Cowles Mountain Hike

The hike to the Cowles Mountain summit is one of the most popular hikes in San Diego. With views spanning from Mexico to Orange County, it’s easy to see why so many hikers, bikers, and nature walkers are drawn to the challenge of hiking to San Diego’s highest peak at 1,593 feet above sea level.

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With trails ranging in length from approximately 2.7 miles to 5 miles round trip in length, hikers of all skill levels can easily tackle any of these hikes in three hours or less.

History of Cowles Mountain

Cowles Mountain, pronounced “coals,” is named after George A. Cowles, an 1870-1880s San Diego rancher, farmer and businessman. Cowles was originally from the East coast but moved to San Diego to expand his fortune and, eventually, become known as “The Raisin King of the United States.” Cowles Mountain is part of Mission Trails Regional Park, which stretches over 7,000 acres and is the largest urban park in Southern California.

Parking for Cowles Mountain

Parking will be different for each trail, but there is free parking for all three trails mentioned below.

Hikers will find that mostly street parking is available for Cowles Mountain in nearby residential areas. It is recommended that hikers remember to be courteous of the residents by not using driveways for making U-turns or parking. Visitors should also keep noise to a minimum while walking to the trailhead through residential areas.

If parking close to trailhead is not available, hikers and visitors may park further away and walk to the trailhead. In order to avoid crowds, make sure you arrive early, especially on weekends.

Rules and Regulations

In order to ensure the safety of Mission Trails Regional Park visitors, the City of San Diego requires that park visitors follow the rules outlined by the San Diego Municipal Code. These rules include but are not limited to the following:

  • Visitors must stay on authorized trails at all times.
  • Natural features, such as plants, soil, rocks, etc., may not be removed from the park.
  • Fireworks and firearms are not allowed in the park at anytime.
  • Fires of any kind, with the exception of fires in fire boxes at campgrounds or park barbecue grills, are not allowed.
  • Smoking and vaping is prohibited.
  • While dogs are allowed, all dogs must be kept on a leash. Dog owners are responsible for cleaning up after their pets.
  • Alcoholic beverages and glass containers of any kind are not allowed in the park.
  • Taking, wounding, or harming an animal is prohibited by law.

Permits are not required to access Cowles Mountain or Mission Trails Regional Park.

Hikers who choose to bring their dogs with them should note that citations have been given to those visiting with dogs during the peak heat of summer. Due to the limited amount of shade on these hikes, it’s best to hike with your dog early in the morning or late in the afternoon to help prevent dehydration or the possibility of a heat stroke.

There is no special gear necessary for any of the three trails, but hikers should bring plenty of water to prevent dehydration. It’s also important to remember that all three trails are on dusty gravel roads, so comfortable shoes with good traction are recommended. In terms of clothes, breathable fitness clothes of any kind are ideal.

The Trails to Cowles Mountain

Big Rock Trail

Distance: 5 Miles Round Trip

Elevation Gain: 1428 Feet

Features: Panoramic Views, Vistas, Bird Watching, Wildflowers

Big Rock Trail to the Cowles Mountain Summit is the longest and least crowded of three routes to the peak. It begins in Big Rock Park, where parking, bathrooms, water fountains, and and a soda machine are available for visitors.

Hikers can either park at Big Rock Park or find street parking near the intersection of Mesa Road and Prospect. The trailhead is behind the park near the tennis courts.

Shortly after the hike begins, you will be met with a junction. Either option will lead you to the summit, as they quickly rejoin the original trail. While this trail may not be as busy as the Barker Way trail or the Golfcrest and Navajo, hikers will find that the trail is well maintained. Hikers will also notice that, due to the tall manzanita along the trail, this hike offers quite a bit of coverage. The Big Rock Trail also has a few switchbacks, ascents and descents, and, if you’re lucky, the opportunity to see wildlife.

At approximately 1.5 miles, the trail will end and you will be met with a service road. The service road will climb a steep ascent, level out, descend, and ascend again before you reach the summit.

Once you’ve reached the summit, you’ll see Mt. Helix and Mt. Miguel in the southeast and Lake Murray in the southwest. If you look to the left, you will see the traditional summit marker as well as a few crowds gathering to enjoy the view.

This hike is great for intermediate hikers, as it is a bit longer than the other two options and features intense ascents. Leashed dogs and bikes are allowed on this trail. This trail is not wheelchair or stroller friendly.

Barker Way

Distance: 2.9 Miles Round Trip

Elevation Gain: 911 Feet

Features: Panoramic Mountain and Ocean Views, Wildflowers, Wildlife

This trail is more crowded than the Big Rock Trail and less crowded than the Golfcrest and Navajo trail. Hikers should note that water fountains are not available at this trailhead, and the only bathroom facility is a port-a-potty. Parking is limited, due to the trailhead being accessed via residential property.

At the first junction, you can choose to go left or right. Because this is a loop trail, either way will bring you back to the trailhead.

Depending on the time of year you attempt to summit Cowles Mountain, wildflowers and and flora, like Buckwheat, will be in bloom. There are many steep ascents, but wooden and stone steps have been built into hillsides to assist you with the climb. Hazy outlines of mountains can be seen as early as half a mile into this trail.

There is another junction at .75 miles, and you can either keep right and cut across the service road or keep left to connect to the main trail from Golfcrest and Navajo. You will eventually end up on the service road as you make your way to the summit. The road to the summit is a short but steep climb, but the it all seems worth it as you’re greeted with panoramic views of mountains, the city, Lake Murray in the southwest and the coastline.

Hikers may descend the summit via the service road or follow the signs for the Barker Way trail. Should you choose to stay on trail, you can expect to see tall brush, more wild flora, and less hikers and crowds.

This hike is great for beginners, groups, and families. Leashed dogs are allowed on this trail. Bikes are allowed only on the service road. This trail is not wheelchair or stroller friendly.

Golfcrest and Navajo

Distance: 2.7 Miles round Trip

Elevation Gain: 915 Feet

Features: Panoramic Mountain View, Vistas, Flora

The out-and-back trail starting at Golfcrest and Navajo is by far the most popular hike to the Cowles Mountain summit. You will be sharing this hike with dozens of other hikers, and for this reason, parking at the trailhead will be limited.

If the thought of large crowds hasn’t deterred you from hiking this trail to Cowles Mountain, rest assured that you will still be able to see some of the most beautiful views within city limits.

While you don’t need any specific gear for this hike, it’s recommended that you bring plenty of water and sunscreen. There is not much shade available on the trail. There are water fountains, benches, and bathrooms available at the trailhead.

The trail itself is worn but still well-maintained and easy to follow. The majority of your hike will include steep inclines, switchbacks, and walking on loose gravel. As with the above mentioned trails, you’ll know you’ve reached the summit when you see the plaque.

From the summit, you can see El Cajon Mountain, Cuyamaca Peak, and Viejas Mountain from the northeast. Lyon’s Peak, Tecate Peak, Mt. Helix, and San Miguel Mountain are in the East, and the remaining four peaks of Mission Trails, Pyle’s Peak, Kwaay Paay, South Fortuna, and North Fortuna, are in the northwest.

This hike is great for beginners, groups, as well as, solo hikers who may not quite be comfortable with feeling totally alone in nature. Leashed dogs are allowed on this trail, but bikes are prohibited. This trail is not wheelchair or stroller friendly.

No matter which trail you choose to summit Cowles Mountain, it is for sure to be an experience you won’t soon forget. What makes these hikes so unique is that there is a trail for hikers of all skill levels, giving everyone the opportunity to enjoy the view from the highest point in San Diego.


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