Blake Walsh

15 Free Things to Do in Chico, CA

  • Published 2023/01/06

Chico offers travelers a great escapade with culture, history, and community.

Nicknamed the City of Roses, this place offers a variety of rose varieties within its nature parks and gardens.

It’s also a collegiate city—home to California State University—and the enormous state park, Bidwell Park.

Within Butte County in northern California, this city thrives in the economic and tourism sector with its immersive museums and science centers.

But to fully experience the city’s charm, it’s best to travel back to the past.

Founded in 1860, Chico brought together the first settlers, the Maidu Indians, whose primary source of living was gathering and hunting.

The city became a massive agricultural hub in the upper Sacramental Valley, drawing travelers and soon-to-be residents.

If you’ve got your eyes on this city as your next travel destination, you will do well by knowing the free things to do in Chico, California.

See the Birds at Chico Seed Orchard

Trail with foliage at Chico Seed Orchard

Frank Schulenburg, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you want to wander around while having nature surround you, you’d probably like Chico Seed Orchard.

This 209-acre preserve offers a plethora of vegetation and foliage lined along a trail.

Once labeled as the Plant Introduction Field Station, it housed collected plants from around the world for breeding research and introduction.

Bamboos at Chico Seed Orchard

Frank Schulenburg, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To make your trip more educational, the orchard has interpretive signs and markers you can rely on for more information about the greenery.

Among the popular activities are picnicking, wildlife viewing, and dog walking.

Find Chico Seed Orchard in Mendocino National Forest on Cramer Lane.

Let the Kids Play at Degarmo Park

Situated on Leora Court, DeGarmo Park is a family-friendly community center that prepares everyone for an afternoon of fun.

As part of the Chico Area Recreation and Park District, this 36-acre community park is home to various sports courts and fields.

This is why many come by to play a few rounds of softball and tag.

Within its playground area, your little ones can experience maximum entertainment with diverse play equipment.

The property also has a dog park, perfect for your furry loved ones.

Make more unforgettable memories with your family and friends at DeGarmo Park!

Travel the Route at One Mile Recreation Area

Sycamore pool at One Mile Recreation Area

Ryanx7, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Get your phenomenal waterfront walking experience at One Mile Recreation Area.

This hiking area on Lower Bidwell Park is a local and tourist favorite because of its serene atmosphere and forested trail.

One of its eye-catching amenities is the Sycamore Pool which invites many for a summer swim.

Don’t miss out, and join the summer crowd!

Unlike most swimming pools, this pool doesn’t have a mild temperate feel because of the creek’s constant flow along its waters.

A bridge at One Mile Recreation Area

Ryanx7, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When you prefer a dry summer activity, go for a leisure walk or jog around the paved trails and enjoy the picturesque scenery.

Who knows?

The occasional bird or butterfly might just come by to say hello.

One Mile Recreation Area is on South Park Drive, ready to make your summer adventure dreams come true.

Join the Second Saturday Studio Visits at Chico Art Center

Do you have an eye for fine arts?

Then, free up your schedule for the Second Saturday Studio Visits at Chico Art Center.

Established in 1955, Chico Art Center was once the Northern California Creative Arts Center.

This center aimed to bring forth the relevance of creative arts within the community and its culture.

In 1992, the museum relocated to its current location on Orange Street.

Though regular museum hours require a fee, you don’t have to pay anything to enjoy art demonstrations every second Saturday or Sunday of the month.

Talk to artists in their studios, learn about the story behind their pieces, and get insight into art through another perspective.

Second Saturday Studio Visits is an art affair for the books!

Browse the Aircraft Collection at Chico Air Museum

Aircraft at Chico Air Museum

Bsudicky, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Check out the Chico Air Museum if you have an eye for aircraft.

This free public museum on Ryan Avenue gathers a variety of historical planes and air engines within an outdoor and indoor setting.

Founded in 2004, this museum officially opened with two major aircraft, the Russian Antonov AN-2 Colt and the Lockheed P-2V Neptune Navy anti-submarine aircraft.

Aircraft on the grounds of Chico Air Museum

Rob Hodgkins, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Over time, this collection of aircraft amassed over 19 planes, with added exhibits related to the museum’s theme.

Browse classic uniforms and NASA artifacts that you won’t find anywhere else in the world!

Come by Chico Air Museum and find your world changed.

Bring the Family to Farm City Celebration Harvest Festival

One of Chico’s most-sought after festivals is its annual Farm City Celebration Harvest Festival every November.

In 1979, Farm City Week in Chico started, which became a popular way to bring local food to the market.

Held at Bidwell Mansion on Esplanade, this festival features family-focused programs.

From arts shows to animal displays, you can be sure your little one will have a grand time at the site.

Bee demonstrations and horse carriage rides are also a staple at Farm City Celebration Harvest Festival.

You might want to jot down this annual event on your must-experience list in Chico.

See the World’s Largest Yo-Yo at the National Yo-Yo Museum

Interior of the National Yo-Yo Museum

Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever wondered what the world’s largest yo-yos look like and where you might find them?

You don’t have to look further than the National Yo-Yo Museum.

As the name suggests, this historical museum is home to various yo-yo memorabilia.

Check out colorful yo-yos, limited edition toys, and mandala-designed, fully functional ones.

Exhibit in the National Yo-Yo Museum

Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the biggest head-turner in this museum is the Big-Yo, the {“World’s Biggest Working Wooden Yo-Yo,” according to the 1982 Guinness Book of World Records.

Weighing 256 pounds, this yo-yo is a bigger version of the iconic No-Jive 3-in-1.

Start your self-guided tour within the National Yo-Yo Museum on Broadway Street on your trip to Chico!

Yo-yo collection in the National Yo-Yo Museum

Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sit on the Mosaic Benches along Downtown Chico

Art inspiration is never lacking in Chico.

A stroll along Downtown Chico can get you free access to the city’s numerous public art displays.

One of Chico’s outstanding public art pieces is the Luminary Benches, which were a tribute to the various communities and their contribution to Chico’s history.

You can find one on Wall Street, one at the corner of Second and Main Street, and another on Broadway Street.

Get a glimpse of the old Chico townspeople’s tradition of gathering at the city’s well when you visit the Dancing Trout Fountain in front of the City Hall.

On Main Street, the terrazzo Our Hands sculpture is another art sighting that tells of Chico’s rich art past.

Explore the historic downtown for other art projects in the city.

See the Art Relics at Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology

The Valene L. Smith, Museum Of Anthropology, is a wholesome and uniquely alluring art museum focused on human behavior and cultural diversity.

As part of California State University, this museum hosts three annual exhibits by anthropology students.

Some of its previous displays include a closer study of Japan’s internment camps and the Arctic people and their way of living.

Situated in the Meriam Library of the university on West 1st Street, the museum holds various cultural artifacts and relics in glass cases.

Will you add the Valene L. Smith Museum Of Anthropology to your itinerary?

Admire the Blossoms and Perennials at Bidwell-Sacramento River State Park

Welcome sign of Bidwell-Sacramento River State Park

Sharon Hahn Darlin, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Along River Road, Bidwell-Sacramento River State Park is a famous boat ramp site in Chico.

This state park ensures the preservation of one of the dying natural resources all over the country, the riverine habitat.

Within its cottonwood and oak trees, many riparian animals continue to thrive on their survival.

Why not canoe or kayak through the preserved habitat for a thrilling adventure?

A heron at Bidwell-Sacramento River State Park

Frank Schulenburg, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Fishing and hiking are also common among first-time and returning travelers.

One of its more prominent trails is the Indian Fishery Nature Trail, which boasts marshes on native soil.

Bidwell-Sacramento River State Park is only available for day use.

Visit the park during spring and see the beauty of the flowers and blossoms during its peak season!

Pipevine swallowtail at Bidwell-Sacramento River State Park

Frank Schulenburg, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Let Your Kid Go on a Magical Adventure at Caper Acres

Adventure awaits your child at Caper Acres.

This free outdoor playground isn’t just your regular play site.

Its design resembles a fairytale, a sure-fire hit among your little princes and princesses.

From its crooked castle-like slides to its famed Humpty Dumpty wall, there’s a lot of room for your kid to exercise their creativity and play with their peers.

Caper Acres—and its elaborate play equipment—is on South Park Drive near the Sycamore Pool.

Learn about Space at Chico Community Observatory

Exterior of the Chico Community Observatory

Derek Curry, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Chico Community Observatory may help you develop a love for astronomy with its prepared programs.

Operated by the Kiwanis Club of Greater Chico, this place is volunteer-run and open throughout the year.

Keep your eyes peeled for planets and stars when you take your turn at the telescope.

When there are upcoming celestial events, you bet this observatory can get you a closer look at them.

The best part is that you don’t have to pay anything to enjoy the amenities!

You can find Chico Community Observatory within Upper Bidwell Park on Observatory Way.

Other Things to Do Nearby

Do you have enough energy for another adventure outside of Chico?

Read on for more free activities nearby!

Spot Unique Wildlife at Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve

The Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve stands as a beacon of nature exploration in the nearby city of Forest Ranch, California.

Spanning over 7,000 acres of canyon and ridge habitats, this site is home to many plant and wildlife species.

Not only that, but the site is also a historical landmark.

A long time ago, the Mechoopda Indian Tribe lived in the area, where they had food and shelter.

The lands have become a natural hiking ground for explorers and outdoor enthusiasts.

Bring your binoculars, journal, or camera to capture the preserve’s unique wildlife and flower variety.

Drive for about 19 minutes northeast of Chico to reach Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve on Mile House Road.

See Resilient Ridge Key Phoenix Sculpture

Take a 19-minute drive from Chico to see one unique sculpture in Paradise, California.

The Resilient Ridge Key Phoenix Sculpture is one of Paradise’s well-loved public art installations.

This sculpture commemorates one of the deadliest wildfires in California.

It pays tribute to the homes lost during the tragedy by compiling keys belonging to the destroyed houses.

Moved by the stories of her neighbors, Jessie Mercer collected keys from the community to create this 800-pound depiction of the rising phoenix.

This sculpture now stands at the Building Resiliency Center, free for everyone to admire and reflect on.

If you’ve got the time, drop by the center on Skyway to get a glimpse of the Resilient Ridge Key Phoenix Sculpture.

Go on a Picnic at the Scenic Feather River Nature Center & Native Plant Park

For scenic sightseeing outside Chico, Feather River Nature Center & Native Plant Park is the best place.

Home to a bathhouse museum, this seasonal recreation site contained the history of the Maidu fishing village within its grounds.

The site provided a steady source of giant Chinook salmon, and Blue Oaks harvested acorns.

In 1926, this site became a city park with dwindling trails that boast a variety of plants, animals, and habitats.

With the Feather River guiding you on your journey, the place has also become an ideal spot for picnics and dates.

The Bath House Museum, on the other hand, provides educational excursions and displayed paintings for your ultimate nature adventure.

Find Feather River Nature Center & Native Plant Park in Oroville, California, approximately 26 minutes from Chico.

Final Thoughts

Chico is a city unlike any other because of its long list of attractions and awe-inspiring public spaces.

From unusual museums to artistic endeavors in the streets, this city has proven its worth as a diverse city that meets every traveler’s trip preferences.

Staying on budget while traveling is much easier with these free things to do in Chico, California!

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