California Flying

That famous movie capital - Chico

November 1, 2002

Would you like to fly to a famous movie location? In 1938 the Sherwood Forest scenes in the original Robin Hood were filmed in this town, as were many scenes in the 1939 epic Gone With the Wind. The earliest known filming that took place here was for a 1914 classic titled Folly is a Life of Crime. We're talking, of course, about Chico.

Chico seems to be as far from the bright lights and glamour of Hollywood as it's possible to get in one state, unless you happen to be visiting during the Halloween weekend. That's the weekend of the big college party.

This college town of 65,000 is located in Butte County, about 80 statute miles north of the Sacramento VOR in Northern California's Sacramento Valley. Chico is lush with parks and tree-lined avenues. As in many a California college town, the flat streets and dedicated bicycle lanes provide an ideal way to take in the scenery.

Chico Municipal and Ranchaero airports

Chico has two airports. The municipal airport has three instrument approaches. There are two parallel runways, 31L/R and 13L/R.

Food is available on the field at the Beachfront Deli. Pam Wilson, the owner, gives special discounts to AOPA members so ask and you shall benefit.

According to airport manager Bob Grierson (530/895-4802), the airport is not affected by any quirky weather or winds, and visibilities are usually 60 to 100 miles.

"We are only 40 miles north of Beale Air Force Base, and they use Chico as a training field for U-2 and T-38 flights," says Grierson. "It's a good idea to pick up traffic advisories from Sierra Approach [formerly Sacramento Approach] on 125.4 MHz after takeoff."

Chico Aviation can be reached at 530/893-6727 and is well known for its service and willingness to act as a "pilot's concierge." Fuel is available from 5 a.m. until 7 p.m. with call-out services available after normal hours. There is a Hertz counter in the terminal building (530/332-9663).

The other airport that's nearer the center of town is Ranchaero, a 2,280-foot-long, nontowered and unlighted field one mile west of the town center. Preferred traffic is right turns to Runway 15. Self-service fuel is available and taxicab companies can provide transportation.

Ranchaero has been in the Grigg family since 1946. Gary Grigg, the present owner, says there's a courtesy car available for visiting pilots. "In town there is every type of restaurant anyone would ever want," says Grigg.

Grierson touted two restaurants — Mo's Barbeque on Broadway and 2nd Avenue, and the 5th Street Steakhouse. "Mo's has the best barbecue in California, and the beef at 5th Street melts in your mouth," he says.

Chico is the home of California State University at Chico, which was founded in 1972 on land donated to the state by the Bidwell family in 1887. Today, the 15,000 students add "vibrancy" to the town, according to Grigg.

The Bidwells and their legacy

Gen. John Bidwell traveled west in a wagon train in 1848. He discovered gold on the Feather River. With his riches he bought 28,000 acres on both sides of Chico Creek and opened the first store of the gold-rush era. His store occupied a site at what is now First and Broadway. He later married the daughter of a prominent Washington, D.C., family and brought her west to the Bidwell Mansion, now a California state historical park near downtown Chico.

After Gen. Bidwell died in 1900 his widow, Annie, deeded the City of Chico more than 2,500 acres of land for use as a park. Additional land purchases have added another 1,170 acres, making Bidwell Park the third largest municipal park in the United States.

The park and the Bidwell Mansion can be seen in movies filmed from 1914 through 1966. The list of films includes one of the Thin Man sequels, Waterloo Bridge, Magic Town, Red Badge of Courage, Purple Mask, Friendly Persuasion, and The Chase.

What a park (and movie set) it is. From Annie's Glen (named for Mrs. Bidwell) at the western end, the park meanders along Big Chico Creek for 11 miles. A golf course, swimming holes, picnic areas, hiking and walking trails, and horseback riding are only a few of the activities that take place in this cool, tree-filled park.

Grierson says that some of the best fishing in the country takes place nearby on the Sacramento River. "They're hauling 30-pound salmon out of there every week."

There are also four golf courses and two country clubs nearby for par chasers.

Chico was voted the number-one cycling community in America by Bicycling Magazine in 1997. The Chamber of Commerce (530/891-5556) will provide a handy pocket-size map of bike trails featuring suggested tours. Biking aviators will be happy to hear that there's a dedicated bike path (separate from the car lanes) to help bicyclers cover the six miles from the airport into town.

One of the bike tours takes pedalers for a five-mile roll up the Humbug/Honey Run Road to the Honey Run Bridge. Built in 1894, this trispan bridge is one of the last covered bridges in California.

Yo-Yos and nature appreciation

If you have a taste for whimsy, be sure to visit the National Yo-yo Museum ( on Broadway and Third Avenue. There you'll learn the Horatio Alger-like success story of Pedro Flores — the father of the commercial yo-yo. On the first Saturday in October the country's finest yo-yo players gather in Chico to compete in the National Yo-Yo Contest.

If the thought of spinning, flashing, string-limited orbs being slung hither and yon seems to be too much, perhaps taking time to walk among less populated and more natural settings may have appeal.

You're in luck because the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge in Chico is one of five local areas featured in a migratory waterfowl tour. Other sites include the Upper Ridge Nature Preserve in Paradise (it's 12 miles east of Chico in case you've been searching), the Oroville State Wildlife Area in Oroville, and the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area that includes a self-guided nature trail and a photo blind (by reservation). Call 530/846-7505 for more information.

The Chamber of Commerce ( also has organized a self-guided Spring Blossom Tour that is best taken from mid-February through mid-March. Spring bursts upon the countryside surrounding Chico with eye-popping colors from almond, prune, pear, kiwi, apple, walnut, and pistachio blossoms.

Cars and arts

The annual Chico Concours d'Elegance takes place each September in Chico. This year's theme was "Luxury on Wheels." Themes in 2001 were "The Automobile as Art," and "Sports Cars of the World" in 2000. Visit the Web site ( for more information.

Public art is sprinkled throughout town in the form of murals, sculptures, and collages. These can be seen by following directions in the "Wherefore Art Thou, Chico?" pamphlet from the Chamber of Commerce.

If well-preserved Victorian buildings hold some appeal for you, the chamber has created a self-guided walking tour of the downtown area.

Chico is a small town that is blessed with two airports, a lasting legacy from its founders in the form of a natural park, and abundant activities that are anchored by a California state college. It's a good mix and it's no more than a few flight hours from your home.