Image from Sacred Land Film Project
In the middle of the great Sacramento Valley in Northern California exists what is known as "the smallest mountain range in the world," the Sutter Buttes. Between 1.5 and 1 million years ago volcanic activity occurred there, leaving a ring (sometimes called a "rosette") of peaks and valleys that is 10 miles across and covers an area of about 75 square miles. (This view of the Buttes is from the north looking south).
For millennia the valley was an inland sea, then in recent thousands of years the land was covered in trees, grasses and wildflowers, the rivers teeming with fish and the skies dark with wildfowl. Native peoples such as the Maidu and the Wintun lived along the banks of what became known as the Sacramento and Feather Rivers, but retreated to the ramparts of the Buttes when winter storms flooded the valley.
The Maidus called the mountains Histum Yani, and the Wintuns knew them as Onolai-tol, both names roughly translating to "Middle Mountain." These buttes were very important spiritually to the two tribes in terms of their belief in creation, and at the end of life when they believed that their spirits would go to the Buttes on the way to the spirit world.
In 1806 Gabriel Moraga, a Spaniard, was the first European to see the Buttes. Another Spaniard, Luis Arguello, led an expedition in 1817 to explore California by water. He named the Buttes "Los Pichachos," or "the peaks." He also named the Feather River "El Rio del Las Plumas" because he saw many feathers of wildfowl floating on the water.
The renowned mountain man, Jedediah Smith, trapped in the vicinity of the Buttes in 1828. Then in 1833 a brigade of French fur trappers from the Hudson Bay Company passed through, possibly infecting the Maidus with small pox and contributing to the decimation of their numbers. In 1845-46 Captain John C. Fremont led an expedition through the Sutter Buttes and established a base camp there.
John Augustus Sutter, after the 1841 settling of Sutter's Fort in Sacramento, established his Hock Farm south of what would become Yuba City. In 1848 gold was discovered at his sawmill in Coloma, and Sutter County was named for him and established in 1850.
The native peoples gathered acorns from the oaks and hunted wild game to sustain themselves during the times they lived in the Sutter Buttes. Many acorn grinding holes are still evident in the flat rocks. The land inside the Buttes was bought up in the 1800's and has been passed down through the families for generations.
Even though this means that accessibility is limited for those of us living in the valley, the good news is that the land has remained relatively unchanged for over a century. Local valley residents may enter the Buttes each spring by signing up for annual day hikes with the Middle Mountain Foundation.
This gorgeous photo of the Buttes was taken last week by our cousin Joanne, while she was visiting Gray Lodge Wildlife Refuge, on the northwest side of the mountains. This is one of the prettiest shots (and there have been thousands taken from around the valley) that I have ever seen! Thank you, Joanne.
One of the most interesting aspects of these mountains is that since they are in a circle, all directions have a completely different look. Each one of us grows up with our own "view" of the Buttes, and it's always fun to drive completely around them to see what other peoples' views look like! This view is very different from mine, because North Butte is on the left, whereas in the view that my family has looked at for 100 years, North Butte is on the right.
As we drive into the Buttes on our day hike, we follow dirt roads through sheep pastures. There are low rock walls still standing which were made by Chinese immigrants during the gold rush era. The rocks were blown out of the volcano during the eruptions, and hundreds of thousands of them still lay where they dropped! Thank you, cousin Rich, for sharing your sheep and cattle photos...
Cattle are also raised here during the winter and spring, until the grasses turn dry and they are taken up into the higher Sierra Nevada range to feed. The elevation of this range is fairly low, more what we call "foothills," so the weather becomes quite hot and dry in the summer and fall.
Once we have slowly and carefully driven through the pastures, opening and closing the gates as we go so as not to let any of the animals escape, we arrive at the ranch of our hosts. This family has very graciously opened their property for the day, and we intend to have a wonderful time exploring it!
Here is Elizabeth on her very first hike in the Buttes! She even is carrying a walking stick, just like the adults. Rattlesnakes live at this elevation, so the hikes are scheduled in the early spring when the weather is still too cool for them to move around in. We always remain vigilant, tho, as we have seen a number of rattlesnakes and had some very close encounters over the years!! No bites, thankfully...:D They like to sun themselves on the rocks, so we are always careful where we put our hands and where we sit down.
If the rainfall has been average or better during the winter, we are treated to some beautiful wildflowers!
I borrowed this sun-streaked photo from the California State Parks web site. It shows an interesting rock alignment on a contour break overlooking Peace Valley on the other side of North Butte. One day we went on a beautiful hike through the valley which is now part of the state park system.
This tree has been converted into a granary by the woodpeckers. The birds actually drill the holes and insert acorns into them!! It is pretty amazing to see.
One of our little hikes takes us to what is called the "drum rock." It is a large rock that sounds semi- hollow when you knock on it. The rock is literally at the base of North Butte. Right behind it you can start a steep climb up to a larger outcropping of rock known as 'Little North Butte." This is my husband, David.
My sister Jan, center, (blue shirt) and her group of family and friends so happy to be in the Buttes on a gorgeous day. Jan is past president of the Middle Mountain Foundation, and the organizer of our hikes. Joe, to the right in sunglasses and hat, leads us up and over the hills and teaches us about the flora, fauna, and native peoples who lived in the area at different times of the year.
A beautiful "bouquet" of wildflowers!!
My sister, Jan, and I sitting at the base of North Butte. Mittens and scarves were required on this day due to a brisk spring breeze.
I've always thought that the rocks at the top look like a craggy castle, even from many miles across the valley!
One of many lovely views taken by my husband, David. Notice the little-used cattle trail across the slope.
Elizabeth and I leaning on Drum Rock on her first visit into the Buttes.
This photo was also borrowed from the state parks web site. It was taken from the very top of North Butte, looking in a northwest direction toward the valley.
Elizabeth enjoyed exploring one of the mortars that the native peoples used to grind their acorns in.
This is "Little North Butte" that pushes out from North Butte itself. It's a nice steep little climb up and around it and back to camp.
In this longer view you can see all the way through the rock on the right. I always imagine that small boys must have delighted in climbing up to sit in the hole and play in ancient days. Perhaps girls as well!
Everywhere you turn, there is a fabulous view inside the Buttes!!
A very well-preserved grinding stone.
Willard, Jennifer and myself bringing up the rear of course!
Elizabeth, my sister's granddaughter, and our great-niece.
Here are a few of the wild animals that live inside the Sutter Buttes. Coyotes...
and Wild Boar!!
This is one of my favorite photographs of inside the Sutter Buttes. I have a dream, and that is to climb North Butte! Both of our parents climbed it, our mom in high school, and our dad climbed it many times in his youth with his brother and friends and their dogs. In those days, in the early 1900's, permission was not needed!
I should have climbed it when I was younger as well, but we usually hiked in a different area of the Buttes, and the opportunity never presented itself. I surely would like to climb it now. It looks deceptively easy from this viewpoint, but believe me, that mountain at 1,863 feet is higher than it looks and it's no easy climb!! Perhaps next spring...
Now we are home again, looking at the Sutter Buttes from "our view," across the valley to the east a ways.