Called “the world’s smallest mountain range” at 10 miles in diameter, the Sutter Buttes rise a rather conspicuous 2,000 feet from the vast flatness of the central valley.
Located near Yuba City, the mountain range possesses a unique cultural and geologic history, being the only mountains in the large valley between the Sierras and the Coast Range. Although almost all of the Sutter Buttes are now privately owned, they have a long and important role in the lives and culture of local Native American groups.
The Sutter Buttes are the remnants of a 1.5 million year old extinct volcano. They formed from the seduction of one tectonic plate below another in the same process that created the Coast Range and the Cascades in Northern California. This seduction zone, now called the Mendocino Triple Junction, initially started in Southern California, said Dr. Jelmer Eerkens, a UC Davis anthropology professor, and has worked its way north leaving volcanoes in its wake.
“[The mountains] represent the boundary between the Pacific plate and the Faralon plate moving northward with time,” Eerkens said. This moving junction created, and left in its wake, the San Andreas Fault.
The Sutter Buttes erupted about 1.5 million years ago and continued for several hundred thousand years before the volcano became extinct.
The Buttes, one of the youngest features in central California, differ from the nearby Sierras, which are composed of much older metamorphic rocks and granite.
There are several similar mountain ranges in the world, but the Buttes are notable for their isolation. Volcanoes typically form in chains – such as what happened with the Hawaiian Islands, the Cascades and the Andes. Yet the Buttes are different for reasons geologists do not entirely understand, said Dr. Brian Hausback, a geology professor at CSU Chico.
Daniel Barth, the president of the Yuba Historical Society, has been researching and visiting the Sutter Buttes since he was four years old.
“Every place in the Sutter Buttes has its own personality,” Barth said. “There are cliffs with spires, there’s open meadows, there’s peaks with expansive views, there’s an ancient lakebed.”
On a clear day, one can see up to 350 miles including the coast range and Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen from the highest peaks.
Native American groups have recognized the area’s significance for thousands of years. The Patwin, Maidu and Nisenan are Sacramento Valley Native Americans, who used the mountain seasonally. Called “middle mountain” by these tribes, the Buttes were viewed as a sacred area and featured prominently in some creation stories and myths.
Barth said the Native American groups believe that rocks contain spirits. Since the valley lacks rocks, they believe the Sutter Buttes to be where spirits dwell.
Even before European settlers and explorers entered the Central Valley, access to the Buttes was restricted, Barth said. Only certain people could enter after getting permission from tribal elders. However, Native Americans now rarely use the privately owned land.
Native American populations in the area were, before Europeans arrived, some of the densest in ethnographic and archeological history, said Dr. Robert Bettinger, a UC Davis anthropology professor. Tribes with loosely organized polities lived in villages of over one thousand.
Archeological sites and structural remains from Native American groups are scattered throughout the mountain range. Most sites date back to about 1,500 years ago.
The Sutter Buttes are biologically unique from the surrounding valley. Most of the plants and animals found in the mountains do not exist in the central valley and are only found in the surrounding Sierras and Coast Range. Although the mountains are fairly isolated, scientists have only found one endemic species – a type of kangaroo rat that disappeared after the University of California trapped them for a study in the 1920s.
Coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, falcons, bald eagles and occasionally golden eagles make their home in the Buttes. However, the sparse vegetation ensures that most wildlife is small.
The mountains are currently owned almost entirely by ranchers, although two organizations, Middle Mountain and Yuba Historical Society, lead day hikes through various parts of the Buttes. California Parks and Recreation acquired 1,700 acres of the mountains in 2003 but has not yet opened the area to the public.
“People are attracted to [the Sutter Buttes] because of its singularity and uniqueness. It’s so strange,” Hausback said.
“It’s just exhilarating to be in there,” Barth said. “It’s like being in a National Park but you’re the only people there.”
For more information, visit their web site at yubahistory.com.
KELLY KRAG-ARNOLD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.