By California standards, this former mining camp is in the middle of nowhere. Which is why it’s so great. Ninety miles north of Sacramento, Chico (pop. 86,000) is hidden between two national forests and serves as the de facto gateway for NorCal’s outdoor playgrounds—Mount Shasta, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and Lake Tahoe are all within a three-hour drive. And the city itself has spirit. Anchored by California State University at Chico, it has a collegiate vibe and progressive city policies, like a 2007 law requiring new develop-ments to design bike-friendly features. It’s also home to the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., cofounded by CSU alum Ken Grossman, and one of the largest municipal green spaces in the country, Bidwell Park.