Get Your Feet on the Table

Geology, Photography, Wildflowers

Where rocks and wildflowers beautifully coexist for a few months a year.

For a few months of the year, there’s a flat vista rising about 300 feet above Oroville that offers up an intriguing, if short-lived, natural show I find completely irresistible: acres of rugged volcanic basalt rock covered in almost as many acres of wildflowers.

I arrived up at the North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve before sunrise for two reasons: to catch the best light of the day and to get ahead of the crowds that converge on the landscape, especially on a Sunday in the spring.

Knowing the quiet stillness of the predawn is fleeting, I quickly pulled together my backpack and tripod and set out on the trail to where I knew there would be some moving water and small gatherings of lupin for me to shoot. The water and lupin are also fleeting, as by mid summer both will have disappeared from the landscape.

What is striking to me is as I walk across the rocky surface is nature’s contradiction at play at my feet. Delicate and colorful wildflowers scratching out a life in the pinch of soil gathered in the small surface fissures of the rock, remnants of a millions-year-old tectonic rupture that may have had its beginnings in the Yellowstone supervolcano, now hundreds of miles away.

There is much more to see than a few hours on a Sunday morning can accommodate. And even in midsummer, after the flowers and water have evaporated, the geology alone is fascinating. What you’re walking on is a hard cap of lava that covers at least two previous flows similar in nature and have since been thrust into the air along with the rest of the Sierra. It now overlooks the Sacramento valley below that it was, at one time, eye level with.

So if you find yourself in the Chico area, or the lakes above the Oroville dam, and you’re a bit of a rock nut, set aside a few hours to walk on the top of this ancient piece of California geology.

As I’ve written before, a visit here would be enhanced by a little studying beforehand: here’s a good place to start: Table Mountain Ecological Plan.

The reserve is managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and visitors should have a CDFW Lands Pass.

Kid factor: Think science field trip. Arrive ready to discover some geology to make it interesting as the landscape is subtle and a little learning will make for a better experience for younger visitors. Lots of rocks to climb around on, but please be mindful of the delicate flowers during the spring. There are water features in the spring and trails that seem to go in just about every direction; pick one and see where it goes. You might run across cattle grazing at anytime.

Fitness factor: Easy access from the parking lot. Some parts of the trails can be challenging; I opted to avoid a climb down to one of the waterfalls thinking it was a bit sketchy for my knees and a backpack of camera gear. Like most places in the interior of California, it can be hotter than you think in the summer, so drink fluids accordingly. Lots of exposed rock as well; not sharp obsidian, but rocks nonetheless.

Photo factor: I find myself doing two things in this flat setting: Wide panos and tight, almost macro flowers. Anything in between just seems not photo worthy, with the exception of a few compact water feature mini landscapes. I’m currently on an ‘old lens new trick’ kick using adapters for my set Mamiya 645 lenses with macro rings, which worked pretty good here. They’re not as crisp and clean as a new Zeiss lens, but it gets the job done in a different way, even if I need a little boost in Lightroom to finish the shot off.