The Sutter Buttes are more than 2,000 feet high and 10 miles in diameter. At the base of the buttes is a small town called Sutter. Both were named after John Sutter. He was a Swiss pioneer who is probably best known as being the owner of Sutter’s Mill, a sawmill where gold was first found in the state and the place where the California Gold Rush began.
Listener John Miles submitted a question to NSPR asking why people often refer to the Sutter Buttes as the “smallest mountain range in the world?” He also asked, what makes the Sutter Buttes a mountain range and how were they were formed?
To answer John’s question, I figured it would be a good idea to visit the area. Currently the Sutter Buttes are privately owned, but the public does have some access. Groups such as Middle Mountain Interpretive Hikes provide hiking tours of the buttes. I met up with one of the program’s guides, Mike Hubbartt.
Hubbartt and I hiked up the buttes for about five hours. We saw cattle, sheep, birds, native grasses and creeks. People were rounding up the cattle, which were about to be branded, and various colors of green caught your eye everywhere you looked. Hubbartt said people drive by this long skinny mountain range regularly and wonder about it.
“You have no idea the depth, or the complexity or the natural beauty and it’ll just amaze you,” he said.
The dynamic landscape allows for specialty hikes focused on everything from photography to bat research to flower studies. But it was when Hubbartt started uncovering the Native American history of the Sutter Buttes that he said he really began to realize their profoundness.
“There’s a really deep history here that most of us don’t even understand,” he said.
To learn how the Sutter Buttes were formed, I talked with Rachel Teasdale, a volcanologist at Chico State. She said surprisingly the buttes aren’t a mountain range at all.
“The Sutter Buttes are actually the remnants of several eruptions of volcanic domes,” Teasdale said.
These volcanic domes are about 1.4 to 1.6 million years old, she said. They formed when magma pushed upward through sediments of the Sacramento Valley. What happened is the magma would stack on top of itself rather than flow away, forming the domes or mounds, Teasdale said. The term “mountain range” is an informal description of the formation, she said.
“It’s usually associated with a cluster or line of high topographic areas, sometimes there are peaks involved as well,” Teasdale said. “But the smallest mountain range isn’t something that geologists measure.”
She said geographers may hold some kind of statistics.
“But there’s no sort of geologic record keeping for the size of a mountain range,” Teasdale said.
So if geologists didn’t give the Sutter Buttes the description of being the smallest mountain range in the world, who did?
For that answer, I turned to Sharyl Simmons, a fifth-generation Sutter County resident.
I visited Simmons at the Community Memorial Museum of Sutter County, located in Yuba City. She said the description is nothing more than good marketing.
‘The smallest mountain range in the world’ was some of the best advertising lingo that anyone came up with and it’s still referred to as that and when we want to be quick about it, we still call it that, even though it’s the remnants of a dormant volcano,” Simmons said.
So there you have it John. What’s often called the smallest mountain range in the world is actually leftovers of erupted volcanoes. And the chatter about the size of those remnants isn’t the result of a measurement, but is instead most likely just good past advertising.