The City of Chico’s Bidwell Park has the best urban swimming holes in California. Bold statement, but come find out for yourself and steep yourself in more than just cool water. From the rugged Sierra Nevada foothills to Downtown Chico, Big Chico Creek runs through the city and is lined with ecological treasures, curious history, and awe-inspiring vistas.
The most accessible swimming destination on Big Chico Creek is just a mile upstream from Downtown Chico. Sycamore Pool at the One Mile Recreational Area is an expansive living pool where the creek continuously flows through a 1920s-era concrete basin. The pool is surrounded by Lower Bidwell Park’s idyllic tree canopy and grassy fields. No matter how hot it gets in Chico, the ever-flowing creek will be sure to cool you off. Lifeguards are on-duty daily from noon to 7:00 pm between Memorial Day and Labor Day, except for Thursdays when the pool is drained and cleaned. At the heart of Lower Park, Sycamore Pool is surrounded by amenities and destinations for the whole family including the Caper Acres playground, the Chico Creek Nature Center, picnic areas, horseshoe pits, restrooms, water fountains, and a snack shop.
Five Mile in Middle Bidwell Park is a transitional area between the urban atmosphere of Lower Park and the more rugged Upper Park. Here is where Big Chico Creek exits the Sierra Foothills and enters the Sacramento Valley. Being wider, shallower, and calmer than swimming areas further upstream, Five Mile is a wonderful place for families to splash around while remaining close to restrooms and picnic areas. It’s a beautiful area too, with a picturesque pedestrian bridge and a mature riparian woodland providing lots of shade. Visitors to Five Mile are also within walking distance to Hooker Oak Park, complete with two playgrounds and ball fields.
The first designated swimming hole in Upper Bidwell Park is rather tame, especially in the summer when Big Chico Creek’s flow relaxes. Alligator Hole is a pleasant stop along the pedestrian-only Yahi Trail and it’s only three-quarters of a mile from the Horseshoe Lake parking area (Lot E) making it a great destination for young hikers. It’s also a nice spot to cool off one last time after a long hike. There’s a small gravel beach with nice views of the beginning of Upper Park’s South Rim.
If you hike about a mile upstream along the Yahi Trail from Alligator Hole, you’ll notice that the trail starts following an old concrete ditch structure. You’ll also notice that Big Chico Creek begins cutting through a jumble of shiny black volcanic basalt (the Lovejoy Formation). This is how you know you’ve made it to Bear Hole. If Upper Park Road is open past Horseshoe Lake (Tuesday through Saturday with good weather), you can park at Lot K or L. It’s also pretty easy to find your way to Bear Hole from Upper Park’s Middle Trail or Lower Trail.
Once you’re there, you’ll find out why Bear Hole is one of the most talked about features of Bidwell Park. Deep, sparkling pools connected by rushing chutes of water are surrounded by a natural rocky playground. The smooth basalt drenched in full sun is also a great spot to catch some rays. Just upstream of Bear Hole is the old diversion dam where additional pools can be found. Note that water currents in this area can be strong, especially in the winter and spring. Stay safe during your visit!
Further into Upper Bidwell Park, Salmon Hole offers one of the most scenic swimming experiences in the area. You’ll need to work harder to get there as it’s over a half mile away from the Diversion Dam parking lot (Lot L) along the Yahi Trail. With Upper Park Road closed on Sundays and Mondays past the Horseshoe Lake parking lot (Lot E), it takes a little under two and a half miles to hike or bike in via Upper Park Road. The final approach down into Salmon Hole is also steeper and more rugged than the previous swimming destinations. Those that make it will be rewarded with one of the largest natural pools on Big Chico Creek and many enjoyable side-pools. Salmon Hole, surrounded by groves of oak and steep cliffs, also offers ample shade. You might even see some rock climbers taking on the steep rock walls nearby.
Brown’s Hole is the most remote designated swimming hole in Bidwell Park. Those that find their way here will enjoy more solitude and an almost wilderness setting. Two long and slender pools are surrounded by thick stands of oak and other riparian plants. Upstream of the small waterfall above Brown’s Hole is a nice gravel beach next to a smaller swimming area. Brown’s Hole is a little under two miles from the Diversion Dam (Lot L) along the Yahi Trail, and three and a half miles from Horseshoe Lake (Lot E) along Upper Park Road. A spur trail is available from the old parking area (Lot S).
Drive about 85 miles north from Sacramento or 70 miles south from Redding on Highway 99 to Chico. Sycamore Pool and One Mile are accessible by exiting west onto Highway 32, turning right onto Cypress Avenue, and heading into Bidwell Park at the five-way intersection. The Five Mile Recreation Area is accessible by exiting east onto Highway 32, turning left onto Bruce Road, and turning right onto Centennial Avenue. Exiting east onto East Avenue from Highway 99 will lead you to Upper Park Road.