By Ryan Loughrey
From the directions I had read online, I anticipated pulling off the side of the road in next to some rancher’s gate, hopping a fence and running in the general direction of Phantom Falls hoping I didn’t get shot at.
In actuality, the parking area was well populated. It was even crowded, with maybe 30 cars and 10 porta potties. It was situated on top of the Table Mountain Ecological Area, and on this overcast Sunday that was cool but not cold, families and their dogs had gathered to enjoy the weather. There were also people in medieval costumes, and I assumed that I had stumbled onto either some kind of LARPing event or a Renaissance Faire. On a whim, I asked if some passersby if there was an event, and they informed me this was just a popular area.
I have grown up in northern California, and have never heard of Phantom Falls. I actually first read about it on this site, and decided it was definitely one of the top falls to visit locally. It is only visible in the winter months after heavy rainfall and the hike can be difficult since there is no established trail.
However, on the day I arrived, there was a friendly face from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, who pointed me in the direction of the falls (directions below). I followed her directions as best I could, navigating the relatively flat terrain and hopping over a few streams along the way. The land was verdant and green, dotted with yellow and purple wildflowers that the area is known for. There were several different groups of black cows lazily grazing or resting, and they seemed used to hikers crossing the uneven and moist landscape.
If hiking directly to Phantom Falls from the parking area, one passes by two smaller falls on the way. Ravine Falls and its counterpart Ravine Twin Falls are small but dramatic. It is pretty easy to navigate around and atop these to go towards Phantom Falls. Around here is the border of private and public property, so be aware of where you are hiking.
After a little while longer, following the unmarked trails further northwest, I came to viewpoint of Phantom Falls.
Phantom Falls aren’t dramatic in the sense of sheer volume of water plunging down vertically, but rather seeing the sheer horizontal scarp face of the rock wall ahead across the canyon. Phantom Falls drops into Coal Canyon (named no doubt due to the black hue of the black rock that is exposed – but not coal), and the viewpoint is across the canyon overlooking the falls. Although the trail snaked around to cross above the falls and then ultimately lead to a break in the rock where one can hike to the bottom, for now I just stood and gazed.
I ate my lunch of a breakfast burrito (which invited the attention of a very friendly brown pit bull that I got to know), and sat and enjoyed the view. I eavesdropped as some teenagers seemed less than enthusiastic, obviously hoping for more. I also saw a couple picnicking on another viewpoint, thrilled at the idea of eating with the beautiful backdrop. At another point, there was a girl who had brought hula hoops and was hooping near the edge, far enough away where she could be safe but close enough where she, too, could enjoy the splendor.
As I people watched, there were selfies, professional portrait photographers posing their models and adjusting the light screens, dogs being walked happily along the edge until owners pulled them back towards safer ground, and children who tugged their parents towards the hike that would lead beneath the falls.
The geology of it all was fascinating as well. In southern Oregon, I’ve hiked Upper and Lower Table Rocks, which seemed similar. A little research showed that these were formed the same way as North Table Mountain. (Which makes sense, given the names). Essentially, around 50 million years ago, lava flowed through the area and left layers of basalt. Rather than being forced up like other mountains, Table Mountain was formed in reverse – with years of erosion carving out the rest of the land and leaving the elevated basalt mesa (making it an example of inverted topography).
The hike back was simpler, although a few times I had to stop to orient myself. It was relatively easy to find the falls on this day, since there were small groups that slowly migrated towards the Phantom Falls, but on the way back I was alone. Plus, I get easily distracted when I stop to take photos. However, around an hour later I was back in the parking lot, which was still full. I was surprised by the diversity of people – families with their small children, adults with their colorful kites, photographers with bulky cameras and tripods, as well as naturalists observing the vernal pools and wildflowers that only exist in certain times of the year.
Although the hike itself wasn’t difficult, again the challenge came from navigating towards the falls. A GPS or a guide is recommended.
For anyone embarking to see the falls, remember that depending on the time of year the water flows could range in intensity. However, once reaching the viewpoint, I would recommend taking a moment to appreciate the sheer beauty of Phantom Falls. As the water drops 164 feet into Coal Canyon, take a moment to appreciate the millions of years that went into forming the dramatic basalt pillars and the carved cave beneath the falls. It is a location I will definitely be returning to.
Directions to Parking Area:
From Oroville on Hwy 70, take exit 48 (Grand Ave). Follow east for 1 mile to Table Mountain Boulevard. Turn left for 0.2 miles, then right on Cherokee Road. Drive 6.3 miles on Cherokee Road. There is a moderately sized, unmarked parking area on the left at a green cattle gate.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine