California's Great Central Valley stretches 450 miles from the Grapevine in the south to Lake Shasta in the north. In some places it can be up to 60 miles wide. Almost completely flat, it climbs less than 500 feet from the Delta at its middle to Redding and Bakersfield at its north and south ends. The northern end is often referred to as the Sacramento Valley, while our end is known as the San Joaquin Valley.
The Sutter Buttes are the only major exception to the Valley's flatness. This small volcanic mountain range rises from the floor of the Valley near Yuba City and has a geologic past completely independent from that of the Sierra Nevada and the Coast Ranges.
The first geologist to study the geologic history of the Buttes saw them as "rock castles." It's an apt description. The first time I got a close look at them was under a brooding, stormy sky and they made me think of a forbidding fortress.
On my return journey last weekend they looked less threatening, but equally imposing.
For the last 150 years the Buttes have been ranch country. Through a unique partnership of landowners in the Buttes and the Middle Mountain Foundation, public access has been offered on guided hikes in the cooler months for more than 20 years.
We signed up for a hike named "Ridge Trek-Brockman Canyon," rated 3 out of 5 for difficulty. I had a very limited idea of what to expect when we met our hike leaders and the other hikers at 8 a.m. on the first morning after the time change.
The hike was more than just a hike -- we had the good fortune to have registered for one of only two hikes in the last four years to have been led by Walt Anderson, the foremost authority on the Buttes. We made frequent stops so that Walt could point out and interpret what we were seeing: plants, animals, birds, geology, and history. We learned a lot -- more than I have on any other guided hike.
We saw more than just Brockman Canyon, climbing to a ridge below West Butte. From this spot on the ridge and a point we later reached below the summit of Goat Rocks, we had 360 degree views that included the craggy summits and ridges of the Buttes, the great expanse of the Central Valley, the Coast Range, the Sierra Nevada, Lassen Peak, and Mount Shasta.
Although this has been a dry winter and the Buttes haven't greened up much yet, we did see quite a few wildflowers and lots of wildlife -- including golden eagles. In wet years, the Buttes can be one of the best places to enjoy wildflowers in the state.
The Buttes were once part of John Sutter's New Helvetia land grant. They are classified as an independent mountain range -- the world's smallest. They rise barely 2,000 feet above the surrounding terrain. In many ways they reminded me of Pinnacles National Park, a volcanic park in the Coast Ranges south of Hollister.
I've been on a lot of guided hikes recently. Not only are they a great way to learn from experts, access to unique and infrequently visited parts of the state is often granted only for organized groups. The Middle Mountain Foundation has pioneered a unique path in land and resource conservation. Instead of undertaking the expensive undertaking of buying land, the Foundation has forged partnerships with local landowners.
The landowners grant access to groups led by MMF. The MMF carries the insurance for the outings. The land remains rural and also remains part of our economy as part of working ranches. We encountered quite a few sheep on our trek. If you're a photographer, the Buttes are a great place to take your camera and the sheep can add interest to your shots.
Our hike lasted for about six hours and covered four miles -- sometimes on old ranch roads, often on narrow sheep trails or cross-country routes. It was both an adventure and a true "outdoor classroom."
If you're interested in experiencing it for yourself, visit middlemountain.org or call (530) 755-3568. Hikes and classes of all levels are offered through early May and resume again in October.
Adam Blauert is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.