Sunday Drive Around Sutter Buttes

Spend 40 years driving by the same interesting-looking place along Highway 20 and saying “…Some year we should check that out…” and finally we got it together and took time to check out Sutter Buttes. Nicknamed the “World’s Smallest Mountain Range” the Buttes rise 2,000’ over the Central Valley and you wonder what the heck they are doing there miles away from the Coast Range or the Sierra.

We were taking our son to Sacramento to catch a train so we had a perfect opportunity…and YES, people still ride on trains by choice. In this case he had to get to Seattle in the week between Christmas and New Year and the holiday airfares were ridiculous. For $89 he got a coach seat and we packed him lunch. It takes 20 hours for the trip, so it’s not fast but it is cheap.

So back to the mini-mountain range. Anyone with a passing interest in geology might look at the peaks and think, “That looks volcanic…” and that is exactly what it is…leftovers from ancient volcanic eruptions. It’s the plug of a volcano that erupted 1.5 million years ago and made of rhyolites and andesite. Up top there was a lake that filled with 1,000’ of detritus  and the whole mountain range is about 10 miles around. The real bedrock basement of the Central Valley, which has filled with alluvium over eons, is 7,000’ under these peaks. There are 30 to 50 million-year-old seashells in the rock showing that once upon a time everything there was part of an inland sea.

Maidu and Wintu native peoples visited the peaks, and Gabriel Moraga, a Spanish explorer in 1808, was the first European to mention the mountains. Jedediah Smith passed them in 1828 and John Works of the Hudson Bay Company was stranded there during flooding as his party trapped beaver along the rivers. In 1846 John Fremont camped nearby during the Bear Flag Revolt. John Sutter, involved in cattle, lumber, trapping, farming and gold discovery had a land grant in the area of 33 square leagues. Each league had 4,439 acres in it.

People settled into the areas on all sides of the Buttes by the 1880’s using irrigation canals for orchards and rice production. Did you know California first grew rice commercially in 1912? The Thompson family, on the southeast side of the Buttes, perfected the seedless grape, revolutionizing the raisin industry. Commercial oil was developed in 1933 after a well was drilled 2,727 feet down to produce 3.4 million cubic feet of gas a day.

We drove off Highway 20 on the southeast side and passed through the town of Sutter until we got onto Pass Road and circled the peaks. Stone walls survive around fields; stone and hand-hewn was the only building materials readily available to pioneers. The fields on the north side of the road were smooth grasslands, while on the south side rock protruded from everything. This area grows hay, Blue Diamond brand walnuts and olives, with rice added to the north and east. Add to that a ranch we passed with zebra and llama in the field…we did a double take at the zebra…”Did we just see that?”

The gas wells are still there and still pumping. The Pass Road runs closer to the peaks than anywhere on the ride. We passed the West Butte School, which closed in 1943 after 30 years of use and where locals would like to start a museum. Small but beautiful cemeteries are seen, some complete with “Rattlesnake Warning” signs. Orange and yellow beehives were everywhere. The ground this time of year looked like green velvet in the orchards. The north side is close to Grey Lodge Wildlife Refuge and there were hunting clubs in wetlands. Will someone explain to me why, if there are 20 identical flooded rice fields, every migrating goose, swan and duck want to hang out in one single area? Safety in numbers?

This is a section of road with lots of sharp turns. There are many gated “mansions” next to old homesteads. You could guess the ages of homes by the size of the orange trees, palm trees and prickly pear cactus growing nearby. Bigger they were the older the home place was. Pioneers built windbreaks of pine and eucalyptus that still stand. We saw prune dehydrators and they are certainly a vanishing species in the agricultural world. And, thank goodness, we did NOT see a single vineyard.

Back in Sutter, we saw the high school was having a fundraiser for their Rifle Team, which competes in trap, skeet, sporting clays, and a bunker team (What’s Bunker?). I was happy to see the responsible use of firearms for sport being taught.

There were eight-foot high electric fences around some olive plantings of new trees, but I’d guess olives budding out would be tasty to deer. Olive groves are planted in rows suitable for mechanical harvesting. There were great old barns, one with a 1950’s jeep pickup parked outside that my husband wanted to photograph. I would imagine every family around Sutter Buttes thinks their view of Sutter Buttes is the best, and every side offers different vistas. The Middle Mountain Foundation is the name of the group that provides interpretive information about the area and they have an interesting website. There is a six-minute video of the drive to the top of the buttes, where telecommunication equipment has been installed, so the road is paved but not open to the public. That video is positively scary, even to someone used to driving back roads. It’s a narrow road with lovely views and drop-offs of hundreds of feet.

So, if time permits, take a drive around Sutter Buttes. It’s about 40 miles around the Buttes, and slow, but it’s lovely and makes a nice Sunday drive.

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