The Lone Volcano in California’s Central Valley


It’s Thursday. What’s that tiny mountain range in the Central Valley? Plus, how to visit the Monterey Peninsula on a budget.

On a recent drive north of Sacramento, I spotted a row of knobby peaks that looked more like a children’s book illustration than real-life mountains.

There were crooked domes and sharp crags, ringed by carpets of bright green grass. And it was compact enough that I could see the entire range from beginning to end.

These are the Sutter Buttes, a cluster of volcanic domes about 55 miles northwest of Sacramento and the remains of the Central Valley’s lone, and now dormant, volcano. The U.S. Geological Survey calls the Buttes “a remarkable geographic and geologic feature” emerging from what are otherwise flatlands extending out for miles.

For generations, the Buttes have also been a beloved landmark for locals.

“Coming home from Southern California or Oregon, or Tahoe or San Francisco, there they are, the Sutter Buttes rising mysteriously out of the Sacramento Valley,” one reader, Martha Bunce, who lives in Yuba County, told me. “Around here we say, ‘When you see the Buttes, you know you’re home.’”

The Sutter Buttes, which over the centuries have also been called the Marysville Buttes, the Middle Mountains and Los Tres Picos, are informally referred to as the world’s smallest mountain range, though that’s more marketing than scientific fact.

The Buttes were formed over a million years ago by oozing lava that pushed up craggy outcroppings from the valley floor. Towering over 2,000 feet tall, the Buttes are arranged in a rough circle with a diameter of 10 miles, covering an area of about 75 square miles.

The Buttes have long been a sacred site for Indigenous tribes. The Maidu people, who lived in the Sacramento Valley, believed that the spirits of the dead rested in the Buttes before ascending. “In other words, the portals to the afterlife would have been directly above the Sutter Buttes,” a California park ranger once told The New York Times.

The Maidu and other tribes would also relocate in the winter to the Buttes when the Sacramento Valley would flood, as regularly happened before our modern system of levees and dams. Settlers who arrived in the 19th century had to do the same.

When the explorer Jedediah Smith passed through California in the winter of 1826, “the water rose so high in the Sacramento valley that he was driven to the Marysville Buttes for a camping place, which he found teeming with elk, antelope and bear that had also sought refuge there,” according to an early history of California.

Now, the Buttes are mostly on private property, but you can pay for a scheduled group hike in the mountains between October and May. Or you can drive around the towering hills in about an hour, as I did recently, following quiet country roads through ranches and groves of trees studded with pink flowers. (I stopped at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area along the way to do some bird-watching.)

You can bike around them, as one reader, Gerald Adams, who lives in Sacramento, did on the morning of the Super Bowl. “The fields of mustard flower and orchards starting to bloom were grand,” Adams told me in an email. “The roads were empty and we saw only one other cyclist.”

What great books should we add to our California reading list? Tell us at Please include your full name and the city in which you live.

O’Brien’s Pub, a mainstay in San Diego and one of the city’s oldest craft beer bars, was recently named the best beer bar in America in USA Today’s readers’ choice rankings, The San Diego Union Tribune reports.

The bar was awarded the first-place title in the outlet’s 2024 contest for the best beer bar in the country. It was nominated alongside 20 other bars by a panel of beer critics and voted number one by the outlet’s readers. The ranking is part of USA Today’s “10Best” series, which includes contests for the best food, activities and local attractions across the country.

O’Brien’s, which was founded in 1994 in the Kearny Mesa area of San Diego, has made a name for itself by serving rare beers from Belgium and the Russian River Valley in Northern California, and by spotlighting local breweries. The bar is also a favorite watering hole among locals, many of whom helped keep the bar afloat during the pandemic.

“It’s very humbling that our little pub in our little city was able to pull it off,” Tom Nickel, the bar’s co-owner, told The Union Tribune.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

Because of an editing error, yesterday’s newsletter incorrectly stated that both Vince Fong and Mike Boudreaux had advanced to a runoff to fill Representative Kevin McCarthy’s seat in the 20th Congressional District until 2025. Fong, a Republican state legislator, had advanced, but the race had not yet been called for the second candidate when the newsletter was published. You can follow the results here.

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