One of the country’s last true college towns, Chico has a uniquely intertwined student life dynamic. Downtown Chico is joined inseparably with California State University, Chico, not just geographically, but in spirit.
Many living in Butte County are Chico State alums, like myself. I earned my bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2009, and like many others do, I stayed in love with the area and continued to pursue my professional career here. But, it should be said: The “Chico Experience,” while innately tied to the college, isn’t exclusive to students.
Just because you didn’t attend the University doesn’t mean you can’t still experience Chico State—and for the record, if you’re visiting Butte County, a tour of the campus is a must.
Whether you’re reliving your Wildcat past, or if you never got to experience it, the Chico Experience is a special one. Here’s how you can take it in for yourself—minus the homework and tuition.
Chico State is worthy of a walk-through any time of year, but the spring and fall in particular will wow you. A recognized arboretum and cozy home to squirrels, jays and even owls, Chico State also features abundant flowers and verdant foliage. You can cross Big Chico Creek, the waterway that runs through campus, over nine historic bridges. If you tour in the fall, the campus-central rose garden will be ready for prime viewing. You can explore buildings both historic and modern (Kendall Hall, the photo-famous administrative building, or the new Arts and Humanities Building, the newest completed hall on campus). You can do this all in about 30 minutes, and when you’re done, downtown is all yours.
Let’s start at the most iconic of Chico State eateries.
There is no eatery more closely attached to Chico State than the Madison Bear Garden. (For those who won’t settle for less than top billing and a bit more of a grown-up setting, I recommend Burgers & Brew, over at 3rd and Broadway). But if you want to eat like a Wildcat, a Bear Burger is a must. Quite tasty and student-priced, with the most accessible off-campus location imaginable (it’s right behind the aforementioned arts building), “The Bear” has been flipping burgers for Wildcats since 1977.
Celestino’s, meanwhile, is just as close if New York-style pizza is your preference (if New York-style isn’t your thing, another downtown favorite, Woodstock’s, is just a few blocks down on 2nd Street and also quite tasty). I met up with a friend every Thursday at Celestino’s for two slices, usually a cheese and a Tom Jones, Cel’s all-meat option.
The Freshman 15 is not a myth.
Simply put, you’ve got to make your way to Bidwell Park. One Mile, which is directly accessible from downtown, is the lower part of the park and a great place for warm-weather play, whether it’s a run or bike ride through the park (Chico is famously friendly to athletes of all levels in both sports). In the summer, a dip in Sycamore Pool is refreshing bliss. And any time of year is good for a trip to Upper Park, no matter if you’re cycling, horseback riding, sightseeing, or running (Chico State’s nationally renowned cross country teams have the distinct advantage of getting to train on these very trails!).
Salmon Hole. Bear Hole. The river.
For the Chico State experience, these locales are synonymous with warm weather. With a short drive and hike, you can take a dip in either watering hole (I should caution, though—they stay pretty consistently cold, and unlike Sycamore Pool, there’s never a lifeguard). And, as always, you have the option of floating down the Sacramento River from the Irvine Finch launch ramp in nearby Hamilton City, down to Scotty’s Landing, where you really should have a bite to eat.
From fall through the spring, Chico State puts competitors on the field in every sport. Last year, in fact, the Wildcats had all 13 intercollegiate teams make the playoffs for the first time ever—you can’t go wrong. The spring semester is the liveliest time to take in a game, as the basketball teams are usually making a playoff push and baseball and softball are in full swing. Chico State hosts a highly entertaining twilight track invitational; as a senior, I was there to watch Scott Bauhs break the 4-minute mile mark and it was as crazy of a sports scene as I’ve witnessed on campus.
I always regretted not going to more shows as a student, whether it was plays or concerts at Laxson, stand-up comedians visiting the BMU Auditorium, or even a non-mainstream flick at the Pageant. Fortunately, having remained in Chico since graduation, I’ve been able to partake in each of these much more frequently, and you should, too.
I’m a Chico State staffer now, and feel so fortunate to still have access to the Chico State experience. The thing is, though, that anybody here can do it! Last year I split my sides watching the musical “Avenue Q” in Laxson, and I took a date to see “There Will be Blood” at the Pageant back in 2007 (we sat in the front row, where they famously have couch seating). If you want to class things up a bit, Chico State hosts the excellent North State Symphony, and attending a recital, while not the most iconic of college experiences, is still a cool scene if you’re a music buff.
The great thing about the Chico Experience is that while there are some iconic checkboxes you can tick off to see it for yourself, there is a lot of diversity within that experience, too.
There are a ton of other things to do and places to go, and with the warm, friendly nature of the people you’ll find downtown, there is no shortage of willing tour guides to set you on a new path.