A Table Mountain Experience
By David Lukas
Albin Bills and I are standing atop North Table Mountain, a flat-topped mesa at the eastern edge of the Sacramento Valley. Just below us, maybe only a hundred feet, lies a solid, roiling carpet of fog that stretches west to the Coast Ranges and southward over the curve of the Earth. Bills, who teaches natural history at Butte College north of Oroville, remarks that it looks like the frozen crust of an arctic sea, a texture of whiteness without shadow.
Turning away from the view, we look around us at an equally astonishing, though far more subtle, landscape. This strange mosaic of grassland, flat volcanic outcrops, and vernal pools perched some 1,000 feet over the Valley floor is unlike anything I've seen. Bills points out "northern basalt flow vernal pools," an endemic plant community occurring in fewer than twelve localities in California, and one of the unique features of the mesa. "You feel like you're in your own little world here," he muses. "There's nothing else like it."
In the distance, a determined flock of western meadowlarks crosses the horizon, while three bald and two golden eagles fly over our heads. The sharp piping calls of horned larks ring out as their archenemy, a prairie falcon, streaks past.
North Table Mountain marks one of the few remnants of the Lovejoy Formation, a series of pre-Sierra Nevada lava flows that originated somewhere east of Honey Lake and poured westward along an ancient stream channel. West of North Table Mountain much of this route now lies under Valley floor sediments, but outcrops of the Lovejoy Formation reappear on the west side of the Sacramento Valley, as at Putnam Peak just north of Vacaville.
Softer rocks which once formed the shoulders of the stream channel and lava flow have since eroded away, leaving the ribbon of resistant lava perched high above the valley floor. Erosion created a typical mesa shape, flat-topped hills supported by sheer cliff faces, while ongoing shifting of the Earth produced the small faults and ridges found on the surface.
The 3,400-acre preserve is centered on the mesa, but it also encompasses dramatic bluff faces and portions of two fascinating canyons: Coal Canyon (with a spectacular waterfall northwest of the parking area) and Beatson Hollow.
When and Where
Wildflower displays run from February through early May, with a peak typically in the first two weeks of April, when the site can be crowded on weekends.
Travel north from Marysville on Highway 70 and take the Grand Avenue exit in Oroville. Turn right (east) for one mile, then left on Table Mountain Road for 0.2 miles, then right on Cherokee Road. Follow Cherokee Road 6.5 miles as it winds up onto the mesa. Once the road reaches the plateau, follow it eastward to a green cattle chute, posted wooden map, and roadside parking just before the road starts descending again. Access is through one of two entries at the parking area.
There are no marked trails on the property and it is possible to become disoriented among the dips and ridges. Visitors are asked to stay on public land, which is signed along boundary fences.
History buffs may want to continue north on Cherokee Road 4.5 miles to the historic townsite of Cherokee, with its old cemetery, huge hydraulic mining pit, and museum that's often–but unpredictably–open on weekends during the wildflower season.
On this sunny winter day it is peaceful and quiet here, but at our feet Bills points out the first signs of a frenzy soon to engulf these igneous slopes–tiny green, tightly rolled spears of young wildflowers barely poking out of the soil. In fact, according to Toni Fauver in her new Wildflower Walks and Roads of the Sierra Gold Country, North Table Mountain is the premier wildflower display in the northern Sierra Nevada foothills.
While plowing converted other native Valley habitats into agricultural land, the dense rocky soil of North Table Mountain spared this small pocket of the region's former wildflower glory. Jim Jokerst, a legendary figure among California botanists, considered North Table Mountain "a well-preserved, strikingly diverse, remnant of the Sacramento Valley's native grassland vegetation." For the most part, human impacts have been limited to wildflower enthusiasts and grazing cattle.
Each spring, a heavy crush of visitors threatens these fragile habitats, sometimes knocking down fences, harassing cows, and crossing through private property. Local landowners, for the most part, have been remarkably patient, and the Department of Fish and Game, which has managed much of this site since 1993, is working hard to clearly mark public access areas in order to reduce conflict.
North Table Mountain supports a rare mix of both Sierra Nevada foothill and Valley floor species–about 287 species according to Jokerst's Flora of Table Mountain. This includes a number of unusual species such as Butte County calycadenia, Austin's rockcress, and a newly discovered clover, which will be named to commemorate Jokerst. Not only are there a lot of species here, but more than two-thirds of the plants are native.
Bills has been returning to North Table Mountain for three decades, and he delights in leading my eye through the patterns of flowers that are invisible at this time of year but familiar to him. He sketches out a diagram of an imaginary rock outcrop with concentric rings of flowers surrounding it: the intense yellow of dwarf cliff sedum (Parvisedum pumilum) amongst dark basalt cobbles, deep golden valley goldfields (Lasthenia californica) on thin soils, then the rich blues of sky lupine (Lupinus nanus) on deeper soils. Before my eyes the mesa transforms into a dappled sea of color straight out of an Impressionist painting.
Bills leads me over low basalt ridges, past seeps and swales and under the sweeping arms of an immense valley oak, and points out a hillside that will be carpeted with brilliant orange caespitose poppies (Eschscholzia caespitosa) in early April. We follow a gully collecting water in rocky pools. It leads us across the mesa to a sheer bluff face where a waterfall shoots into space and plunges toward a deep pool at its base. Come spring, bright yellow monkeyflowers (Mimulus guttatus) will beckon at the water's edge, while succulent live-forevers (Dudleya cymosa) will cling tenaciously to tiny rock crevices.
Many hundreds of California newts congregate at these pools each spring, along with Pacific tree frogs and common garter snakes. When it warms, western rattlesnakes will sun themselves along rocky ledges, and a coast horned lizard may make a rare appearance.
Bills pauses next to some California kangaroo rat burrows, ubiquitous on the mesa. A typical burrow slopes down at a shallow angle with a small apron of dirt cast about the entrance. Worn pathways radiate out from the burrow, reflecting this rodent's nocturnal ramblings. I'm elated that these are the only trails we see all day.
Our meandering walk across the flat, expansive mesa, open to the sky and the horizon, fills the afternoon. I suspect that when I return in the spring most of my day will be spent sitting in one spot keying out flowers with a Jepson Manual in my lap. It's nice to wander casually now, enjoying the gentle hush of the land before its blooming.
David Lukas is a freelance writer and naturalist living in the Sierra Nevada foothills. His book, Watchable Birds of the Great Basin (Mountain Press), is due out Spring 1999.
© Copyright 1999 by California Academy of Sciences. Text and photographic images are intended solely for on-screen viewing by individual user.