Modest altitudes over most of the county should not imply to any cyclist that challenging mountain terrain is hard to find. On the contrary, Butte County is home to scenic trails of varying difficulty all over the map for mountain bikers of all levels, from beginners to experts.
Chicoan Gary Towne describes himself as somewhere in between the two extremes. He finds Butte County to be an ideal spot for chasing challenges, regardless of skill level. Towne says the place to start is Upper Bidwell Park, which serves as “pretty much the epicenter of mountain biking activity in the county.”
“The trails are pretty unique in that they’re very rocky, as compared to most other places I’ve ridden,” Towne says. “I’ve heard avid cyclists say that if you learn to mountain bike in Bidwell, you can ride almost anywhere. … Much of Bidwell is a challenge for me still.”
Towne points out popular trails in the park, including the North Rim, B Trail, and Upper, Lower and Middle Trails representing the best options on the north side of the creek. The southern tracks, like Guardians Trail, provide a formidable test for experts, according to MTB Project, while the Annie Bidwell Trail is a more moderate track.
Farther south, the Lake Oroville area provides a miles-long network of trails, mostly wider and not as technical, Towne says. Potters Ravine is a beginner’s go-to, as is the North Fork Trail, which still offers a 35-mile out-and-back ride.
Some of the real finds for “dirt enthusiasts,” according to Towne, are hidden in the hills. Cohasset Road transforms into a dirt trail just above Cohasset, and from there it’s a near-endless ride on a bike. Forest Ranch offers interesting rides, too, with trails connecting into Highway 32, Magalia, and all the way down into Centerville.
“Because I’m not the best technically skilled rider, I really enjoy these long dirt road loops a lot,” Towne says. “It’s a great way to explore our county. And it’s a pretty good workout!”
For those who are seeking competition—from a friendly race to a true test of skills—Butte County has you covered there, too.
The region is “the perfect playground” for any cyclist to get a respectable workout in without battling endless stoplights, says Thad Walker, a cycling coach and Chico Velo board member. Within county limits, the cycling community is competitive but tight-knit, he says.
“A couple of has-beens and a lot of young talent create a small yet continually competitive group,” he says. “The level of competition [in Butte County] rivals that of big cities down south.”
Chico Velo is an outstanding local cycling advocate group, and the place to start for anyone trying to find the perfect race to jump into. But be careful, Walker warns jokingly: Butte County riders are always ready for a challenge.
“We don’t need no smart trainers,” he cracks. “We just go ride our bikes because we love to, and we like a good fight.”
Sean Murphy works as a public relations expert and marketer in Chico, and when weather allows (basically, always, minus the most extreme of conditions), he’s biking to work. The urban work and play hub of the county stands out as particularly accessible within Butte County.
“Whether it’s the Saturday Morning Farmers Market, a trip to get some ice cream, or a leisure ride for dinner, downtown Chico is very accessible from much of Chico,” Murphy says, noting that bike lanes abound around town. “Jumping on a bike and getting to a destination is generally very easy to do, and it’s fun, whether it’s commuting to work or school, or a lazy ride throughout town.”
Downtown in both Chico and Oroville provide easy, open thoroughfares for cyclists, with most of the latter’s hills being mild at most. Drivers in the county acknowledge the frequent bicycle activity, and a culture of sharing the roadway has developed over the years throughout the area.
“There are so many bicyclists around here—serious riders, racers, commuters, mountain bikers, touring cyclists, kids riding their bikes to school,” says Rodney Cox, a 39-year Butte County resident. “The rider presence in the county is very strong. There’s a very supportive public, and the cyclists have essentially been assimilated into the traffic equation here, just due to the volume of riders.”
And, no matter wherever you end up, ample park-and-lock places make hopping off and going it on foot a breeze.
Cox still finds himself inspired by the paths the area has to offer, almost 40 years after his first ride in Butte County.
“I’m always in awe at the variety we have here,” he says. “Flat roads, hills, downhills, gravel, mountain trails, fire roads, busy roads, quiet roads—on and on. And the beauty is amazing. As a rider, you have so many choices once you leave the house. We’re spoiled here when it comes to bicycling.”
There are too many “favorites” for Cox to list when it comes to good loops and rides, but when he first started riding back in 1980, his go-to was, as you might have guessed, Bidwell Park. He still loves that ride, but has also grown particularly fond of rides up Honey Run Road, a cruise up to Centerville (“Especially in the fall,” he says), or an easy, flat ride through the orchard-lined roads in Durham.
“The great thing: You can just go out and explore,” Cox says. “It makes for some of the best rides you’ll ever experience. The landscape is so beautiful—trees, mountains, farmlands, rivers, creeks, lakes. We have it all.”