The Helen Buttes are two summits located four miles northwest of the town of Marblemount in the North Cascades of Washington. There is a popular trail called the Cow Heaven Trail that leads to a meadowy area below the south side of the SW Peak. From the end of the trail, a cross-country scramble leads to the SW Peak. The NE Peak (the highest point) is farther away and somewhat more cumbersome to get to. The divide on which the summits reside is part of the boundary for the Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness. Points west and north of the summits are in the wilderness. Points south and east are in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The wilderness name comes from two major creeks draining the area.
Both summits are moderately rugged with cliffs and trees competing for landscape rights. The SW Peak is a series of brushy crags and notches. The highest crag is somewhat unaesthetic to climb to. Moreover, nearby trees partially obscure views. The NE Peak is more straightforward to climb once you get to it. Getting to it is the hard part. However, its summit is open to 360-degree views. Furthermore, the NE Peak has the added bonus of possessing over 2,000 ft of prominence (2040P). This means the views are even better, for there are no nearby peaks higher than it. The closest higher peaks are the Diobsud Buttes (5,893 ft) 3.5 miles to the north across Diobsud Creek. The closest higher peak along a divide (i.e., the peak that "holds" Helen Buttes' prominence) is Mt. Watson (6,280+ ft) 6 miles to the NNW.
The name Cow Heaven implies a bovine presence. Well I can say in two times up there I have not seen a single cow. I have, however, seen a bear there. And it was in blueberry heaven. So if it was a female bear, perhaps it could be called Sow Heaven. But the real kind of cow do graze (or have grazed) the place. Local indians of long ago created the place from meadows and sparse woods as a place--by burning away the obstructing foliage--to pasture their herd.
There really is only one worthwhile way to approach and climb Helen Buttes and this is via the Cow Heaven Trail. Any other route would be a longer climb frustrated by uncertain terrain (brush, cliff bands, etc.).
But first one needs to get to the Cow Heaven Trailhead. Fortunately, this is easy.
Drive Hwy 20 ("North Cascades Highway") west or east from whichever direction you're coming from to the town of Marblemount. The trailhead is located behind the North Cascades National Park Ranger Station. The ranger station is not located on the main road but it is not hard to find. Look for the big brown sign. The turn-off is 0.9 miles west of the main corner in town (the corner where the gas stations are located). If coming from the west, this turn-off is about 7.5 miles east of Rockport.
Turn off the highway and go 0.7 miles north to the ranger station (on the right where the road forks around a stand of trees). You can stop in at the station if it's open (if they have one, you can pick up a copy of a hand-drawn map by Matt Jager of the trail to Cow Heaven). The rest of the way up the road behind the station can be tricky, so pay attention:
At the ranger station a gravel road goes briefly left (west) then turns right to go past some out buildings. Another gravel road (or maybe it's the main road) angles across a grassy strip, then past an old playground set on the left, then through a strip of trees. Past the trees the road turns left (north) again and in less than 100 yards on the left is a small pull-out. A large sign indicates the Cow Heaven Trail. Do not continue up the road. There's no point and it's private property up there anyway (a retired colonel who will talk your ear off).
Cow Heaven Trail
The trailhead is at a whopping nosebleed elevation of...400 ft. Your home is probably on higher ground.
You will now proceed to climb 4,500 ft in 5.5 miles. The trail goes up and up and up and up.
The first few hundred yards of trail is in the flat then switchback after switchback takes you higher and higher through forest. It takes to the slope somewhere north of Pt. 2605. There are no views at all (except for one waterfall) for the first 4 miles or so until you reach an elevation of 4,400 ft. At which time you leave the deeper forest shag behind and enter the subalpine carpet. The trail mounts the long, flat SE ridge of the SW Peak. The trail's namesake terrain begins on this ridge or just below it on the south side. And if you go in August or September you too can be in blueberry heaven. Continue above the 4,800-ft level for about one mile to a small pond. Shortly thereafter the trail comes to the south shoulder of the SW Peak whereupon it continues to places unknown (possibly to Corkindale, possibly down the Jackman Creek drainage). For all intents and purposes, the Cow Heaven Trail ends at this shoulder.
Time from car to end of trail = 2.5-3.5 hours; Distance = 5.5 miles; Gain = 4,500 ft.
Route to SW Peak
From the south shoulder of the SW Peak, climb up the steep, forested rib until the trees end. A Class 3 step (scrambling with one or two moves possibly falling in the Class 4 range) gets one past the difficulties and up to the false summit. Squeeze past some stunted pines. At this point the crags of the SW Peak (5,400+ ft) will appear straight ahead. Though I have been up the highest crag of the SW Peak I'm not sure I climbed it in the easiest manner. I encountered a lot of tightly-spaced trees and bushes. I leave it up to you to try your own route. You can pretty much see which crag is highest (it's the one in the middle). A heathery gully on the left side looks promising but it ends at a notch with an uncertain wall on the right. A forested slope on the right side looks feasible but is brushy/annoying.
Time from end of trail to SW Peak = 60-90 minutes; Distance = 0.3 miles; Gain = 700 ft.
Route to NE (Main) Peak
Note: It is possible to contour under the east side of the SW Peak to get to the NE Peak. However, you have to drop down 400+ ft to get around a cliffy barrier. The elevation loss to do this is equal to the extra elevation gain to get to the NE Peak by way of the SW Peak. Plus, the over-the-top route gives you more trail to work with. The east side traverse option is better for winter when snow covers brush.
If you are going for the true summit (the NE Peak) then there is no need to climb the final crags of the SW Peak. Avoid them. Instead, contour across the open upper west side to the obvious saddle on the SW Peak's NNW shoulder. There is a small pond on that shoulder. Pick your way down slabs or heather slopes then veer right to the 5,100-ft saddle between the peaks. From the saddle simply follow the ridge northward to the summit. There is one Class 3 step to deal with and a few places where trees get in the way but all in all the ridge is non-technical. A summit register could not be found though it could have been buried in snow.
Time from end of trail to NE Peak = 100-140 minutes; Distance = 0.8 miles; Gain = 1,100 ft.
The only red tape to speak of is that the west side of the Helen Buttes divide resides within the Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness so starndard wilderness policy applies there.
I can't remember if a Trail Park Pass is required at the trailhead. If one is, it wouldn't take but 15 minutes to go back to the ranger station to pick one up.
When To Climb
Because of the extremely low starting elevation (400 ft) and the easy access to the trailhead year-round, Helen Buttes could be climbed at any time of year. Both peaks make for a pleasant though strenuous winter outing. If a winter peakbag is not your thing, then a spring ascent will allow for flower viewing. An August-September ascent will provide blueberry sustenance. An autumn ascent will provide pretty fall colors. Take your pick.
There is no need to camp (other than car-camp) to do this climb. However, if you must, there are places to do so--in particular at or near the little pond at the end of the trail (south of the SW Peak). This pond is not shown on the map. It's mabye 70 ft x 70 ft in size. On the other hand, perhaps camping here would be frowned upon for it would potentially kill the vegetation and irritate others passing through.