Butte County, a quick 70 miles north of Sacramento via interstate 5, is more than just drive-by country. Besides being home to Chico, a vibrant college town; and Lake Oroville, second-largest reservoir in the state, it cradles several wildlife preserves where you and your canine companion can hike (and sniff) in the company of millions of honking, quacking, chirping, whistling winged critters.
The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex should be on every Californian’s bucket list. It includes six scattered units, each with dog-friendly trails passing through wetlands that in autumn and winter attract geese, swans, ducks and other waterfowl migrating by the millions along the Pacific Flyway. Start at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, just off Interstate 5 north of Willows, where you can get acquainted with the lay of the land via a 6-mile auto tour loop.
Roll down your windows, tune your car radio to 93.1 FM, let Sparky stick his nose out the window, stop, look and listen. Three park-and-stretch spots are interspersed along the way, including one with an elevated viewing platform (be sure to keep your excitable pup on a leash). During the winter height of the migratory season, the evening “fly off,” when tens of thousands of snow geese and other birds rise en masse at dusk with a thundering of wings, is one of the most spectacular natural spectacles you’ll ever see.
Arrive earlier in the day to pick up an interpretive booklet at the visitor center and embark on a 2-mile, ADA-accessible wetlands walk that meanders along elevated boardwalks and will take about an hour at a leisurely pace. Keep in mind that the best times to see wildlife are early morning and late afternoon from November through February, and definitely bring binoculars if you have them.
Want to overnight after watching the birds fly? Head to Chico, where Heritage Inn Express, Holiday Inn, Oxford Suites and Residence Inn are among dog-friendly options. For dinner, nab a table on the dog-friendly patio at Sierra Nevada Taproom & Restaurant, where you can try the latest craft beer offering alongside your burger, sausage trio, chicken pomodoro or other delicious fare.
Note: The Sierra Oro Farm Trails passport weekend, Oct. 7-8, is your chance to tour, taste and toast your way through Butte County at specialty farms and wineries. You’ll sample artisan wines, rice, olive oils and other products while getting to know the people who make them (and their canine sidekicks).