Hiking the Sutter Buttes (North Butte Ascent)

This hike must be guided by the Sutter Buttes Regional Land Trust. The route goes straight up the butte without any real switchbacks – 1200 feet of elevation gain in under three miles round trip, with the most strenuous part 1000 feet up in half a mile.

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Basics: Access to the Sutter Buttes is extremely limited. Much of the land is comprised of privately owned ranches. The Sutter Buttes Regional Land Trust (formerly the Middle Mountain Foundation) provides guided hikes into the area. This is really the only way for the general public to access the Sutter Buttes. After looking at the scheduled hikes, I naturally picked one of the most difficult ones: the North Butte Summit Ascent.

The hike itself is not actually that long – about 3 miles roundtrip from the parking area to the summit and back. We added an extra mile or two by taking a detour on the way out. It’s difficult because there is no actual trail. The route climbs over 1000-ft at a very steep grade. Despite the short distance, this hike took at least 5 hours.

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Permits and Fees: The hike costs $35 per person and reservations are recommended. The Sutter Butte Regional Land Trust website provides all the information for this and other hikes in the area.

Approaching the Sutter Buttes.
Approaching the Sutter Buttes.

Trail Description: The meeting area for this hike was at the Sutter County Community Memorial Museum in Yuba City. We got up early – meet time was 8:00 am. Rain was in the forecast, but as we drove north on 99, we could see the Buttes ahead of us and the Sierras to the East. I thought to myself that perhaps visibility wouldn’t be too bad. Little did I know…

We signed in, met the rest of our hiking group, then split into three cars. Because access is on mostly private roads, the fewer cars the better.

Somewhere along one of the private ranch roads.
A herd of sheep – somewhere along one of the private ranch roads.

To reach the parking area we had to pass through 6 or 7 gates. It took quite a while to stop at each gate, open it, drive through, then close it. The clouds were slowly getting thicker as we parked and gathered our gear.

Still on flat ground at the beginning.
Still on flat ground at the beginning.

Shortly after setting out, we stopped along the trail to look at some bedrock mortars.  There are quite a few all over this area.  The Maidu people did not have any permanent settlements in the area, but they clearly spent time here.  We also spotted damage from ferrel pigs on the property. The pigs had spent the previous night uprooting much of the field we were standing in.

A bedrock mortar. Signs leftover from a simpler time.
A bedrock mortar. Signs leftover from a simpler time.

We headed towards North Butte, hiking slowly and taking many breaks while our three guides provided information about the flora, fauna and geology. We learned about the herds of ferrel sheep and ferrel goats in the area. Also, ringtail cats apparently call this place their home. We saw: cows, blue oaks, bat houses, damage from pigs, elderberry, a solar powered seismometer and lots of fog.

Measuring ground motion and transmitting back to UC Berkeley and the USGS.
Measuring ground motion and transmitting back to UC Berkeley and the USGS.  North Butte in the background.

By the time we started the steep ascent up North Butte, the clouds had really closed in. It was beginning to rain and the wind picked up. The climb was indeed very steep. I was glad I had good tread on my boots.

Steep and crazy slippery.
Steep and slippery as hell. But we all made it!

The higher we climbed, the windier it felt and the harder it rained. It took nearly an hour to reach the summit. By the time we did, I was wet and cold. We were in a cloud, so there wasn’t much of a view to take in. Am I making this sound miserable? It was actually quite fun. The steep slope was a good workout and the green grasses and oak trees made for some nice scenery. Also, we really need the rain so I can’t complain.

In the cloud, getting close to the summit. Our guide Ken (in the yellow hat).
In the cloud, getting close to the summit. Our guide Ken (in the yellow hat).
Summit photo!
Summit photo!  Does it still count if we can’t see anything?

After a quick lunch, we headed down. Trekking poles saved me from a few falls. A few other people in our group took some tumbles (including one of the guides). The path was quite muddy and slippery. It felt like we were doing a lot of damage to the landscape, but the area has so many cows, we probably didn’t have such a big impact by comparison.

From the base of North Butte we took a different route back to the car. We passed through the “enchanted forest” where the trees were kind of weird looking and everything (including rocks and trees) was covered in green moss.

Bizarre growth on an oak tree in the Enchanted Forest.
Bizarre growth on an oak tree in the Enchanted Forest.
Mushrooms in the Enchanted Forest.
Turkey Tails (Trametes versicolor) in the Enchanted Forest.
One of many rock walls on the property. Apparently built by German settlers some hundred+ years ago.
One of many rock walls on the property. Apparently built by German settlers some hundred+ years ago.

We made it back to the car sometime after 2:00 pm. I fell asleep as we drove out through the seven gates, back to the staging area at the museum.

The weather for this trip was definitely less than ideal, but at least I can say I’ve stood on top of North Butte (even if I had no view). It was definitely an interesting place to visit and our guides Kelly, Spencer and Ken were all very enthusiastic and knowledgable. It will be fun to go back and visit the Sutter Buttes on a sunny day!

More info:

To sign up for a hike, click here for the Hike Schedule webpage of the Sutter Buttes Regional Land Trust.  They also provide educational hikes and chartered hikes.

5 thoughts on “Hiking the Sutter Buttes (North Butte Ascent)”

  1. Decades ago, a few of us were set to hike South Butte, being it is the Sutter County highpoint. It was then to rain heavily, so we canceled. Two had flown up from L.A., and rented a car to do this. To this day, I have never hiked in the Sutter Buttes, so thanks for the photos and report!

    1. That’s too bad the weather cancelled your South Butte hike. Before the clouds rolled in, we could see the antennas at the top of South Butte. I think North Butte is a nicer hike because there isn’t a road going up to the top. It’s less developed but it is also not the high point of the Buttes. South Butte is unfortunately off limits to the public, though I’m sure people still hike it.

  2. In 1993, when I was sixteen years old, I just moved to Sutter and seen this incredible small looking mountain called the Sutter Buttes. I had no idea it was private property when I had rode my mountain bike in the dark for about six to seven miles in. Then in the dark I hiked up the three hills and was facing the peak with a flashing tower. I was out there to look at the stars which was awesome! But then about ten minutes goes by, a black military helicopter with spotlight flew right down on my position. Spotlight on me all the way from the peak, they circled around me only being sixty feet above my head. Through the PA system they told me to leave that it wasn’t safe out there. I laughed but I left. Somebody in a brown car? stopped to see if I was okay and the guy said he seen the whole thing and was just shocked. Well I grabbed my bike and rode back into Sutter. Some locals in town heard my story and told me I shouldn’t go up there because there were what they called the little people and UFOs flying around. I didn’t believe them until months into living in Sutter I started seeing what they were talking about. Strange things happen around the Sutter Buttes at night. I still went up there in the dark on a few more occasions, haha! In 2012 I seen a triangle shaped craft leave from the top of the Buttes which impressed my very much. It lifted straight up like the Harrier would do and then silently it move forward. Makes me wonder why it’s not public to anyone, what a shame!

  3. Back in 1962-63, I climbed both North and South Buttes with Boy Scout Troop 27 from Gridley. From the top of each butte we couls see all over Northern California. It was an experience that I never forgot.

Any thoughts?