Cowles Mountain from Big Rock Park (Mission Trails Regional Park)

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Cowles Mountain, Mission Trails Regional Park, San Diego, CA
Dusk from Cowles Mountain
Cowles Mountain, Mission Trails Regional Park, San Diego, CA
Southeast view from Cowles Mountain

Cowles Mountain from Big Rock Park (Mission Trails Regional Park)

  • Location: Big Rock Park, Santee. From the west, take Highway 52 to Mission Gorge Road (exit 14). Take a hard right on Mission Gorge and go 0.4 miles to Mesa Road. Turn left and go half a mile to Big Rock Park. Park on the right side of the road near the signed trail head. From the east, take Highway 52 to Fanita Drive (exit 15B). Turn left and follow Fanita 0.2 miles to Prospect. Turn right and follow Prospect for one mile to its end at Mesa Road. Turn left and park almost immediately where available on the sidewalk by Big Rock Park.
  • Agency: Mission Trails Regional Park
  • Distance: 5 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,400 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 2.5 hours
  • Best season: October – June
  • USGS topo map: La Mesa
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield San Diego County
  • Recommended gear: sun screen; sun hat; hiking poles
  • More information: Trip descriptions here, here and here
  • Rating: 7
Big Rock Trail Head, Mission Trails Regional Park
0:00 – Start of the hike, Big Rock Park (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

The approach from the south is the most popular route to the Cowles Mountain, the highest point in the city limits of San Diego at 1,591 feet, but hikers looking for more of a challenge can begin at Big Rock Park in Santee. This route also has less traffic than the south trail, at least during the first part of the hike before the trail joins a major service road.

Mission Trails Regional Park, San Diego, CA
0:30 – Looking north from the intersection with the Mesa Trail (times are approximate)

Start by following the Big Rock Trail, passing through a meadow alongside a housing tract. The antenna-dotted summit of Cowles stands unmistakably in the distance. You cross a seasonal stream and stay right as two unofficial trails branch off to the left. Soon you’re ascending through chaparral, gaining better and better views of the surrounding suburbs as you climb. You pass a junction with a spur coming up from the residential neighborhood and reach another split about a mile from the start. This is the Mesa Trail, an option for a different return.

Mission Trails Regional Park, San Diego, CA
0:45 – Service road toward the summit

Past this intersection, the trail continues to ascend through the brush, reaching a dirt service road at 1.5 miles. Turn right and follow it toward the summit, at first enjoying a flat stretch with great views to the south. Soon you’re climbing, passing another trail coming up from Barker Way. A steep ascent brings you to the summit, where you can enjoy a 360-degree panorama including the ocean to the west and El Capitan and the Cuyamaca range to the east. If visibility is good, you may see Orange County’s Santa Ana Mountains to the northwest.

Cowles Mountain, Mission Trails Regional Park
1:10 – Northwest view from the summit

If you decide to use the Mesa Trail as an alternate descent, you can follow it for 3/4 of a mile from the junction with the Big Rock Trail to its bottom end at the Mesa Service Road. This right-of-way is a proposed extension of Mesa Road which would connect with Lake Murray Blvd. to the south. Turn left and follow it north for half a mile back to your starting point. If there have been recent rains, look for a small seasonal waterfall on the left side of the road.

Mesa Service Road, Mission Trails Regional Park
2:15 – Sunset from the bottom of the Mesa Trail, heading back toward Big Rock Park

Text and photography copyright 2016 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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