The Orland Buttes offer a rugged break from the exceedingly flat Sacramento Valley.
When driving along Interstate 5 through California’s Sacramento Valley, the landscape the freeway is unrelentingly flat. Only in the distance is the valley interrupted and mountains can be seen hemming in the flat land. Indeed, for 430 miles, the Great Central Valley of California (of which the Sacramento Valley is the norther third) there is, seemingly, only the solitary interruption of the Sutter Buttes, an old volcanic core often referred to as “the world’s smallest mountain range”. That will be the subject of another Northern California Review someday. However, the Sutter Buttes are not the only bit of topography in California’s great agricultural heartland.
50 miles south of Redding, along the western edge of the valley is a little known formation named the Orland Buttes. The agricultural town of Orland, located along I-5 lies 7 miles to the east. The buttes are not tall, but they do offer an extensive, rocky series of outcroppings that break up the monotony of the valley. While speeding along on the freeway, they tend to blend in with the mountains of the coast range that rise to the west. Although they are often lost amidst the landscape, they remain an attractive and unusual feature that are worth exploring. Even better, much of the Orland Buttes lie on public land and are traversed via several interesting but little known trails, making them a good springtime hiking destination.
As noted, the Orland Buttes are located on the western side of the Sacramento Valley, roughly 50 miles south of Redding and 7 miles east of Orland. They suit on the edge of a transitional region, where the farms of the valley give way to the oak savannah that covers the Coast Range foothills. Further west, the valley floor begins to buckle and small ridges form along a north/south axis. However, the Buttes are distinct from this area, both in terms of geology and the physical space that separates them.
The area between the Buttes and the Coast Range foothills is now occupied by Black Butte Lake, an impounded reservoir on Stoney Creek. This creek begins high up on Snow Mountain, the Coast Range’s southernmost 7,000 foot peak. It flows roughly northeast, through rugged canyons and through the buckled ridges of the valley before reaching the Orland Buttes. A dam in Eagle Pass backs the water up and forms the lake. From there, the creek continues a short distance to the east before joining the mighty Sacramento River. It’s total journey is nearly 90 miles and drains an area of over 700 square miles. While the sight of Stony Creek passing between the ramparts of the Orland Buttes would have been a beautiful sight, especially in its spring fury, the truth is, Black Butte Lake is a beautiful addition to the Orland Buttes and does add a fair amount of interest to the area. The land around the lake, and therefore the Buttes themselves, is administered by the Bureau of Reclamation. This means that the land is open to the public and exploring the Buttes is welcome.
The Orland Buttes are broken up into three main formations. Anchoring the southern end is the Orland Butte, the largest and tallest of the three rock outcroppings. Rising 700 feet around the surrounding farmland, it is the most noticeable of the buttes from the freeway. Visible from far to the south as one drives north, it is a distinct landmark, if you are aware of its presence.
The central part of the Buttes is the longest, unbroken portion section of rock. This long ridge, called Eagle Ridge, is a nearly three mile long wall of basalt that, at its highest point, rises nearly 600 feet around the farms on its east side. The lake that occupies the area to the west, is 100 feet higher than the farmland, so the relief on the west side is a little less. Notably, Eagle Ridge is bookended by recreation areas at its northern and southern termini. Though the recreation areas are connected by one of the Orland Butte’s trails, these are primarily focuses on the lake and the aquatic activities that usually draws people to this destination. Some of the ridge is on private land but the western half is still with the land administered by the Bureau of Reclamation and can be explored legally.
The northernmost of the three Orland Buttes is named Black Butte and it is both the smallest and most geologically interesting of the three buttes. While the other buttes have plenty of exposed rock, none have it such extensive and easily explored proportions as Black Butte. It is also the only one of the three Orland Buttes that is entirely on public land. Forming a crescent reaching to the northeast, it has extensive basalt outcroppings that form an impressive series of walls, giving it an elevated feeling high above the water. A lower section, arcing to the northeast does not have the impressive basalt walls but it has numerous outcroppings, making this an intriguing area to hike through.
The geologic map of California begins to tell the tale of the Orland Buttes’ fascinating geology. Though there are a few isolated volcanic areas on the west side of the Sacramento Valley, the Orland Buttes are the only exposed basalt in the region. The other volcanic presence, which is very little, is of a completely different rock composition. This is indicated on the map by the color of the rock (it is identifiable next to Black Butte Lake), which indicates its volcanic origin but its distinction from the nearby volcanic extrusions.
The formation of the Orland Buttes is quite unusual. It lies along a fault, and was likely, in some fashion, created by it. However, the type of basalt that composes the Buttes is part of a larger story, one that is both mysterious and fascinating and plays a larger part in the formation’s beauty. The Orland Buttes are composed of Lovejoy Basalt. This dense rock is particular to Northern California and is believed to have been produced by a volcanic vent near Susanville but flowed westward, covering a significant swath of the North State. It was subsequently eroded until only isolated islands of Lovejoy Basalt can be found. The Orland Buttes are the second furthest west and second most isolated occurrence of this rare rock type.
Lovejoy Basalt has a distinct appearance. It looks as though it is an agglomeration of chunks or blocks of rock. Blobs or blocks of rock seem to all be stuck together haphazardly. However, the chaotic appearance belies a solid strength, with the chunks welded together making the rock far more solid than it appears. It also make the appearance of the Orland Buttes very distinct, since this rock type can only be appreciated in a small handful of other places around Northern California. Indeed, the Orland Buttes are one of the easiest places at which to examine and enjoy the unique beauty of Lovejoy Basalt.
Examining and enjoying the beauty of the Orland Buttes is surprisingly easy to do. It is easy to get to off of I-5 and is served by a well-developed trail network. Three trails are spread throughout the area administered by the Bureau of Reclamation:
- In the south is a trail the follows the narrow strip of land between Black Butte Lake and Eagle Ridge. It is about 2.5 miles long and offers opportunities to explore some of the crags along the ridge and some of the peninsulas that extend out into the lake.
- At the northern end of the lake is a jumble of trails following the finger-like shoreline of the northernmost part of Black Butte Lake. This trail is furthest from the Buttes themselves but the formations are prominently visible, as is the looming presence of the Coast Range. Access to this trail is from the Buckhorn Campground or the Black Butte Trailhead.
- The best trail at the Orland Buttes is the one that ascends Black Butte. The hike features a 5 mile lollipop that begins at the Orland Buttes Vista next to the dam that forms the lake. It crosses the dam and ascends the northeast corner of Black Butte and then proceeds to follow the formation’s spine, weaving through Lovejoy Basalt outcroppings. It then crosses a narrow neck, where it intersects a trail coming up from the Black Butte Trailhead. From this point it climbs to the highest part of the Butte, composed of solid outcroppings of Lovejoy Basalt, where a railing marks the end of the trail and a spectacular view of much of Northern California, stretching from Mount Shasta to almost down to peaks that border the northern end of San Francisco Bay (well, where the Bay meats the Delta, at least). The Coast Range foothills, occasionally dotted by clusters of oaks and nearly wild and undeveloped in this area, add a richness to the view from the summit. You can return the way you came or take a northern part of the loop and follow along the foot of Black Butte back to the dam.
The Orland Buttes are not California’s grandest monument or its most well-known hiking destination. Yet, if a region has a destination like the Buttes as an obscure destination, it is richly blessed with natural beauty! When the mountains are covered in snow and inaccessible, the Orland Buttes are a perfect destination for a day of hiking. This is particularly true in spring, when the grass is lush and green, the lake is full and wildflowers abound. Then, hiking out onto the summit of Black Butte and observing the snow-covered mountains to the north, west and east, one feels like you have really seen and appreciated the Sacramento Valley anew, with a unique and unusual perspective on one of California’s most impressive natural features.
Orland Buttes Gallery (click to enlarge):