Exploring the Buttes
A guided hike through the Sutter Buttes offers insight into geology, natural history of the region
Growing up in Yuba City, my bedroom window offered a view of prune trees and the Sutter Buttes. Those jagged volcanic peaks piercing the flat, fertile Central Valley floor were a little mysterious, later luring my high school buddies and I to cut class and drive west, slicing through orchards now planted with houses, and park at the base of the Buttes. We’d wistfully discuss climbing the rock-studded hills, but acquiesced to the fences that kept us out.
In the late 1970s, the Sutter Buttes Naturalists got the nod to lead hikes through some Buttes acreage. By 1989, the group morphed into the nonprofit Middle Mountain Foundation (MMF), and today offers 19 different hikes exploring the smallest mountain range in the world, a circle of peaks approximately 10 miles across, covering 75 square miles.
Some hikes focus on wildlife; others on geology; and others still focus more on the view. On the group’s website, each hike’s difficulty is rated with hiking-boot icons. An easy option such as “Birds in the Buttes” rates one boot, while “Butte Transect—High” is a five-booter, which means it’s strenuous and only those in top form should attempt it.
The hikes, ranging in price from $35 to $55 per person, are offered from October to February, when fire danger is low and the most unpopular Sutter Buttes residents—rattlesnakes—are in their winter slumber.
Earlier this month on the East Shaeffer Ranch Ridge Hike (a two-booter), snakes were a nonissue. However, thanks to recent rains, mosquitoes voraciously feasted on the group of 17 hikers.
Laura Lush, a Yuba City educator, led the group and provided historical background. She pointed out turpentine weed, Medusa head and wild oat grasses, erodium, and puffball mushrooms. The extinct volcano is home to feral pigs, bobcats and ringtails, flicker woodpeckers and thrushes. Meadowlarks filled the air with song—no traffic roar here.
Matt Lewis and Seung Yen Hong had driven from Oakland to check out the Buttes.
“I had no idea this was here. I like how preserved everything is,” Lewis observed. “There’s nothing like it in the Bay Area.”
Hong agreed. “The landscape is not disturbed. There’s no one else here,” she marveled.
Ty Shaeffer, fourth-generation owner of the 1,200-acre ranch where he farms almonds and grapes, opened up his property to MMF hikes in 2006. He was on hand to introduce the group to his land.
“People don’t realize the Buttes are private property, owned by 12 families. That’s why they stay so pristine—we haven’t allowed development,” he explained. “The hikes help people understand this geology, the Native American influence and that of white pioneers.”
Though they considered the Sutter Buttes spiritual and sacred ground—and didn’t live there—Maidu, Wintun, Concow and Nisenan Indians regularly trekked the Buttes to harvest the acorns of blue and live oak trees and fish from streams or the two reservoirs. Also of historical interest, on another hike on the same ranch, visitors can catch a glimpse of a Cold War relic: the defunct Sutter Buttes Titan missile site. It’s one of three old missile sites in Northern California; the others are in Lincoln and Chico.
The 5-mile hike followed an easy trail that climbs uphill, where the terrain was dotted with volcanic rocks. About 1.6 million years ago, early in the Pleistocene epoch, magma pushed up through the thick Sacramento Valley sediments, forming extrusive domes in the Buttes’ core, Lush explained. Explosive eruptions formed pyroclastic rocks, andesite and rhyolite.
“Pyroclastic blasts—think of Mount Vesuvius—and lahars, wet flows from melted ice like those that moved down during the  Mount St. Helens eruption, helped develop the Buttes,” Lush said.
Another feature defining the landscape is stone fences, which could have been built by the Chinese or forced Native American laborers who stacked the smaller rocks spit out from the volcano.
Geological studies indicate there’s a ridge with high magnetism and gravity deep under the Sacramento Valley and directly beneath the Sutter Buttes, perhaps an inactive fault that differentiates the granitic and metamorphic rocks common to the eastern Sierra Nevada from the oceanic rocks found west of the Coast Range.
Not far into the hike, I paused to turn around and look down at the valley—a patchwork of farms—and to the east at the Sierra Nevada. The clear day revealed snow-capped Mount Shasta (180 miles away) and Mount Lassen, both contrasted against an azure sky.
Farther along, there was a glorious view of Peace Valley, with oak trees coming together in a dense forest. It’s also the site of the future Sutter Buttes State Park, which is yet to be developed because there’s no public access to the area, according to the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
As the group made its way back to the parking lot, the hike completed, Cindy Carr commented on the “beautiful, untouched scenery,” and added, “I loved learning the history of our own backyard.”