Phantom Falls, Oroville, CA



Phantom Falls is located in the North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve, near the town of Oroville, California. It is a seasonal waterfall, flowing only during the wet season, and disappearing during the dry season, hence its namesake. Phantom Falls, also known as Coal Canyon Falls, flows near the end of Coal Canyon. It flows over cliffs of basalt columns formed by ancient lava flows. North Table Mountain is a mesa-like structure that is both tall and flat, forming a table top like formation. There are many waterfalls on North Table Mountain, as creeks and streams make their way down from the table top cliffs. 


Trail starts near the oak tree at Cherokee Road Parking Lot



We started our hike on a quiet cold morning in December. I was nervous about this hike as there are no offIcial trails. The start of the trail was our first challenge. There were two entrances into the reserve at the Cherokee Road parking lot. We hesitated a little, but decided eventually to follow the small use trail running by the lonesome oak tree and a sign indicating the North Table Mountain Reserve. This direction proved to be correct.  Our second challenge was figuring out where the trail went. Shortly after we started from the oak tree, the trail was washed out by a narrow stream of water. We walked roughly parallel to it on higher ground until we came to another footpath intersecting our washed out trail. We spotted a confident looking fellow hiker on it, and decided to turn right here. Our guess was soon confirmed when we saw a more marked footpath on the other side of a stream with a small waterfall closeby. Soon after, our trail started disappearing, again forcing us to choose the correct path amongst the water washes and animal trails that surrounded us. We looked into the distance to spot a trail going uphill, and followed a faint footpath towards that trail. Again, our efforts paid off. We crossed a couple of streams to make our way to that footpath in the distance. The stream we had crossed had its water flowing off the tall cliff, which I'm sure formed a falls. Though we weren't able to see these falls from our standpoint, the crash of the falls below were definitely audible.


One of two ravine falls, near the "No Trespassing" sign

One of two ravine falls, near the "No Trespassing" sign


Just as we went up the hill, we spotted a fence with a “NO TRESPASSING” sign. The fence went all the way to a crack in the ground with water flowing in it, down the ravine. An up close look, showed a few footprints crossing around the fence to the other side. Up that hill, we got a view of a second waterfalls on the opposite side of the ravine. After a few ooo’s and aaaa’s, we made our way up the hill along a short wall of rocks on our right. Just beyond that, we heard gunshots in the distance. The kids got nervous and insisted we go back. After taking a quick vote, and not knowing what the gunshots were about, we started back towards that fence. As we approached the fence, we saw an older couple making their way towards us. I asked if they were heading to Phantom Falls. They said yes and asked if we had seen it. We said no, the gunshots had a deterring effect on us. The male of the couple, smiled and told us not to worry about the shots, they were just people "practising at the houses over there.  They are usually really careful about not coming here, because they know there are hikers here". They offered to help lead us to Phantom Falls if we were interested. 

 Approaching Coal Canyon, North Table Mountain Reserve, California

Approaching Coal Canyon, North Table Mountain Reserve, California


From this Ravine Falls, Phantom Falls was within a mile away. Within a few minutes of hiking, we were back on the right side of the “No trespassing” sign. There was a fairly obvious trail to follow from here on. Not too much longer walking in this meadow, we spotted a deep canyon in the distance, with columns of black rock forming flat walls flanking its sides. And there it was, a ribbon of water falling over the 160 foot basalt columns we call Phantom Falls, near the end of the canyon.

 Phantom Falls, View from the top of North Table Mountain

Phantom Falls, View from the top of North Table Mountain, near Oroville, CA


We took some pictures, and were ready to call it a day, when the man of that friendly couple said there was a way down to the cave behind the Falls. Would we like to come to see if the way down was passable? Would we?! My kids immediately started heading towards the “way down”, the first ravine after the falls, on the other side of the canyon, with a large tree in the middle of it. Before we got there, there was the matter of crossing the creek that formed the 160 foot tall Phantom Falls. We walked upstream from the Falls, and did some rock hopping. Cave behind Phantom Falls, here we come!

Ravine to the base of Phantom Falls, near Oroville, CA

Entrance to the ravine leading to the base of Phantom Falls, near Oroville, CA

Walking between two walls of columnar basalt in a small wash of water over loose rocks down to the base of Phantom Falls

Walking between two walls of columnar basalt in a small wash of

water over loose rocks down to the base of Phantom Falls


The ravine to the base of the falls had trees and vines in all directions. The first part was relatively easy, some loose rock on the bottom, sidestepping small tree trunks and vines. Next came the small creek flowing in our path down between two walls of columned basalt. Then came a small, slippery, almost vertical slope down. We opted to climb over some tree branches to cut the vertical slope by half. Nonetheless, the second part of the slippery slope still needed to be conquered. Being mother to three boys has taught me to conquer many of my fears to provide for sufficient supervision to my very energetic sons. I took my time making my way down this slippery slope, then over some large, loose, sharp rocks to the bottom of the falls. Our new friends told us that ropes are useful maneuvering in this ravine.


Near the base of Phantom Falls, Oroville, CA

Near the  base of Phantom Falls

Behind Phantom Falls

In the Cave behind Phantom Falls

 Looking at Phantom Falls from behind it

Looking at Phantom Falls from behind it


Arriving safely at the bottom, that thin ribbon of water from above look a lot thicker. The cave behind the Falls was a large open concave in the rock that allowed us to walk the entire width of the Falls while watching the thick ribbon of water plunge down behind trees. At the back of the Falls is a small opening. I read that was a Gold Rush era mineshaft. Don't let kids wander in alone, the deep dark shaft starts close to the entrance and goes down a long ways. We took a quick look and got ourselves out of there.  I have since learned that there are several Falls on this Reserve that has a cave behind waterfalls, this one behind Phantom Falls is the largest of them.


 Best Stream Crossing Ever! Stream that forms Phantom Falls downstream

Best Stream Crossing Ever! Stream that forms Phantom Falls a little ways downstream


A quick treat of hot apple cider and snacks at the base of the Falls helped us enjoy the view. Our way back was the same as the way in. We found a branched log to aid our crossinig the stream, a little ways upstream from Phantom Falls. That was my favorite stream crossing of all time!. Our hike took about 5 hours including the snack we had at base of waterfall and some accidental detours. We saw at least three waterfalls on our hike, and heard a few more.


In addition to the usual hiking necessities, a walking stick might have helped with the stream crossing. Water-proof shoes, GPS and/or compass may be useful. Flashlights are a good idea as well, in case it takes a lot longer than anticipated to return. Keep kids close as there are high cliff drops. This hike is very popular during the spring when wildflowers are blooming. Perhaps that might make it easier to navigate to the Falls. It helped us a lot to find Phantom Falls on our cellphone GPS, to ensure that we were heading in the right direction when our trails were not so obvious. I read after our hike that there is another access point to the Falls at Coal Canyon Road via Coal Canyon, though we did not explore this option. 


Practical Information (as of December 2016):


Features: Explore many waterfalls flowing over ancient basalt lava flows, including Phantom Falls, climb down a steep ravine to explore a cave behind the Falls .

Our hike: 5-6 miles return including accidental detours (possibly 4 mile return hike if there are no detours), fairly flat hike to Falls, rocky/uneven terrain, soggy hike, NO official trail, just some not-always-obvious footpaths, scramble down steep slippery ravine at end to explore cave (optional though highly recommended if you are able to), minimum 5 stream crossings,

Directions: From Hwy 70 in Oroville. Exit at Grand Ave (Exit 48). Go East (right) on Grand Ave for 1 mile. Left on Table Mountain Blvd, then quickly a right on Cherokee Road. Parking lot is about 6.3 miles north on the left side of Cherokee Road, marked by a green chute (at a time of our visit). Trail starts beside oak tree and Reserve sign. Turn right at first use trail to the right. Trails were hard to find, so we pulled up Phantom Falls on our GPS to make sure we were going in the right direction. Part of the trail requires walking on Private Property. Phantom Falls is northwest of the Cherokee Road parking lot. No bathrooms at time of our visit.

Cherokee Road Parking Lot GPS: 39.595923, -121.541736 (Thanks to the post from Xavier Salgado on Outbound Collective for this information)

Other Information:  In addition to usual hiking necessities, waterproof shoes, walking stick, GPS/compass, rope (if going to bottom of falls), snacks


Warning:  All listed adventures come with inherent risks. The information provided is based on personal experience which may or may not be typical. The safety of these adventures are dependent on a variety of factors including but not limited to: terrain, weather, wildlife, hiker skill level, human error, preparation and other foreseen and unforeseen circumstances. We do not assume any liability for the accuracy and completeness of the information provided.  As such, we will not be held responsible for any harm, injury, and/or loss that may result. Your personal preparation and judgement on the safety of each adventure is required at all times. Please use your own discretion and always be safe. 

Current rating: 5


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