About Phantom Falls
Phantom Falls was an impressive plunging 164ft waterfall flanked by giant basalt columns as well as a thinner companion waterfall.
While the waterfall itself was something we found worth targeting for a visit ever since we first learned about it, I thought it was the wildflower blooms that made this excursion even if the waterflow wasn’t great.
The falls ran on the seasonal Gold Run stream, which was probably so-named from this area’s Gold Rush heyday in the middle of the 19th century.
That was a time when settlers first came to California in waves in an attempt to strike it rich (and causing problems with Native Americans), which ultimately forever changed the state to what it is today.
These days, the North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve (through which the Phantom Falls Trail passed) consisted of wide open pastures grazed by cattle from neighboring farms.
And it’s this open field of grasslands that resulted in conditions ripe for Spring wildflowers, which we were fortunate to witness during our early April 2021 visit.
In any case, it was the waterfalls that drew us to this area, and it turns out that there are quite a handful of them here, which can be combined in longer, extended hikes.
However, for the purposes of this write-up, I’ll just focus on the Phantom Falls experience, and point out the departure points for the other waterfalls that I’ve managed to visit (which have their own separate write-ups).
Timing A Visit To Phantom Falls
Before getting into the trail description, I wanted to discuss the timing of making a visit since this waterfall has a limited season.
In my mind, there are three considerations for timing a visit, and they are to:
- Visit during the maximum waterflow
- Visit during the peak superbloom of the wildflowers
- Visit when the lighting is best
If I had to make a guess, I’d argue that Phantom Falls would flow best in the Winter and early Spring periods, but this is completely dependent on how much precipitation has fallen in California’s Wet Season (typically Winter and early Spring).
When we visited in early April 2021, most of California was having a drought year so the Gold Run stream was well past the peak and was in danger of trickling or going dry in another month of no rain.
As you can see in the first photo on this page, the smaller companion waterfall was definitely trickling during that visit.
So based on that observation, perhaps early- to mid-March was ideal for a visit to see the falls flow well, but again, this window can shift depending on the Winter rainfall accumulations.
As for the timing of the wildflowers bloom, it seemed like our early April 2021 visit was either at or just past the peak.
Indeed, as you can see in the photos on this page, the fields were decorated in multiple hues.
I suspect that the wildflower blooms has to do with the temperatures so they may bloom early if the temperatures rise in the Spring earlier rather than later.
As a result, perhaps March might be the start of the blooms, if I had to take a guess, and if you combine that with the waterflow, I’m guessing March would have been great for the year 2021.
Nevertheless, maybe in a different year where Northern California might have seen more rain as well as warm temperatures in the Spring, then perhaps April would have been better.
It all depends on both precipitation and temperature patterns.
Finally, in terms of time of day to visit Phantom Falls and its neighboring waterfalls, I’d argue that early- to mid-afternoon on a sunny day would be best because just about all waterfalls faced west.
Under such conditions, you might even see a rainbow if the sun’s in the right position as it starts to sink into the horizon.
Of course, if the weather’s overcast, then time of day doesn’t matter so much, and at that time, perhaps avoiding crowds (typically an early start will help with that) becomes the priority.
Trail Improvements and Permits
As far as the trail description is concerned, it seems to be vastly improved compared to the chaotic and less-developed conditions described in prior trip reports on the internet.
So I’ll just focus on what I’ve seen, which I’d imagine was more straightforward than what crowdsourced websites like AllTrails or TripAdvisor might lead you to believe.
In fact, from my observations, a large percentage of people who provide feedback on those crowdsourced platforms tend not to follow hiking ethics nor exercise situational awareness.
Such behavior tends to adversely impact the experience for other people who follow after them.
The bottom line is that if you stay on the trails and follow the signs (as well as respecting social distancing), then you’re far less likely to commit trespassing or trampling where you shouldn’t.
Finally, there is a per-person fee to procure a CDFW Lands Pass to visit the North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve, which I was able to do by buying my permit online.
Apparently, you can also do it on the spot as there’s a QR code on one of the trailhead signs.
Sometimes I wonder how well this fee collection is enforced though as I’d imagine there were more non-paying visitors than those who have paid.
Trail Description – From The Trailhead To Ravine Falls
Starting from the trailhead parking area for the North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve (see directions below), I traversed a cattle maze and embarked on a fairly wide and well-used trail.
During my visit, it was flanked by mats of colorful wildflowers as the trail followed signage saying that I was leaving the ecological reserve boundary.
At about a half-mile, I reached a signed trail junction where the path on the left went to Hollow Falls (I have a separate write-up for this optional excursion), and the path on the right continued to Phantom Falls.
Following the continuation of the Phantom Falls Trail, it continued to traverse a wide open field with a couple of temporary streams to cross.
The first of these crossings was on Campbell Creek, which was the stream responsible for Hollow Falls.
So if there’s a good amount of water in this creek, then it might be worthwhile to extend a visit to see the other waterfall.
Other than that, this wide open path meandered for another 0.6-mile to another signpost pointing the way towards Ravine Falls.
From this signpost, I then went another 0.2-mile when I noticed the namesake ravine as well as what turned out to be the upper drop of Ravine Falls, which was trickling during my visit.
I’d imagine that this sign was here to keep hikers on the path going left into the ravine instead of skirting around it (and trespassing along the way).
So continuing on the proper trail, it narrowed as it descended roughly 100ft into the ravine descending towards a switchback before making the final descent towards a signed junction for the spur at the base of Ravine Falls.
From in these depths, Ravine Falls provided a gentle spray in its cool, shady grotto, and it provided temporary relief from the warm afternoon sun exposure throughout most of this hike.
The base of Ravine Falls was about 1.7 miles from the trailhead (according to my GPS logs) though I recalled some signage suggesting it was more like 1.5 miles.
Trail Description – Beyond Ravine Falls
Continuing on the trail to Phantom Falls, after crossing Ravine Creek, the trail then climbed another 140ft to leave the ravine.
Towards the top of this climb, there was some fencing (probably erected to keep people away from the neighboring private property) as well as lots more wildflowers (including California poppies).
Nearby, there was another trail coming in from the right, and I’d imagine that must have been the old trail that involved trespassing.
Anyways, continuing on this trail for another half-mile, I reached another signposted junction, where the path going left went 0.1-mile to the Phantom Falls Overlook as well as another 0.7-mile to Lower Ravine Falls (the latter has a separate write-up).
On the other hand, the vast majority of visitors continued straight ahead for the last 0.1-mile to a fairly wide bluff providing a more isolated and direct look at Phantom Falls.
This was the turnaround point for the majority of visitors, and my GPS logs suggested that it was roughly 0.8-mile from Ravine Falls to this overlook or 2.5 miles from the trailhead.
By the way, if you’re looking for that photo showing both Phantom Falls and the “Little Phantom Falls” together in one shot, that came from a precarious overlook that branched off from the Lower Ravine Falls Trail.
I say it’s precarious because it involved a bit of careful maneuvering on a narrow basalt ledge before climbing on the other side of its crease and onto a basalt knob.
When I checked out this unsigned spot, I was all alone as apparently not many people were aware of it.
However, I found this to be one of the most peaceful ways to view Phantom Falls, especially since there seemed to be California condors gliding this way and that in Coal Canyon.
Trail Description – Beyond Phantom Falls
Finally, while most people turned back from the overlooks of Phantom Falls, I took that as an opportunity to extend my visit and try to enjoy the scenery from other, more unusual perspectives.
First, I continued to skirt along the rim of Coal Canyon as I followed a trail that descended steeply towards the Gold Run Stream and the brink of Phantom Falls.
Since there were no railings, I had to exercise extreme caution in not edging out too close to the edge of the cliff.
Beyond the Gold Run, the trail then steeply ascended as it narrowed and traversed another field of wildflowers.
Clearly, there were fewer people that went this far, which explained why the trail was narrower, but it ultimately turned west and got me to the top of one of the giant basalt bluffs looking back at the Phantom Falls.
This informal viewpoint was about a quarter-mile beyond the brink of Phantom Falls, or a half-mile beyond the overlook that most visitors went to.
During my visit, I did notice one couple who seemed to be locals that knew what they were doing that managed to scramble their way down underneath the overhang behind Phantom Falls.
From what I could tell, there was a faint overgrowth use-trail that steeply went into one of the ravines between basalt bluffs before skirting along the base of the basalt cliffs.
There is definitely some risk involved in doing this, and I opted not to follow them down to the base of the falls.
Nevertheless, the fact that I witnessed these people pull off that feat tells you that it is possible, but it’s definitely not for everyone.
If I had to tally up all the hiking that I did just to experience Phantom Falls, then I’d say that the hiking distance was a minimum of 4.5 miles round-trip.
But with some extra exploration, I probably went more like over 5 miles round-trip (keeping in mind that I did do other detours for Lower Ravine Falls and Hollow Falls as well as going past the brink of Phantom Falls).
Overall, I spent a solid 4.5 hours away from the car (including all the detours), but I’d imagine that you can easily spend about 3 hours on just the Phantom Falls excursion alone.
Phantom Falls resides in a combination of the North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve and some private lands near Oroville in Butte County, California. It is administered by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.
Phantom Falls was best accessed from the North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve Trailhead, which is near Oroville so I’ll describe the driving directions from there.
I’ll also describe the driving directions as if we were coming from Chico.
Driving from Oroville to North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve Trailhead
From the main drag through Oroville on Montgomery Street (there’s a Hwy 70 off-ramp for it), we’d take it east towards a roundabout with Table Mountain Blvd (4th exit).
Then, we’d drive north on Table Mountain Blvd for about 0.8-mile before turning right onto Cherokee Road.
Finally, we’d follow the paved but somewhat narrow, unbanked, and bumpy Cherokee Road for a little over 6 miles to the North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve Parking Lot on the left.
When we were there in early April 2021, it was so busy that people even parked there cars on either side of Cherokee Road going at least a half-mile or more in each direction.
That gives you an idea of how busy it can get here.
Overall, this 8-mile drive should take less than 30 minutes.
Driving from Chico to North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve Trailhead
From Chico, we’d drive the Hwy 99 south for about 15 miles to its junction with the northbound Hwy 70.
Then, we’d follow the Hwy 70 north for a little over 6 miles to a turnoff for Cherokee Road on the right.
Next, we’d follow Cherokee Road for about 5.5 miles to the North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve Trailhead Parking on the right.
Overall, this 28-mile drive would take roughly 30 minutes.
For more geographical context, Oroville was about 70 miles (roughly 1 hour and 15 minutes drive) north of Sacramento, 94 miles (90 minutes drive) south of Redding, 152 miles (2.5 hours drive) north of San Francisco, 151 miles (3 hours drive) west of South Lake Tahoe, 184 miles (3 hours drive) north of San Jose, and 451 miles (7 hours drive) north of Los Angeles.
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