Cowles Mountain (Mission Trails Regional Park)

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Cowles Mountain, San Diego, CA
Southeast view from just below Cowles Mountain’s summit
Cowles Mountain, San Diego, CA
Looking north from Cowles Mountain

Cowles Mountain (Mission Trails Regional Park)

  • Location: Mission Trails Regional Park, San Diego. From points east, take the 125 Freeway to the Navajo Road exit. Head west for 2 miles and turn right onto Golfcrest Drive. Make an immediate right into a large parking area with restrooms and vending machines where you will find the Cowles Mountain Trail Head. From downtown San Diego, take I-8 to College Ave. Turn left and follow College Ave. 1.3 miles to Navajo Road. Go 2 miles and turn left onto Golfcrest Drive and make an immediate right into the parking area.
  • Agency: Mission Trails Regional Park
  • Distance: 3 miles
  • Elevation gain: 950 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 1.5 hours
  • Best season: October – June
  • USGS topo map: La Mesa
  • Recommended guidebook: California Hiking
  • Recommended gear: sun screen; sun hat; hiking poles
  • More information: Map My Hike description here; Yelp page here; Trip Advisor page here; Summitpost page here; trip descriptions here and here
  • Rating: 7
Cowles Mountain trail head, San Diego, CA
0:00 – Trail head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Panoramic views, a convenient location and a well-graded trail that offers a good workout without being too strenuous are factors that make the south approach to Cowles Mountain one of San Diego’s most popular hikes. The 1,591-foot summit, whose name is pronounced “Coals”, is the highest point within the city limits of San Diego. On clear days, the views include the ocean, Cuyamaca Peak and more; if visibility is exceptional you may see San Clemente and Santa Catalina Islands and El Toro Peak in the Santa Rosa range to the northeast. One thing you won’t have much of is solitude; of the various routes to Cowles, this one is the most popular.

Geology on the Cowles Mountain Trail, San Diego, CA
0:22 – Geological formations (times are approximate)

From the parking area, follow the signed trail uphill. Almost immediately, the views are excellent; notably Lake Murray to the south. (While the virtual absence of trees makes for some terrific visibility, it also means the route is almost entirely exposed, so plan accordingly.) The trail ascends steadily with the large shape of the peak looming to the north. At 0.9 miles, you’ll reach a junction with the trail coming from Barker Way. Bear left, continuing your ascent.

Cowles Mountain Trail, San Diego, CA
0:27 – Junction with the Barker Way Trail

At 1.3 miles, you reach a T-junction. Head left and make the final push to the summit where you can enjoy the fruits of your labors. To the north, you’ll have a near-aerial perspective on the 52 Freeway. Rocky El Capitan dominates the landscape to the east; Viejas Mountain can be seen southeast. Interpretive plaques point out specific peaks, both in the park and beyond. As this is a popular hike with dog owners, several metal bowls for water have been left on the summit by previous hikers.

After enjoying the view, retrace your steps back downhill, or if you have set up a car shuttle, you can descend via a different route, such as the east approach. If you’re looking for a challenge try continuing to Pyles Peak, which despite being lower than Cowles, adds more than one thousand feet of elevation gain to the total hike.

Cowles Mountain summit, San Diego, CA
0:45- Looking west from the summit

Text and photography copyright 2015 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.


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