Is Bidwell Park Really The Third Largest Municipal Park In The Country?

Oct 27, 2017

“My name is Josh Hegg and I had a question. When I first moved to Chico, a big point that everyone made was that Bidwell Park was the third largest municipal park in the country, so I’m curious where Bidwell Park actually stands in terms of park size in comparison to the rest of the country and where that rumor started and if it holds any merit at all.” 

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Good question, Josh. As I went to ferret out the answer, I found that Josh is far from the only person who has heard that. In fact, he’s in good company — something I learned along Big Chico Creek, the park’s most prominent feature, talking to passersby. 

“I think it’s about number three, nationwide. We’re pretty big.” 
“I’ve heard third in the nation.” 
“I believe it’s the second largest city park in the country.”
"Parks I’ve been in — it’s huge. It’s massive." 

Those are the voices of Mike Johnson, a Chico resident of nearly half a century; recent Los Angeles transplant Jerry Gallarno; and locals Diana Robinson and Bill Matthews who both grew up here and returned as adults.  

With that partial consensus in hand, I did what one normally does under the circumstances, approach the proper authorities. Shane Romain is the park services coordinator for the City of Chico and served for several years as a city park ranger. Surely, he would know.  

"So, we’re within the top 10 largest municipal parks in the United States, but within the top three in California,” Romain said. 

Hmm. With that not exactly definitive answer, I approached Lise Smith-Peters, Romain’s predecessor as park services coordinator to set the record straight.  

“Bidwell Park is 3,670 acres," she said.  

"How does that rank?" I asked.  

"In the nation? Gosh, I’m really not sure," she said. "I’m thinking like probably in the teens. But, I’ll tell you the truth. When I was hired, one of the first things I did, Dennis Beardsley asked me, he was the park director at that time, he said, 'Change the website because right now we say we’re the third largest municipal park in the country and I don’t think that’s true.' And so, he said, 'Make it "We’re one of the largest" and I checked the website before talking to you, and it still says that.” 

Credit Derek Curry / Flickr, via Wikimedia Creative Commons

Hmmm. No closer to a precise answer, but at least we know that locals didn’t pull the number from thin air — officialdom is just as perplexed.  

With the death earlier this year of a man considered mister Chico—longtime City Manager Fred Davis, I checked with Davis’ protégé, Tom Lando. 

“So, for years and years this has been the subject of debate,” Lando said.  

Himself a former city manager and someone who wore several hats over a quarter century with the city, surely he would know. 

"People have routinely said that it’s the third largest city park in the country," he said. "More recently I heard that we’re 10th or 12th, the fact is, I don’t think anybody has really done the research to say precisely which number we are.” 

Actually, someone has. I reached out to the Trust for Public Land, a national non-profit organization that funds and helps create public parks. I asked Charlie McCabe of the group’s National Center for City Park Excellence to list the four largest municipally owned parks in the nation.  

“Cullen Park in Houston Texas, George Bush Park, also in Houston Texas, the third one would be Mission Trail, which is in San Diego and the fourth would be Cecil Field Greenway, which is in Jacksonville, Florida,” McCabe said. 

OK, so it’s not third or fourth, how does Bidwell rank?   

“Bidwell Park ranks 26th, currently," he said. "It’s a little over 3,670 acres there, and just to give you an idea, the fourth largest park is a little over 16,000 acres, 16,100 acres.”   

Credit Robert Robles / Flickr

That left me perplexed — after all how would such a point of local pride be so off base? Perhaps it’s the third or fourth largest in California?  

"Ahh, I don’t think so, no," McCabe said. "You’d have a number of others that are larger than it.”  

One of the things I’ve noticed since moving to Chico myself is the tendency of locals to give directions using long-vanished local landmarks. Could it be that the oft-cited stat is also a relic?    

I went back to McCabe and asked how the park ranked when it was established in 1905.   

“We went back and looked at parks that were there and it turns out it was the fifth biggest,” he said.  

Well Josh, I hope that helped answer your question and provided some insight into the origin of this well-known non-fact. Perhaps long-time resident Bill Matthews, now 82, sums it up best.  

“Well, people have a tendency to stretch a little bit on some of the things they do and see, but as far as size it’s, it is big. It is a big park."