Though it arguably boasts one of the most spectacular waterfalls in California and an amazing display of wildflowers in the spring, North Table Mountain Ecological Preserve (just “Table Mountain” preserve to locals) is surprisingly unknown to many outside the area.
Located in the foothills of the northern Sierra Nevada, just 7 miles north of Oroville (approximately a one-hour drive north of Sacramento), the 3,315-acre Table Mountain preserve looks rather non-descript from afar. From Oroville, you can see the dark basalt (volcanic) cliffs and a hint of a flat plateau above, but little more.
But just you wait til spring and the explosion of wildflowers: From late February through late April (peaking in March and early April, depending on weather) more than 100 varieties of wildflowers explode into bloom, and a colorful carpet spreads as far as the eye can see – a real contrast to the backdrop of black basalt rock and green grasses. You step onto the Table Mountain plateau and your jaw drops. Every which way you look it seems more beautiful. And the colors are so varied they look good enough to eat.
The casual nature of the Table Mountain preserve is another treat. Although there are a few common-use trails that wind through the ravines and across the flat open expanses, there are no signed trails, no “stay on the trail” signs nor, in fact, any signs at all. For the most part, you just wander freely among poppies, goldfields, lupine, clover and more, going in whatever direction your fancy takes you. There are surprises at every turn. Dramatic ravines cut into the basalt table seem to magically and somewhat abruptly appear before you. Looking beyond the plateau, the shimmer of the city below appears to be the sea viewed from ocean bluffs. Numerous vernal pools will delight, as will the six waterfalls splashing into the ravines below.
Certainly one of the most awe-inspiring waterfalls in California is Table Mountain’s Phantom Falls, tumbling 164 feet as measured recently by the Chico Hiking Association. Also known as Coal Canyon Falls, it is about two miles from the main parking area if you go directly cross-country, and it is indeed impressive with its delicate spray of water rushing over the cliff’s edge. Don’t miss it.
A super area trail resource is the Chico Hiking Association’s excellent map of the cross-country Phantom Falls loop (about 6-7 miles). Download the Table Mountain Map here. In addition, be sure to download its wildflower guide, also by the Chico Hiking Association – it is best viewed on a smartphone.
For more information about the North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve, call the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, North Central Region, Rancho Cordova office at (916) 358-2900, the reserve at (916) 358-2869, or go to the official website, where directions and an overview map of the area are available. In general, once in Oroville, from Highway 70, exit at Grand Ave (exit 48). Go east (right) on Grand Avenue for 1 mile. Turn left on Table Mountain Blvd. and then drive for a tenth of a mile. Turn right on Cherokee Road and drive 6.3 miles north to the reserve. There is a small parking lot on the west (left) side of Cherokee Road that serves as the official access point to Table Mountain (porta-potties available but no water). If the lot is full, park alongside the road. PLEASE respect private property and do not cross fences or ignore no-trespassing signs.