anthropology.
Back in town, the Museum of Northern California Art in the 1927 Veterans Memorial Hall showcases works by 96 regional artists collected by Chico’s Reed Applegate. Of course, Chico, like many university towns, also has its quirky side and is home to the National Yo-Yo Museum, the world’s largest public collection of yo-yos.
As the birthplace of the pioneering Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico has played a big role in America’s craft beer revolution. The craft beer tradition is also upheld at The Commons Social Emporium near the city centre, which is owned by locals and features more than 20 beers and ciders on tap.
Despite appearances, Chico does not live on beer alone and you’ll also find terrific dining, including the contemporary California cuisine at acclaimed chef Ann Leon’s Leon Bistro and the sushi at Japanese Blossoms. Or start the day right with favourites such as the apple walnut pancakes and banana Nutella French toast at the central Café Coda (265 Humboldt Ave.; +1 530 566 9476). And the delectable blackberry lemon scones at the beloved Upper Crust Bakery & Café are irresistible.
Many local restaurants count on the bounty of Chico’s surrounding farmland, a cornucopia on vivid display at the city’s twice-weekly farmers' markets. The markets run year-round, while the annual Taste of Chico in September is a great opportunity to discover the best of the city’s dining and craft beer scenes. Another major local event is the Chico Wildflower Century, during which you can burn off some of the calories you put on while in town as you cycle among almond orchards and hills blanketed by spring blooms travelling along routes that range from 20 to 200 kilometres.
If you’re looking for a place to stay in the heart of the city, the 1904 Hotel Diamond has a gorgeous foyer with brick walls and a graceful wooden staircase, as well as rooms that combine historic atmosphere and contemporary comforts.
What began as a cobbled-together home-brewing operation grew up to become the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, one of America’s first modern microbreweries, and the producer of one of California’s most beloved beers: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Founder Ken Grossman started out as a young home brewer, making beer in five-gallon batches with homemade equipment. After studying chemistry at university, he opened a home-brewing shop in Chico for like-minded brewing fanatics.
Two years later, he took the plunge into commercial brewing. To make do with limited funds, Grossman outfitted his operation with used dairy tanks, a soft-drinks bottler and equipment salvaged from defunct breweries.
In 1980, he brewed his first bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. The bold, piney beer was an instant hit—so much so that Grossman had to expand the brewery twice to keep up with demand.
In the decades since that first auspicious batch of its namesake pale ale, Sierra Nevada’s line-up has grown to include many other fascinating brews, such as Hop Hunter IPA, Kellerweis, Beer Camp IPA and the intense 'High Altitude' series.
At Sierra Nevada’s taproom and restaurant in Chico, visitors can sample 19 draft beers and nosh on seasonal, farm-to-table fare. Those interested in observing up close how it all happens can select from a range of brewery tours, each of varying length. The restaurant makes bread from spent brewers’ grain and even offers a good children's menu, with organic peanut butter, golden raisins and fresh fruit on a crunchy flatbread. The brewery also has a 350-seat live music venue, so be prepared to stay a while.
Be sure to bring your swimming costume when you visit Bidwell Park, a surprising find in the inviting university town of Chico in the north-eastern part of the state. At an impressive 1,485 hectares, Bidwell is one of the largest city parks in the United States. Much of Upper Bidwell (west of Manzanita Avenue) is hilly, rugged and wild, while Lower Bidwell (east of Manzanita) tends to be flatter. Stop by for an overview of the park and a visit to the Chico Creek Nature Center, where you can learn about native plants and wildlife and also check out the Janeece Webb Living Animal Museum, which is located inside.
Now that you’ve got your bearings, hire some wheels at Campus Bicycles and head for the Annie Bidwell Trail, a moderate 7.6-kilometre circuit that hugs the southern bank of Big Chico Creek in a quiet section of Upper Bidwell. Nearby is Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, where you can take a first-come, first-served tour of the 19th-century, 26-room Italian Villa-style home. As the residence of city founders Annie and John Bidwell, the ornate structure saw visits from guests such as President Rutherford B. Hayes, General William T. Sherman, Susan B. Anthony and John Muir. After your ride—if the weather is warm enough—take a leap into Sycamore Pool, a gargantuan concrete-lined 1.2-hectare pool that was formed from Big Chico Creek in the 1930s. Located in the centre of the town, the pool is shaded by its namesake sycamores and has five lifeguard stations and a roped-off section for children. Admission is free.
What do you have a taste for? Olive oil? Wine? Or the freshest summer produce? Because with an agricultural heritage dating back well over a century, Butte County is a major agritourism destination.
For a terrific overview of county agriculture, follow the Sierra Oro Farm Trail, as it meanders through the county visiting everything from the Earthworm Soil Factory to the New Clairvaux Vineyard, where Trappist-Cistercian monks carry out their order’s nearly 1,000-year-old winemaking tradition. A great time to explore the farm trail is during the annual Passport Weekend in October.
Oroville is considered the birthplace of California olive production. With several spots along the farm trail for olive oil tasting, including the historic Lodestar Farms and the third-generation Bamford Family Farms, you’ll find premium extra virgin olive oils and can learn about Butte County’s unique role in the industry.
With the tree-ripened satsumas at the Tri-L Mandarin Ranch and premium varietal chestnuts at Harrison’s California Chestnut, the county is a true cornucopia. At the Pedrozo Dairy & Cheese Co., you’ll find traditional smallholding cheeses, including favourites such as the creamy Black Butte Reserve, and you can tour the facilities as well. Or for almonds, walnuts and an assortment of gourmet items from a local farm that has been in operation since 1875, stop into the Sohnrey Family Foods gift shop in Oroville.
Thanks to Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico, Butte County is better known for its craft beer than its wines. But from the foothills down to Durham, the county’s wineries are gaining acclaim to the point where The Sacramento Bee newspaper has asked, 'Will Butte County be the next big thing in winemaking?'
Find out for yourself at leading county wineries such as Durham’s Almendra Winery & Distillery, where you can not only enjoy wine flights but also a gin made from local almonds, lavender and mandarins. Oroville’s warehouse chic Purple Line Urban Winery makes a full-bodied Petite Syrah from grapes grown in the Sierra foothills. Then again, if you’re more into ciders than Syrah, Chico’s Cellar Door Cider has a tasting room where you can discover its French-oak-barrel-aged ciders handcrafted from Northern California apples.
In this town on the Feather River, you’ll find stately Victorian buildings, including the 1856 C. F. Lott Home (open for tours) as well as landmarks such as the Chinese Temple and Museum Complex. Originally a place of worship for Chinese labourers dating back to 1863, it’s still occasionally used as a religious centre and is filled with tapestries and costumes from the Far East. You can also wander through the temple’s traditional Chinese garden.
To learn about Oroville’s Gold Rush and Native American history, visit the Pioneer History Museum, which was built to resemble the stone cabin of a 49er (someone who took part in the 1849 Gold Rush). And while still due for a full restoration, the Oroville State Theatre in the heart of the city centre gives the community a historic venue for live performances.
Oroville is also the gateway to Lake Oroville State Recreation Area, where the country’s tallest earth-filled dam creates California’s second largest reservoir—with a remarkable 268 kilometres of shoreline. If you’re into fishing, the lake is your kind of place. It’s a haven for anyone hoping to hook both small- and wide-mouth bass, and the underwater windows at the recreation area’s Feather River Fish Hatchery give visitors a unique glimpse of salmon and steelhead during their spawning seasons.
And in addition to swimming at designated beach areas, there’s plenty to do on land, too. The recreation area’s network of paths enables mountain bikers, hikers and horse riders to venture out into the hills surrounding the lake. During periods of high water, boats on Lake Oroville can cruise to within 400m of Feather Falls, but you’ll earn your views of these 195-metre-tall cascades on the Fall River via 11- or 14-mile round-trip hikes along the Feather Falls National Scenic Trail.
Other scenic outdoor destinations near Oroville include Big Bald Rock, where a short, easy path leads to views that extend out over the lake and Sacramento Valley. And if you’re into spring wildflowers, Table Mountain, a basalt plateau and part of North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve less than 20 minutes from Oroville, delivers one of California’s premier wildflower displays—especially in years with good rainfall.
A bygone era of small-town Americana lives on in communities around Butte County. All under 10,000 residents in population, these traditional towns offer an escape from modern big city life and an array of discoveries, from art to the outdoors.
Though tiny by most standards, Gridley, population 7,000, is the market town for farmers living between Chico and Yuba City. Founded in 1905, this gateway town in the southern part of the county draws visitors to two major annual events: During January’s Snow Goose Festival, wildlife lovers flock to Gridley for field trips to Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, a prime birding area to the west of the town along the Pacific Flyway. Then in August, Gridley plays host during the Butte County Fair at the fairground on the town’s east side.
Throughout the year, explore Gridley’s historic centre, where the Hazel Hotel, a national historic landmark, houses the Gridley Area Chamber of Commerce, a good source of local information. Nearby in the handsome red-brick Veatch Building, the past lives on at the Gridley Museum (601 Kentucky St; +1 530 846 4482), where you can pick up a city centre walking tour map. Five blocks away, stop at Sutherland Glass Art in the old Libby Cannery, once the world’s largest peach and pumpkin canning factory. You’ll see the vibrant hand-blown glass art of the masterful Bryon Sutherland, a graduate of Cal State University Chico.
Despite its name, Biggs is anything but big. In fact, it’s the smallest municipality in the county, with a population of just 1,700. Check out this little town after touring the gorgeous Lavender Ranch (peak season is May–July) at Bayliss Ranch. About 40 kilometres north-west of Gridley, Bangor is even tinier, with just 646 residents, but this foothill community is a hub for the county's winemaking, with three vineyards near the town.
A few miles south of Chico, the farming community of Durham is where you can experience Butte County’s agricultural heritage at the Patrick Ranch Museum. Glenwood, Patrick Ranch’s stately farmhouse built in 1877, as well as the surrounding grounds and barns, bring alive the area’s farming past, and you can shop for crafts and agriculture-related items in the museum's gift shop
And finally, you don’t go to diminutive Butte Meadows (40 residents) expecting a vibrant urban scene. But if you’re into the outdoors, this foothill hamlet, 53 kilometres north-west of Chico, is a hub for mountain bikers, fishermen and walkers. The 96-kilometre trail network at Colby Mountain lets cyclists explore gorgeous mountain landscapes while savouring cooler temperatures.
When it comes to outdoor recreation, Butte County is one of California’s best-kept secrets. Ranging from the floor of the Central Valley into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and home to such major destinations as Lake Oroville State Recreation Area, as well as the birding opportunities at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, the county is a haven for hiking, mountain biking and whitewater rafting.
You don’t have to go far from the county’s major cities to reach stunning natural scenery. Just outside Oroville, Table Mountain at North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve is a must-visit for its spring wildflowers and to see a waterfall that plunges down the plateau’s face. Table Mountain also makes a great cycling destination along the Table Mountain Loop, a road route that you can follow from either Oroville or Chico.
While the lower reaches of Chico’s 1,485-hectare Bidwell Park feel like a traditional city park, its upper section extends all the way into the foothills, where Big Chico Creek flows through a rugged canyon and a 112-kilometre trail network is open to hikers, cyclists and horse riders. For even higher elevation adventures, hike a portion of the famous Pacific Crest Trail to 2,160-metre Humboldt Peak near Butte Meadows. From the summit, the spectacular views take in Lassen Peak and a glimpse of Mount Shasta.
Both the North Fork and the Middle Fork of the Feather River offer outstanding whitewater paddling for kayaking and rafting, especially on the federally designated wild and scenic Middle Fork’s 51 kilometres of Class V rapids. And a walk along the Feather Falls Scenic Trail in Plumas National Forest leads to views of the dramatic, 195-metre Feather Falls on the Fall River, one of the Middle Fork’s tributaries.
Near Oroville, the lower section of the Feather River lures fishermen with one of California’s largest steelhead runs and a sizable population of striped bass, while its upper reaches are a prime destination for rainbow and brown trout. Along the valley floor nearly 10 kilometres west of Chico, Bidwell-Sacramento River State Park is another top fishing spot, with steelhead, salmon and enormous sturgeon. You can also walk through the park’s riparian forest and nothing beats a lazy canoe paddle or raft trip on a summer's day.
Located on the Pacific Flyway 96 kilometres north of Sacramento, Gray Lodge encompasses 3700 hectares surrounded by agricultural flatlands and backdropped by the small but stately Sutter Buttes, the smallest mountain range in the world. Birders perch on elevated viewing platforms to watch and photograph swirling clouds of migratory waterfowl, including uncountable numbers of snow geese, swans, and sandhill cranes.
"Birders perch on elevated viewing platforms to watch and photograph swirling clouds of migratory waterfowl, including uncountable numbers of snow geese, swans, and sandhill cranes."
Best viewing times are mid-morning through sunset. The area closes at sunset. In the morning, the waterfowl return from feeding in the surrounding rice fields (farms here have a cooperative agreement to leave some fields unharvested, so that birds can find food and shelter). After resting through the day on Gray Lodge, they become active again in the evening. Keep your eyes peeled for an impressive array of birds of prey, including bald eagles and peregrine falcons, and native wildlife including river otters and gray foxes. Check the schedule for educational programs and guided walks.
Northern California was the wellspring of the craft beer movement, which can be loosely traced from Anchor Brewingin San Francisco to Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in the young-at-heart university town of Chico, and then to the world. Indeed, California craft brewers have changed the way we drink beer, turning it into a drink not just for sports fans but connoisseurs too.
'Indeed, California craft brewers have changed the way Americans drink beer, turning it into a drink not just for sports fans but for connoisseurs too.'
Get a taste for where the movement started with a visit to Sierra Nevada Brewing’s expansive tasting room/restaurant/brewery complex. Take a self-guided tour, or join a guided one, with options including a sustainability tour showcasing California’s largest privately owned solar installation, and an in-depth exploration (limited to 5 beer geeks at a time) of the brewery’s inner workings. No tour is needed to cool off with a frosty pint in the trellis-shaded Taproom & Restaurant.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has been the catalyst for other small-batch breweries to open in the area—and of course it helps that it’s a university town. Stop by Dunsmuir Brewery Works for a tall pint of some of their Good Boy Porter or Mount Shasta Brewing Co., in Weed, home of Weed Golden Ale and Mountain High IPA. Lassen Ale Works in Susanville is located in the Pioneer Saloon, a true landmark of the Old West, founded in 1862. Eight core beers are brewed on site, including Thompson Peak Pilsner and Almanor Amber, as well as seasonals. Outdoor imbibing rules at The Brewing Lair, a laid-back, dog-friendly brewery with cornhole (a bar game), slack lines and an outdoor stage that hosts frequent concerts.