The Sutter Buttes introduce themselves somewhere south of Orland as you’re traveling along Interstate 5 through some of the flattest land imaginable. You glance to the east and there they are, looking like leftover props from a North State production of “The Land That Time Forgot.” Odds are you take a look at them whether it’s your first pass or your 500th. There’s something so improbable about a mountain range popping up smack-dab in the middle of the Sacramento Valley that it’s hard to resist a glance or two.
Michael Hubbartt didn’t even bother resisting. He became familiar with the Sutter Buttes in the early 1970s when he was stationed at Beale Air Force Base near Marysville and worked as a weather observer. “From my site I looked at the Buttes every day for three years,” Hubbartt says. “I met a gal out here and got married, found a place to live on the north side of the Buttes in 1977 and that was the beginning of my love affair.”
A few years later, in 1980, a neighbor invited Hubbartt along for a hike in the Sutter Buttes and the affair became a permanent relationship. “We walked in on New Year’s Day. We walked and walked and ended up on top of North Butte. As we climbed up, we broke through the fog and into the bright sun, and there were six peaks poking out of the clouds. It’s just an incredible memory.”
Poking up from the valley floor amid carefully cultivated fields and rice paddies, Hubbartt says the Sutter Buttes are both “out of place and out of time. The fascinating thing to me is they are much the way they were 150 years ago. That essence is still there. You get a sense of the way California used to be; a sense of peacefulness.”
Hubbartt and others are working to ensure others can enjoy the Sutter Buttes for years to come—and that they will retain the very qualities that can create memorable experiences.
“We would like to see future development frozen, but we recognize that families work around here. We just don’t want to see speculative building and subdivisions,” says Hubbartt, adding that it is an ongoing balancing act involving numerous stakeholders.
Toward that end, Hubbartt volunteers his time as a board member of the Middle Mountain Foundation, a non-profit organization established in 1989 to work with private landowners and local, state and federal agencies to preserve the Buttes’ natural and cultural resources.
According to the foundation, the indigenous Maidu people, who lived in the vicinity for thousands of years, revered the Sutter Buttes as a source of both spiritual and physical sustenance. Maidu Indians called the peaks “Histum Yani,” which, depending on the source, translates as either The Middle Mountain or Spirit Mountain.
Prior to the development of dams and levees for flood control and irrigation, the Sutter Buttes would serve as an inland island refuge for the Maidu, early settlers and wildlife when winter storms and spring runoff would flood the Sacramento Valley.
“The Middle Mountain Foundation recognizes the spiritual heritage of the mountains,” Hubbartt says. “The Indians lived in concert with the mountain and the landscape. That’s the memory we want people to take away when they visit the Sutter Buttes.”
The Sutter Buttes are the remains of a volcano that erupted about 1.6 million years ago, Hubbartt says. From the interstate, it looks like an elongated mountain range but it is almost exactly circular, measuring about 10 miles across. Its highest peak, South Butte, clocks in at 2,117 feet—a full 117 feet above the geologists’ minimum elevation to qualify as a mountain.
That distinction gives the Sutter Buttes a unique claim to geologic fame: It is the smallest continuous mountain range in the United States.
Land within the Sutter Buttes is almost all under private ownership. However, the Middle Mountain Foundation has worked out agreements that allow the foundation to offer guided hikes. Karen Morrison, a foundation board member and the hike coordinator, says about 2,000 people, including schoolchildren from Sacramento, Yuba, Colusa and Sutter counties, go on hikes each year. “We offer all kinds of hikes so people have a chance to choose their level and come in and enjoy the Buttes,” Morrison says.
Margit Sands, the foundation’s president, grew up with the Sutter Buttes. Her grandfather purchased a cattle ranch in the center of the Buttes in 1898 and her family continues to operate it. “We want to see the Buttes preserved,” Sands says. “They stand out because they’re the only relief on the valley floor. People see them as a landmark. It’s kind of an icon.”