Each year more than a billion birds follow the Pacific Flyway, one of the four primary migratory routes in the Western Hemisphere which, according to the National Audubon Society, connects such far-flung habitats as the Arctic tundra and the wetlands of South America.
And many of those birds decide to take a break in Butte County, where the 9,100-acre Gray Lodge Wildlife Area outside Gridley is one of their favorite stops. From three kinds of tiny hummingbirds, whose weight is measured in grams, to greater sandhill cranes that can stand 5-feet tall and weigh 14 pounds, more than 200 species of birds populate this habitat that’s surrounded by rice fields and backed by the Sutter Buttes—considered the world’s smallest mountain range.
Prime time at the wildlife area is late October through early February. That’s when you can see dramatic displays of more than a million waterfowl as flocks of snow geese and swans feed in the rice fields and return to the wildlife area’s wetlands. The viewing is especially good as the season progresses and the birds range farther for food. Then around dusk, they come back en masse during a phenomenon dubbed “night-flight.”
There are all sorts of ways to experience Gray Lodge. A 3-mile auto loop travels through the viewing area, and wildlife observation “hides” allow you to observe through windows in simple structures near the seasonal ponds. Weekend 90-minute guided walks take place October through January. Or go out on your own as you follow the .85-mile Wetland Discovery Trail, which leads to a viewing platform. Pamphlets at the trailhead offer interpretive information that corresponds to 14 stops along the route.
And during Butte County’s popular Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway, Gray Lodge is a popular destination for field trips.
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 assortment of specialty crops, such as lavender, has 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 downtown filled with shopping and dining and a vibrant arts scene centered on Cal State University Chico, Chico blends small-city charms 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 downtown of stately 19th-century buildings and a leafy canopy of thousands of street trees, the city remains rooted to its past. That’s especially true at Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, where you can tour the grand, three-story Italianate home of city founder John Bidwell. Bidwell is responsible—along with his wife Annie, who donated nearly 2,200 acres of land to the city following her husband’s death—for Chico’s remarkable Bidwell Park. Now stretching for 11 miles from the heart of town into the foothills, the park gives Chico a municipal park and recreational destination that cities many times its roughly 100,000 population would envy.
Generations of Californians first discovered Chico on their college tours to Cal State University, Chico. With a campus adjacent to both downtown and Bidwell Park, Cal State Chico influences the life of the city and gives the community an unmistakable vibrancy and 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 grounds. 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 such musicians 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 more than 96 regional artists collected by Chico’s Reed Applegate, a graphic designer and advertising executive. Of course, Chico, like many university towns, also has its non-traditional side and is home to the National Yo-Yo Museum, the world’s largest public collection of yo-yos, and the Little Red Hen vintage shop, where you’ll find midcentury modern and rustic furniture and decorative home goods.
As the birthplace of the pioneering Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico played a big role in America’s craft beer revolution. The craft beer tradition is also carried out at The Commons Social Emporium near downtown, which is owned by longtime locals and features more than 20 beers and ciders on tap.
Though its legacy for brewing excellence is perhaps the city’s best-known culinary contribution, Chico does not live by beer alone. 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 off right with such favorites as the apple walnut pancakes and banana Nutella French toast at downtown’s Café Coda). And the delectable blackberry lemon scones at the beloved Upper Crust Bakery & Café are irresistible.
Just around the corner, on Broadway, B Street Pub starts off the day as a coffee shop/brunch spot, then serves lunch and dinner menus, and finally takes on the role of late-night music venue. Down the block is Live Life Juice Co., which specializes healthy cold-pressed concoctions as well as vegan soft-serve. And with its local-only food-sourcing policy and eclectic decor made from upcycled materials, Foodie Café has a loyal local following.
Many local restaurants count on the bounty of Chico’s surrounding farmland, which produces 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 packed on while in town as you ride among almond orchards and hills blanketed by spring blooms traveling along routes that range from 12 to 125 miles.
If you’re looking for a place to stay in the heart of downtown, the 1904 Hotel Diamond has a gorgeous lobby with brick walls and a graceful wooden stairway, as well as rooms that combine historic atmosphere and contemporary comforts.
What began as a cobbled-together home-brewing operation grew up to become 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 in college, 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 dowith limited funds, Grossman outfitted his operationwith used dairy tanks, a soft-drink bottler, and equipment salvaged from defunct breweries.
In 1980, he brewed his first bottleof 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 lineup has grown to include many other fascinating brews, such as the 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 kids’ menu, with organic peanut butter, golden raisins, and fresh fruit on crunchy flatbread. The brewery also has a 350-seat live music venue, so be prepared to stay a while.
Be sure to bring your bathing suit when you visit Bidwell Park, a surprising find in the inviting college town of Chico in the northeastern part of the state. At an impressive 3,670 acres, 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 in 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’re oriented, rent some wheels at Campus Bicycles and head for the Annie Bidwell Trail, a moderate 4.7-mile loop 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 such guests 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 3-acre pool that was formed out of Big Chico Creek in the 1930s. Locatedright in the center of town, the pool is shaded by its namesake sycamores and has five lifeguard stations and a roped-off section for kids. 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 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 farmstead cheeses, including such favorites 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 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 asked the question, “Will Butte County be the next big thing in winemaking?”
Find out for yourself at such leading county wineries 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 along the Feather River, you’ll find stately Victorians, including the 1856 C.F. Lott Home (open for tours) as well as such landmarks as the Chinese Temple and Museum Complex. Originally a place of worship for Chinese laborers that dates to 1863, it’s still occasionally used as a religious center and is filled with tapestries and costumes from the Far East. You can also stroll through the temple’s traditional Chinese garden.
To learn about Oroville’s Gold Rush and Native American history, stop into the Pioneer History Museum, which was built to resemble a 49er’s stone cabin. And while still due for a fuller restoration, the Oroville State Theatre in the heart of downtown 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 167 miles 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 bigmouth bass, and the underwater windows at the recreation area’s Feather River Fish Hatchery give visitors a one-of-a-kind look at 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 trail system lets mountain bikers, hikers, and equestrians venture out into the hills surrounding the lake. During times of high water, boats on Lake Oroville can cruise to within a quarter-mile of Feather Falls, but you’ll earn your views of these 640-foot-tall cascades on the Fall River via 7- or 9-mile roundtrip hikes along the Feather Falls National Scenic Trail.
Other scenic outdoor destinations near Oroville include Big Bald Rock, where a short, easy trail leads to views that extend out over the lake and Sacramento Valley. And if you’re into spring wildflowers, Table Mountain, a basalt mesa 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 rains.
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 west of town along the Pacific Flyway. Then in August, Gridley plays host during the Butte County Fair at the fairgrounds on the town’s east side.
Throughout the year, explore Gridley’s historic downtown, where the Hazel Hotel, a national historic landmark, houses the Gridley Area Chamber of Commerce, a good source for local information. Nearby in the handsome red-brick Veatch Building, the past lives on at the Gridley Museum (601 Kentucky St.; 530-846-4482), where you can pick up a downtown walking tour map. Five blocks away, stop into Sutherland Glass Art in the old Libby Cannery, once the world’s largest peach and pumpkin cannery. 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 25 miles northwest of Gridley, Bangor is even tinier, just 646 residents, but this foothill community is a hub for the county's winemaking, with three vineyards near 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 ag-related items at the museum 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, 33 miles northwest of Chico, is a hub for mountain bikers, fishermen, and hikers. The 60-mile trail network at Colby Mountain lets cyclists explore gorgeous mountain landscapes while savoring 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 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 for its spring wildflowers and to see a waterfall that plunges down the mesa’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 3,670-acre 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 70-mile trail network is open to hikers, bikers, and equestrians. For even higher elevation adventures, hike a portion of the famous Pacific Crest Trail to 7,087-foot 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 32 miles of Class V rapids. And a hike along the Feather Falls Scenic Trail in Plumas National Forest leads to overlooks of dramatic, 640-foot 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 about six miles west of Chico, Bidwell-Sacramento River State Park is another top fishing spot, with steelhead, salmon, and enormous sturgeon. You can also hike through the park’s riparian forest—and nothing beats a lazy canoe paddle or float trip on a summer day.
Northern California was the wellspring of the craft beer movement, which can be loosely traced from Anchor Brewing in San Francisco to Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in the young-at-heart college 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 we drink beer, turning it into a drink not just for sports fans but 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 offerings 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 college 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 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, slack lines, and an outdoor stage that hosts frequent concerts.