Like some famous recluse whose profile only increases by remaining hidden – an archaic notion, of course, in these viral days of overexposure and oversharing – the Sutter Buttes don’t give up their secrets readily, if at all, and rarely allow outsiders glimpses into the volcanic core of its being.
It is the Garbo of mountain ranges, small in scale but massive in mystery and mostly content to exist without the adoration of visiting hordes.
Those granted an audience with this jutting land mass smack in the middle of the sprawling and pancake-flat Sacramento Valley only think they know what to expect. They are among the fortunate few who have signed up for one of the periodic guided hikes led by the Middle Mountain Foundation, an offshoot of the Sutter Buttes Regional Land Trust, the lone way the public is legally allowed to step foot on private land owned by a dozen ranch families to get to the peaks. These hikes sell out fast, especially when spring is in full bloom.
But, even with a coveted invite, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Buttes will fully cooperate.
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Take the intrepid band of hikers who set out on a mid-January trip 7 miles along Bragg Canyon and the western slopes headed for Yana Peak, at 1,650 feet the Buttes’ fourth-highest summit. Dense, dank fog greeted them as guide Joe Reusser met the group. He scanned the limited horizon warily, told the assemblage that “Yana has one of the best views of the Buttes. There’s a small rock on top, about four feet in diameter. Don’t step off; it’s a long way down. We’ll see if the Buttes cooperate and we can get there.”
Off they went, Reusser and his trekking poles pointing the way. He led the group over barbed-wire fences and through nascent creeks, over trails unmarked by signs and shoe tread, though potholed in many places by hooves of the cattle who graze with impunity. As the day wore on, the volcanic domes, result of eons of geologic formation and erosion, peeked through the dissipating mists, as if the Buttes finally trusted the group enough to be welcoming. Hope of a summit and the payoff – a panoramic, Facebook-status-worthy view – were looking up, as were the group members gawking with craned necks.
By the time, several hours in, that these visitors reached the saddle leading to the final half-mile ascent to Yana Peak, the fog had retreated from the upper reaches of the peak, prompting Reusser to wax poetic as he trudged ever upward over steep, partially serrated slopes adorned with multihued lichen.
“When you get to the top and the fog’s below you,” he said, “it’s like waves on the ocean. It’s very peaceful.”
The conga line of humped-back hikers mostly stared at the unstable ground in front of them on the ascent, footing being somewhat precarious and oxygen debt searing their lungs. There would be time enough for views and photos atop the heaps of rhyolite rocks crowning the peak, though one participant, Cheryl Zacharison of Penn Valley, did pause to plant her poles, lift her head and say, slightly breathless, “I have the urge to yodel.”
Not 10 minutes after reaching the summit, even before most in the group could unwrap sandwiches and find ergonomically appropriate rocks for seats, let alone make the triumphant final hand-over-foot climb to the rock platform, the fog returned like a stage curtain cruelly brought down right before the climactic scene.
Sorry, no sweeping views of the Valley bookended by the Coastal Range and the Sierra Nevada. No beaming selfies, this time. A few people still scurried over the dew-slicked rock to the platform, only to see a thick band of gray envelop the land mass. No one lingered.
“That’s just like the Buttes,” said Ty Shaeffer, one of the backup guides whose family has been a Buttes landowner since the 1860s. “It’s capricious.”
You learn, quickly, to take what the Buttes will give on that particular day. And, too, where the ranch families, who own the workable land ringing the craggy ridges, will allow you to ramble.
One reason why the Buttes remain so forbidding is not their size – in fact, Reusser says, “if you Google ‘world’s smallest mountain range,’ the Buttes pop up” – but the lack of access.
It’s a roiling political issue, pitting the State Parks department against private landowners. The upshot: The state owns 1,785 acres in the Peace Valley, but any access road would have to run through private property, and landowners fear that building a road and opening a park would ruin the environment, invite more vandalism and hurt farming and grazing.
In stepped the landowner-created Sutter Buttes Regional Land Trust (and, now, the Middle Mountain Foundation) some 25 years ago, to provide something of a compromise – periodic, supervised hikes. Karen Morrison, the open hikes coordinator for the Middle Mountain Foundation, said that, decades ago, visitors could “just wave to the farmer and cross his fence or gate for a picnic or whatever. But then people started leaving trash, leaving gates open and taking potshots at animals. … The landowners felt they needed to protect their working environment.”
Though Morrison says she is sympathetic to outdoors lovers who would like unfettered access to the Buttes, she hopes people appreciate that landowners are willing to open gates periodically (fall, winter and early spring) for guided hikes to experience what she calls a natural treasure.
“It’s an isolated area that is, when you get into the interior, virtually unchanged forever,” Morrison said. “You don’t have, just over the next ridge, a freeway going through. You get in there and notice the silence. You can hear the birds, the rustling (of wind through the trees) as you walk through the grasses. It’s a just different experience than other places.”
Even if recalcitrant fog swallows the stunning views, there is much to discover. It helps, of course, having an experienced guide such as Reusser, who has volunteered to lead hikes for 10 years and says he still is surprised occasionally by what he sees in the land that spans 10 miles in diameter and rises to 2,122 feet at the South Butte summit.
“That’s why people keep coming back for return hikes,” Reusser said. “There’s always something new.”
On this excursion, undertaken by eight people who have paid $45 each, plus four backup guides, the novelty made everything seem new and somewhat exotic. The group met at the Sutter High School parking lot and carpooled to the “trailhead” on the west side of the Buttes. On the drive, the Buttes seemed to hover and loom, almost giving the impression of levitating thanks to the fog ringing the peaks. The group passed ubiquitous almond orchards but also saw incongruously built mansions sitting in the middle of fallow fields and – this necessitated a double-take – a small farm that had a camel and zebra among the penned animals.
Sheep and cows grazed as the caravan of cars parked next to a metal gate on the outer reaches of the spread of farmer Marty Steidlmeyer, the “host” (though not present) for the day’s hike. As the group trudged over a rise, the sheep looked on impassively, but a few cows lowed with intent, as they would all day on various spots on the trail, leading 17-year-old Olivia Hansel of Yuba City to remark to her mom, Stephanie, “All those cows are mad-dogging us, like, ‘This is my house.’”
Reusser, however, gave the cattle a wide berth and led the group over a trickle of a stream to a slab of rock with deep, conical holes carved in it. It’s a grinding mortar used, he said, by the Patwin, or Wintun, Indians long before the 1841 Wilkes Expedition “discovered” the Buttes. “Native Americans typically didn’t live in here (the Buttes) permanently,” said Reusser, sounding like a real-estate agent. “But if there was ever a place they would settle, this would be it. You’ve got a tremendous view all the way around. Who wouldn’t want to stay here?”
Near the grinding stone was a well, made of stone, and the ramshackle remains – stone foundation and warped wood – of a structure dating to the mid-1800s, near what Reusser said was a “dry crossing from Colusa to Marysville” in Gold Rush times. The farmers and landowners descended, though not to this spot, soon after the Gold Rush went bust.
Two people on the hike, Shaeffer and Alison Allread, actually have lived on the ramparts of the Buttes, the sloping hillsides formed 1.6 million years ago by “flows of fragmental volcanic debris,” according to U.S. Department of Geological Survey. Shaeffer’s family was one of the original landowners in the mid-1800s; Allread grew up in the now-abandoned West Butte schoolhouse – her father was a caretaker for an almond orchard – one of nine children in a 900-square-foot structure.
“I grew up here,” Allread, 37, said. “Yeah, I was a fence climber (to explore the Buttes as a child). I know that’s frowned upon. It’s nice to come out here legally now. This is my therapy. This is my church out here, so I come as often as I can.”
Olivia Hansel smiled, sheepishly. Apparently, local youths still hop the fences and explore the Buttes on the sly.
“We get a big group together,” she said, out of earshot from Reusser. “One time we had 15 kids. We’re respectful. I always pick up trash if I see it. The one thing we do have to remember is not to go when it’s cow grazing time. Those electric fences are not fun to hop over.”
Reusser pushed on, leading the group through a (non-electric) barbed-wire fence, bending it with his boot so people could crouch and limbo through it. Before reaching the dirt fire road that would eventually lead to the turnoff for Yana Peak, he abruptly stopped and pointed with one of his trekking poles. Two coyotes loped along the hillside, then a third tagged along.
“They must’ve heard us out here,” Reusser said of the coyotes. “Some day I’d like to do a hike through the woods here, quietly, and not moving fast, not saying a word. You’d become one with the universe and you’d see these and hear things like those coyotes over there.”
It wasn’t as if the group was speed-walking the route. Hikers stopped often, sometimes spurred on by Reusser’s interpretive digressions – he showed off the rare Oracle Oak tree and related that, on a single rock formation, 96 species of lichen were identified by the crack researchers at the California Lichen Society – and sometimes just because there was a gorgeous view and it gave them time to peel off layers of down and fleece as the fog gradually lifted.
Allread peeled off from the dirt road and stood at a precipice, looking down into a canyon where she could hear, but not see, a waterfall obscured by fig trees.
“The figs are still edible,” said backup guide Sandy Becker, 76, a veteran hiker who has climbed Mount Whitney 33 times. “I ate some the last time I hiked here. I’m still alive.”
Back on the road, heading steadily uphill through a thick, clay-like mud, Reusser stopped and poked a walking stick at a decomposed skull.
“This is a wild pig skull,” he said.
“Oh, good,” quipped hiker Marla McClaren, “we were worrying that’s someone from the last group you brought up the mountain.”
Many species call the Buttes home, Reusser said. In addition to the wild pigs, whose rototilling of the grassland was prevalent, it’s home to ringtails, in the raccoon family. Both golden and bald eagles soar above the canyons, and Reusser and Shaeffer engaged in a lively discussion en route to Yana Peak about whether a mountain lion or two prowls.
Just before the turnoff for the ascent, the fog had receded enough so that a geologic highlight, dubbed “The Amphitheater,” could be clearly seen jutting in a series of lichen-covered Middle-Earth type layers.
“I took one school group here,” said Allread, laughing, “and a kid said, ‘Is this where they filmed ‘The Hobbit?’ I told him, ‘Yes, yes, they did.’”
The group had stripped to base layers for the sunny ascent along the barest of switchback “cow trails.” Yana Peak conquered, the group suddenly found the rest of the Sutter Buttes were gone in a shroud of fog. As they put layers of clothing back on, prepared for the trip back down, Reusser turned philosophical.
“You never know what to expect with the weather,” he said. “I’ve seen times where 100 mile per hour winds knock down every tree in sight. I’ve seen lots of rain. Today we saw fog, sun and then fog again.”
Yeah, just like a temperamental star, the Sutter Buttes are anything but predictable: inviting one minute, forbidding the next, yet well worth a return trip.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
GUIDED HIKES OF THE SUTTER BUTTES
Through May, the Middle Mountain Foundation, an offshoot of the Sutter Buttes Regional Land Trust, holds periodic weekend hikes through segments of the Sutter Buttes. Check the website, sutterbutteslandtrust.org, for future outings. A new website, www.middlemountainhikes.org, soon will be activated and will have extensive hiking information. Cost ranges from $45 to $60, depending on the length and difficulty of the hike. More information: firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 671-6116.
Feb. 28: Ridge Ascent of Bragg Canyon
Feb. 28: Shaeffer Ranch Exploration
March 1: Geologic Trek, Dean Ranch
March 7: Double Buttes Transect, Bragg and Dean
March 8: Nature Study, Brockman Canyon
March 8: Summit Ascent, North Butte