The Sacramento Valley is one of the few parts of this state where I’ve never bothered to spend more time than I had to. It was never so much a destination as a long, boring obstacle preventing me from reaching Oregon at a reasonable hour. I’m almost positive this thought occurred to any of you who ever traveled across California on the I-5.

I learned something, though, on a trip to visit a friend in Davis this summer. The thing is, the Central Valley offers far more than a safe alternative to Lunesta. Nay, one of the more interesting counties in California to visit can be found along Highway 99.

But you see, that’s the trick. The true beauty of this nether region lies far away from the interstate. One must venture up the highways to the east to discover the real magic. And by “magic” I could only be talking about Butte County.

Ah, Butte County. Why I never visited you before, I haven’t a clue. You might know of this county because it’s the home of Chico, perhaps one of the strangest, prettiest, most flat-out contradictory cities I’ve ever visited.

The first thing you learn about Chico: It’s a lot younger than it has any right of being. There are simply too many twentysomethings here for a city a hundred miles north of Sacramento. Doesn’t civilization end north of Sac? Nay.

This is thanks to Chico State, a college Gauchos use as an excuse for when parents complain their college of choice is too much of a party school. “Oh, well… at least Isla Vista isn’t Chico State.” I can’t personally vouch for how wild or how often students at Chico State party. I can only tell you I was there on move-in weekend, and I’ve never seen more blonde, scantily clad ladies in one place before. I’ll match the campus pound for pound against the 6500 block of Del Playa.

Why would anyone ever apply to Chico State? Sure it’s pretty and old and surprisingly lush for a campus in the Central Valley, but these are all things one could apply to UC Davis. If anything, Chico State is UC Davis Lite… Diet Davis. Except with parties. Oh wait, maybe that’s why people apply.

Chico itself reminds me of Davis, except larger and with a Mr. Pickles. Native Chico residents don’t seem like they appreciate the students any more than Santa Barbara residents appreciate us. They have a nice fountain in the town square. I would say more, but it was humid and 100 degrees that day, and I tried not to stand outside more than I had to.

On to Paradise, Chico’s hilly neighbor to the east. I was shocked by this place, simply put. Despite being the California columnist, I’ve rarely ventured into the Sierra Foothills, the little sliver of wonder Paradise calls home. Once one gets past the sheer audacity of a town calling itself “Paradise,” you wonder why there aren’t more tourists. It’s located right next to Butte Creek Canyon, nothing less than a deliciously bite-sized Grand Canyon our state can keep for its very own. Paradise itself is boring and too enshrouded in pine trees to retain much interest for the tourist other than offering a place to stay for the night. Butte Creek Canyon is what you want.

Oroville Dam is to the southeast and looks exactly like Lake Shasta. Sweet. My favorite part was the country club denying my friend and me a choice photo op. Obviously a couple of kids from Santa Barbara aren’t esteemed enough in social status to belong to a country club in such a prestigious city as Oroville. I know my family aspires one day to live there.

As much as I was surprised by the activity in Butte County, however, there were some definite disappointments. I was stunned at how poor the air quality was. I know Sac is smoggy, but sheesh, this is Chico. Population 100,000. Why is the sky still the color of the silt along the Feather River? No matter – it’s worth taking the 99 instead of the 5 to Oregon to swing by this odd little county.