Joined: 23 Apr 2015
Posts: 377 | TRs
|By now, folks at NWHikers have plenty of good beta for fleeing to warm weather in the winter. Nothing beats a cheap flight to Vegas, with Phoenix and San Diego also being pretty good. Thanks John Morrow, Gimpilator, Bloated Chipmunk, and all the others who have posted on the lower latitudes!
Trivia question: what is the closest place to the Pac NW where you could reasonably expect warm winter hiking in prime scenery?
The town of Chico, CA, grew around the Bidwell Ranch. The ranch encompassed the entire drainage of Big Chico Creek. By most accounts, the Bidwells were benevolent dictators, and the ranch was eventually given to the city to become a park.
Back in December, 2017, my wife and I had some family business in her home town of Napa, and we needed a car to bring some things back. We are past the age of day-long road trips, so I was looking for hiking options along the way. The entire West coast was under an inversion at the time, so I decided to push through on the second day all the way to the Central Valley. There is not much low elevation hiking around Redding and Red Bluff, so I decided we should check out Bidwell Park. The forecast called for an afternoon high of 65 degrees in the first week of December.
Nighttime lows were in the upper 30s, so we lolled a bit over breakfast before finally heading out to the park. The western end of the park is a riparian corridor in the middle of the city with paved trails on both sides of the creek. As you continue east, there are ballfields and picnic shelters. Farther east, you reach the wild part of the park and a dense system of trails. By the time you reach the main parking lot and trailheads, the scenery is already good. Terraced basalt cliffs line the valley, and gorgeous oak savannah covers the bottom. A very alluring trail headed up to the rim, but we decided to take the "Yahi Trail" along the creek.
We grabbed our daypacks and strolled to the creek, emerging in warm sunshine. And it was just sublime.
Along Big Chico Creek
Towering oaks and sycamores, a gently gurgling creek, scenic cliffs above. A contented dog-walker strolled by with a playful dog, prompting Mason Williams to make an incursion in my head:
How about them dog walkers,
Ain't they happy?
Walking they dogs,
In they fleece so nappy!
Now with me armed with an increasingly legal smile, we strolled along the creek. Giant sycamores leaned at drunken angles over some of the finest remaining valley oak habitat. Alien to our northwest eyes, numerous species of vines - wild grape, clematis, pipevine, honeysuckle - filled the gaps. One sycamore attested to the power of the local floods.
We met some folks from our age demographic and chatted a bit. They were also inversion refugees, except they had escaped the cold fog in San Francisco.
We can't have been moving more than half a mile an hour, but eventually we came to "Bear Hole." We took the first sidetrail to the bottom. The locals claim that Big Chico Creek marks the boundary between the Cascades and the Sierra. And the bottom of Bear Hole definitely marks the boundary between the foothills and the Central Valley, as the creek flows slowly below it but splashes over cataracts above it. A recent lava flow filled the creek valley here, and also at the similar Salmon Hole higher up the valley. The creek channel cut through the lava to make very rough terrain, with cliffs, terraces, waterfalls and deep pools.
The exact point where the foothills meet the valley
Weird basalt flows of tiny pillows
Big Chico Creek Mosquito Nursery 2
We found a Native grinding stone here, too large for someone to take home. Lynn said "I think I saw the pestle." She walked back over to the rocky slope we had descended, and picked up what looked exactly like a Native pestle. We set it on the rock and left it there.
Shadows of forgotten ancestors
The lava rock was incredibly rough, so rough that the lugs on my boots kept trying to trip me. After clambering around a bit, we continued up the trail to ever more impressive scenery.
Toyon Berries for Christmas!
Late Fall and early Winter rains typically cause a flush of green grass in the California oak savannah. It looked like manicured lawn, adding to the beauty. We reached a place where considerable effort had been made to make an armored route along the creek, but Mother Nature had destroyed it with a massive flood.
We met a couple guys fooling around with ropes. Like everyone else in Bidwell Park, they seemed very happy. They claimed that the climbing was excellent but no one knew about it.
By now it was afternoon, so we never made it to Salmon Hole. After taking in the view for awhile, we strolled back.
I have read that some locals spend a lifetime exploring Bidwell Park. In addition to the scenic "holes" where you can find your own private veranda over the waterfalls and pools, there are cave shelters and petroglyphs of the Ancients hidden back in there. I will definitely be back!
Even my best friends, they don't know, that my job is turning lead into gold. When you hear that engine drone, I'm on the road again, and I'm searching for the philosopher's stone - Van Morrison