Location and directions: Skagit County; from east-bound SR 20, turn left toward the Marblemount Ranger Station. Continue past the ranger station and park where the road turns into private property. Trailhead is on the left.
Length: 4.5+ miles, one way
Elevation change: 4000 feet
Cow Heaven is one of those trails that’s all about the process.
Trail guides like to refer to Cow Heaven as a good “conditioner,” which is another way of saying that your legs are going to feel it the next day.
It’s not exactly a view hike–although there are reputedly decent views from the top–and there’s a lot of slogging to get to what views there are. The trail itself is in good shape, although there are a few sections where it would be relatively easy to lose the trail. It starts out fairly moderate, then switchbacks steeply up and around the side of the mountain. Eventually, you reach a forested saddle and drop down into a lovely stand of giant cedars.
From that point on, the trail is rocky in places, with many exposed roots. After winding along near some impressive overhanging ledges, the trail begins climbing again. And climbing. And climbing. Through different varieties of forest, at different elevations.
Towards the top, the forest gives way to low brush and open berry bushes. From here, the knob that constitutes the actual summit is visible.
The day we hiked the trail was partially cloudy, so we stopped short of the highest point. (On a previous trip, my husband had hiked up to the higher point, but the views were obscured by smoke from wildfires, which means we’ll be back at some point, I’m sure.)
We’d read that cross-country adventures into the Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness were possible, for those with the necessary skills, but that wasn’t us on that particular day. In the parking lot, we met up with a group that had put in 11 or 12 miles, so some further rambling seems possible.
Key to wilderness safety is knowing when not to push your limits. For me, that day, I was content to rest in a protected spot and watch the clouds push up the mountains across the valley, with a glimpse here and there of snow-capped peaks. It wasn’t the sort of breathtaking view that steals the show in the North Cascades, but it was a quiet little moment of respite before slogging back down the mountain.
My slow pace that day offered the chance to observe the forest more closely, and my what a forest it is.
Because the trail winds through so many kinds of terrain over a variety of elevations, it’s a great perspective on the effects of microclimate on plant life. My knees were cursing me, but my plant-loving heart was in heaven.
In short, Cow Heaven is a quiet, unassuming hike that offers a good challenge in terms of length and elevation gain in exchange for relative solitude in a lovely forest. In my experience, it tends to reward the sorts of folks who are looking for that–and really only that–sort of outing.