Phantom Falls is dramatic in the horizontal rather than the vertical sense. You come to the edge of a canyon to see a sheer face of basalt rock across from you with a small stream crawling over the edge to transform to a 134 foot waterfall. It isn’t the amount of water, like at other falls such as Toketee Falls, that takes the breath away, but contrast from the slow meandering flat hike to the canyon viewpoint of the rocky span. Phantom Falls is only visible a few months of the year and has no direct trail. So of course I went.
From the directions I had read online, I anticipated pulling off the side of the road next to some rancher’s gate, hopping a fence and running like hell in the general direction of Phantom Falls hoping I didn’t get shot at.
In actuality, (after getting lost driving through some private property), I had come to the parking area that had nearly 30 cars and 10 porta potties. I thought that this couldn’t be the parking area to find the secluded falls, but what I found was that this whole region was a popular place to just get out and enjoy. It was the North Table Mountain Recreation Area, public lands that during winter and spring months were populated by vernal pools, seasonal wildflowers, and ranging cattle. It also had hikers, photographers, families, kite-flyers, LARP-ers, and naturalists.
There is no designated trail, and indeed I saw the wisdom in either bringing someone who had been there before, a compass, GPS, or something like this that would aid me. Instead, I brought my instincts, a photo of a map that a friendly ranger had shown me, camera, and optimism.
The weather was overcast, and the flat, ranging landscape was dotted with meandering streams. I jumped over a few of these, avoided the cows, and crossed the damp trails. I followed a few groups who seemed to be migrating in the same direction of me, and occasionally stopped to photograph the purple lupines, yellow poppies, and flowers whose common name I believe to be brodiaea(?).
Before coming to Phantom Falls, I passed by two smaller falls, Ravine and Twin Ravine Falls. (After research, I have concluded that no, they are not both referred to as ‘The Twin Ravine Falls’ which would make sense, but one of them is named ‘Twin Ravine Falls’). I stood at the top and looked down, and it looked like the water fell into a sort of hidden jungle. I made a mental note that one day I would return to explore this underworld. I imagine that most hikers, like me, were simply eager to find phantom falls.
I continued along, skirting atop the black rocked Ravine Falls, until the landscape opened up again into rolling, flowered hills. I passed a photographer and his entourage, a model posing in a beautiful gown, assistants holding lights and extra lenses, and admired their dedication hiking all the way out here.
Finally, I came to the overlook. I stood on one side of Coal Canyon, named (incorrectly) for the dark hues of the rock beneath the soil surface. Across the way, Phantom Falls stood, stark and noble, cascading down.
Here I sat, perched near the edge so I could drink it all in. A few waves of hikers passed, taking a moment to look, take selfies, and continue. I listened and observed, not only the natural world but the people filtering in and out. Some were dismayed. “I thought it would be bigger…” one teenager mused, clearly disappointed. My knee-jerk reaction was to say silently in my head: ‘You take 50 million years of slow natural erosion and weathering, and make your own damn waterfall then.’ But instead I just kind smiled and enjoyed the view.
I sat and sketched. I normally take photos, both with my camera and my phone (I am still learning how to take photos with a camera using manual aperture and shutter speed settings as well as manually focusing, so it is nice to have phone photos as a backup). However, I have notice that in addition to being drawn to beautiful places in the outdoors, I have seen beautiful drawn images of such places. Alain de Botton, who is admittedly a kind of strange modern self-help guru and thinker, recommended learning to paint. His argument (as best as I can remember and paraphrase) was that the downside of the proliferation of digital photography meant that it was too easy to simply snap a photo and forget a place. But invest the time to paint a vista? One will have not only a better memory, but a fuller image of the entire scene as well. I don’t think I would enjoy painting, but a nice pen and notebook are more suitable materials for me.
So I sat and observed. Saw an older couple picnicking near the edge. Got approached by a friendly brown pit bull who could no doubt smell my recently eaten burrito. Watched a younger girl hula hoop along to music. And indeed, did hear the dismay of the teens that I described earlier, but overall noticed how many people simply enjoyed the natural beauty for what it was, rather than what it was not. My sketches are nothing great, but I enjoyed the experience of truly soaking up this vista I had hiked roughly an hour or so to get to.
The way back was relatively simple, although I managed to head slightly off one direction or another, I generally found my way back and managed to get to the crowded parking lot avoiding getting too muddy or messy.
On the way back, I stopped at a coffee shop in Chico. It’s not often I venture down here, so I wanted to enjoy the time I had. It was a full day of cooking breakfast, driving and getting lost, hiking and getting lost, finding the falls, sketching and eating, and making my way back. I was weary, but it was the best kind of weary.
It would have been easier with a guide, but finding your way alone is important. It presents different challenges and allows you to learn which instincts to trust. If you’re like me and you get lost just finding the trailhead, don’t forget that the parking lot is a lot bigger than what you might think. And don’t forget to enjoy the view.
Until next time, never stop exploring.