Science & Technology



The magical California state park that doesn't allow visitors

Jessica Garrison, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

SUTTER BUTTES, Calif. — About 60 miles north of Sacramento, the Sutter Buttes rise starkly from the floor of the Central Valley, the remnants of a volcano active more than 1.4 million years ago. Their cathedral-like spires twist upward, some reaching more than 2,000 feet into the sky — an imposing circular formation, 10 miles in diameter, that's been called "the smallest mountain range in the world."

Sheltered within these lava domes is an oasis of rolling hills, rich with wildflowers and Native American artifacts, and watched over by hawks and countless other species of birds.

Bitter debates over the lack of public access to the Sutter Buttes have roiled for years. But most everyone on both sides agrees on this: They encompass some of the most magical and otherworldly terrain in California. Long sacred to Native American tribes, the formation is now home mainly to cattle that chomp grass behind stone walls built by Chinese laborers more than a century ago, oblivious to the fact that some people want to throw open the gates and some want to keep them locked forever.

For the last two decades, the Sutter Buttes have also been home to a California state park that almost no one is allowed to visit.

In 2003, the state of California spent about $3 million to buy 1,800 acres on the north side of the buttes, including an idyllic stretch of emerald called "Peace Valley." The government has eyed a park in this ruggedly beautiful landscape since the inception of the state parks system in the 1920s. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., the famed landscape architect who helped establish the National Park Service and also surveyed potential parkland for California in those early years, put it on a state park wish list, along with such gems as Point Lobos on the Monterey County coast and Donner Lake in Northern California.

In 2005, the state finally achieved its goal — sort of. The State Park and Recreation Commission officially declared its 1,785 acres a park. The property has its own state-sponsored webpage and a budget for conservation and maintenance.


What it does not have is any way for the public to get in.

"Please note: There is currently no public access point to enter this park," reads a notice in big red letters at the top of the webpage.

Beneath that are breathtaking photos: sunlight glinting off a placid lake; a dirt road leading up a verdant hill; a haunting photo of the buttes at sunset — from a distance.

That last image — the one from a distance — is the only way most people can view the park.


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