An intense display of wildflowers highlights basalt outcroppings on North Table Mountain.
This is the first post in the Northern California Review, a new series I am kicking off that highlights other natural areas around our great state. I don’t intend these to be trail guides, but rather an opportunity to focus a little light on a particular area and why it is special. Subjects like geology, hydrology and history are the kinds of things I want to discuss. Often times I will draw attention to how they relate back to Mount Shasta, if in some way they do. In no way is this broader scope of areas covered by my blog intended to lessen the focus I will give to Mount Shasta on this site. Rather, it is my hope that I will place Mount Shasta in the broader context of the state and showcase how many excellent destinations we are blessed with. I hope everyone enjoys this journey…
When spring arrives in Northern California, there are few places as marvelous to behold as North Table Mountain. Located in the foothills of the northern Sierra Nevada just north of the town of Oroville, North Table Mountain is a spectacular combination of wildflowers and waterfalls. With dark rocky outcroppings, lush grass, swirling riots of wildflowers and a number of surprisingly impressive waterfalls, the landscape on North Table Mountain’s summit plateau is a colorfully surreal delight after many long months of winter. Indeed, the wildflowers on the mountain are easily the best in this part of the state and rival anything else found in the rest of California.
North Table Mountain is volcanic in origin, the result of substantial lava flows that covered much of the northeast corner of California’s great Central Valley. These flows are related to the geology of the entire northeast corner of the state, which is entirely volcanic in nature. Studying the geologic map of California, one notices that North Table Mountain (and adjacent, though much smaller, South Table Mountain) form the southernmost extent of the ancient volcanic activity. Beyond this point, the sedimentary rocks and punctuated granite plutons typical of the northern Sierra become the dominant landscape. The basalt rock, remnants of ancient lava flows, gives North Table Mountain its beautifully unusual rock protrusions. It has also been heavily weathered along the fringes of the large mesa. Large blocks of basalt have given way, exposing impressive canyons as well as columnar basalt formations.
A section of the geologic map of California. The brown light orange colors indicate the areas the experienced volcanic activity.
While the geology may be fascinating, it is the wildflowers that dominate the summit plateau in spring that are the most memorable feature of North Table Mountain. An extremely rare ecosystem identified as “northern basalt flow vernal pools” is found on top of the mountain. The vernal pools are formed in depressions where the basalt is less permeable. Water collects in the depressions and forms small ponds. The combination of these seemingly-out-if-place pools of water, along with volcanic soils, has allowed an unusual plant community to flourish. The unique environment is vividly manifested in the form of wildflowers. Many varieties are found here, but lupine, poppies, monkey flower and owl’s clover seem to be the most common. It is not so much the numerous varieties that make the flower displays so stunning but rather their terrific abundance. When the wildflowers reach their peak, spirals of color in bright orange, pink, yellow and white contrasted against dark purple and green blanket the entire summit plateau. It is a visual banquet, waiting for hikers to enjoy.
Despite their overwhelming presence, the wildflowers are not the only fascinating feature on North Table Mountain. The geology of the mountain is also deserving exploration. The formation is the remnant of an ancient lava flow that once washed down into the Central Valley. Most of the flow has since eroded and washed away, but the mesa that remains offers a chance to peak into the interior of these once vast flows. This is best done along the western rim, where the basalt layers are evident. This can also be observed along the rim of two large canyons that have cut into the western side of North Table Mountain. The northern canyon, Coal Canyon, is the larger and more easily accessible of the two. In addition to the rugged geology, it exhibits some weathered columnar basalt formations. Beatson Hollow lies further to the south and offers more solitude and a narrower chasm. Both are worth exploring and quite beautiful.
The presence of canyons is cause for the other spectacular feature of North Table Mountain. A surprising number of awesome waterfalls are found amongst this seemingly flat landscape. After the wet winter and the spring rains, numerous small streams develop on the eastern side of the summit plateau, flowing westward. Subterranean waters also rise to the surface and add to the volume as the streams flow. When the water reaches the western rim of the plateau, or the edges of the canyons, the water tumbles beautifully off the vertical cliffs. Although there are numerous beautiful cataracts along these streams, there are a few particularly notable waterfalls on North Table Mountain. These include Phantom Falls, Ravine Falls, Hollow Falls and Beatson Falls. These range from 165 feet to 70 feet high. All of them are beautiful and easily accessible to hikers.
The North Table Mountain Ecological Preserve. Parking is marked with “P”.
All of these spectacular features are contained within the North Table Mountain Ecological Preserve, which is administered by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The preserve is open to the public, though new in 2018, all Cal DFW lands require a day pass to enter. These are not available on site but can be purchased anywhere where fishing licenses are sold. There are few amenities at the preserve and all trails are unofficial. However, the paths to Hollow Falls and Coal Canyon are well-established and easy to follow. While these trails are useful, one of the great delights of North Table Mountain is the ease with which it can explored. While the summit is “flat” there are numerous small gullies lined with basalt outcroppings through which flow small streams. These just beg to be explored and, being lined with wildflowers, make lovely pathways. The wildflower blooms have gotten popular, so the peak times in spring have gotten very busy and if hiking around others is unwelcome, then the corridor between the parking area and Hollow Falls can be unwelcome. the rim of Coal Canyon sees a number of visitors as well. However, venturing away from these areas, even on peak weekends, will leave almost all the other hikers behind and solitude and beauty abound. Don’t let the potential for crowds stop an attempt to visit North Table Mountain. The combination of beautiful spring weather, staggering wildflower displays, interesting geology and lovely waterfalls is too great a combination to avoid. It is worth seeing no matter what and solitude is still to be had here.
Northern California is one of the most beautiful and spectacular corners of our great planet and home to many iconic landscapes. North Table Mountain may not immediately come to mind when thinking about the great scenes we are blessed with here, but for a few weeks in Marcha nd April, it stands shoulder to shoulder with world-renowned hiking destinations and beckons winter-weary hikers to come and delight in the apogee of the joys of spring.
North Table Mountain Gallery (click to enlarge):