Up The Road: Sutter Buttes

Apr 27, 2016

Sutter Buttes
Credit Ken Schneider / Flickr, Creative Commons

You’re driving home up 99, feeling as road worn as an old tire. As the landscape opens before you and the sky expands, the freeway stress starts rolling away. But it’s not until you reach the Sutter Buttes that you fully relax and breathe, deep. It’s not until you reach the Sutter Buttes that you know you’re almost home.

Visiting the Sutter Buttes, sometimes called the world’s smallest mountain range, is a similar experience, but very rare, because the land is privately owned. You need to make a special effort to go. When you do, you’ll find yourself returning to a different kind of home, one ancient and silent and so deep in peace that even birdsong intrudes. It’s a sacred place, people who know it will tell you. Here, you can relax and breathe, deep.

Looking out from the Buttes into the valley, especially during a wet, wet winter, it’s easy to imagine these rice fields and orchards more than 140 million years ago, when the land was inundated by a vast inland sea complete with swimming dinosaurs. Just hundreds of years ago, before dams and levees stopped spring flooding, there was a seasonal sea—wind-driven waves of fresh water lapping at this ten-mile-wide island at the center of the Sacramento Valley, the place where wildlife, native peoples, and, later, farmers and ranchers, all took refuge.

Sutter Buttes
Credit Miguel Vieira / Flickr, Creative Commons

Barring floods, this is a perfect time to explore the Sutter Buttes.

If you’re the D-I-Y-type and like country roads, get the big-picture, “outside” view by circling the Buttes on your own tour, a 45-mile loop doable by bike or car. Maybe you’ll want to head northwest from Yuba City on Butte House Road, which goes right by the very informative county museum (open all day Wednesday through Friday, but just noon to 4 Saturday). A helpful map on the hikes website will help you decide where to start and end your road trip. Whatever your route, keep in mind that you will be out there; this is not a park, and there are no picnic areas, restrooms, or hiking trails. Plan accordingly.

Sooner or later, you’ll need to visit properly—go inside—by signing up for a hike, offered from late October into May, through Middle Mountain Interpretive Hikes, exclusively. Outings are rated from very easy or easy to strenuous or extremely so – one or two boots to five or six boots. Themes range from nature study, full-moon, and spring wildflower hikes to Native American mythology and Maidu cultural experience. Only those in top shape (and free of vertigo) are invited on Tres Picos—a trek that summits North Butte, Old Man, and Pigeon Peaks—and similar, very challenging adventures. For large groups (up to 10 people) or to combine experiences, consider arranging a charter hike.

Sutter Buttes in the spring.
Credit Darin Barry / Flickr, Creative Commons

  Plan to attend the annual fundraiser, “Sunset Serenade,” in May, for an optional easy or strenuous hike—you choose—plus hors d’oeuvres, good wine, a catered dinner, classical music, and fine company, all graciously served up at the base of North Butte. Look for other special events in the Fall.

Attention, teachers: Middle Mountain also offers curriculum standards-based hikes for third, fourth, fifth and sixth-graders, through its education program.

For more hike details and reservations, contact Middle Mountain Interpretive Hikes. For more information about the Sutter Buttes and ongoing work to protect the land and its resources, contact the Sutter Buttes Regional Land Trust. Be sure to visit the Community Memorial Museum of Sutter County on Butte House Road in Yuba City. A great book is Inland Island: The Sutter Buttes, by Walt Anderson, which you can buy online through the land trust.