With a trailhead accessible year round, Cow Heaven and views of the Skagit and Sauk River Valleys along with the majestic North Cascades are a promising paradise despite the challenge of a zigzag ascent spent mostly within the shelter of the forest.
Just beyond the Marblemount Ranger Station, the well maintained path begins innocently enough on an old forest road. Multiple waterfalls stream over and onto the trail making dry feet a nearly impossible balancing test and cushy green moss carpets all that rests on the forest floor.
Your undertaking of close to 60 switchbacks commences just a quarter mile in and takes you on a northwesterly course up from the valley to where cattle were once set out to graze. Colorful salmonberry and huckleberry and waterfall viewpoints may help you with the daunting climb. The last reliable water source is a cascading fork of Olson Creek in about 1.75 miles and at 2000 feet of elevation, so make sure you fill up here if needed.
The trail continues to ascend at a slightly more gradual pace as it follows the contour and navigates around large house-size boulders and moss-clogged drainages. Keep your eye out for evidence of trailwork like cut logs. The easily missed route is slowly being taken back by the forest and often resembles a dry creek bed. Keep that course to the northwest until 2800 feet and 2.75 miles from the trailhead. Here the trail turns west and proceeds high above another creek drainage presenting on your right.
Keep on climbing. At about 3250 feet and 3.15 miles the route meets a cliff band and navigates around to the left on what looks like nothing more than a tangle of roots. In a quarter mile, the trail adjusts itself to stay west up yet another jumble of exposed rocks. At 3650 feet and 3.5 miles, the terrain mellows and often holds snow into summer months. Look for reliable flagging left by snowshoers for help keeping on track.
At 3800 feet and just under 4 miles, the trail makes another left and hugs the plateau with peek-a-boo views of the snow-capped Cascades before correcting and rising up to the northwest again into a higher meadow at 4250 feet and 4.3 miles with the ridge of the southwest peak of Helen Buttes rising in front of you.
For most of your journey you may have been wondering how on earth this was ever cattle country but here you can imagine where sauntering bovine may have once wandered grazing for lunch. Depending on which season of summer you arrive in, you may either be tyrannized by incessant herds of mosquito or lulled into huckleberry bliss.
The trail takes a sharp right hand turn from here through the meadow and climbs to a notch in the treed cliff band. Climb up onto the southeast ridgeline that continues to the base of Helen Buttes, views open up to the right of the jagged north ridges. Snow can linger here late in the season, as well, and kicking steps along with embracing slide alder may be part of your adventure.
For the next quarter mile, the ridge offers abundant rocky outcroppings for soaking in the panoramic views and for those with scramble skills, the bouldered flank of the buttes offers sunny perches for gazing out in to the wild blue yonder. Take a few minutes to locate the scorched slopes of Newhalem and the Upper Skagit River Valley to the northeast from the 2015 Goodell wildfire.
Both the Skagit and Sauk River Valleys snake on for miles and popular peaks such as Glacier, Sloan and Sno-King line up on the horizon along with the famous Pickett Range. If not continuing on to snag one of the two Helen Buttes’ summits themselves or into the Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness and Olson Lakes, here is your turn around point after visiting this little patch of North Cascades nirvana.