Cowles Mountain (Mission Trails Regional Park)

Cowles Mountain

Cowles Mountain is probably the most popular hiking destination in San Diego, and of the several possible routes to the peak, the trail starting at Golfcrest and Navajo is by far the most heavily used (check out our write-ups of alternate starting points Big Rock Park and Barker Way). This is not the hike to do if you are looking for some quiet solitude to commune with nature, as you will be sharing the trail with dozens of other hikers and runners (many of whom choose to disregard the “no amplified music” rule and broadcast their tunes for everyone to hear). Parking here can also be a significant challenge – at peak times its so busy that cars line the street as far as the eye can see. In fact, this trail is so popular that Mission Trails Regional Park has created the 5-Peak Challenge to encourage hikers to explore other areas of the park in the hopes of alleviating some of the parking issues. But despite the crowds, this is still a really beautiful hike with some of the best views within the city limits. It provides a great workout and is a choice spot for watching sunrise, sunset, or enjoying a full moon.

We were able to do this hike at an off-peak time (mid-day on a Friday) and found that while still crowded, it was actually pretty tolerable. We miraculously scored a spot in the actual parking lot, saving us the usual additional quarter mile uphill trek along the sidewalk from our car to the trailhead.Parking at Cowles Mountain

The staging area is one of the nicer trailheads I’ve been to, with a number of benches and shade trees, as well as the more utilitarian drinking fountain and bathroom. Parking issues aside, it makes for a good place to meet friends for a little exercise and camaraderie.Cowles Mountain staging area

We set off up the trail, which began to ascend immediately up the chaparral covered hillside.20151120_DSC9038-EditCowlesMtn

Being the most popular trail in the county means that the it suffers a significant amount of wear and tear. The City of San Diego, along with Mission Trails staff and volunteers, do a tremendous job of maintaining the trail. In fact, the trail was actually closed for a full two months in 2013 for restoration work. Today, we saw evidence of the never ending work of keeping the trail maintained in the form of caution tape marking the side of the trail.20151120_DSC9039-EditCowlesMtn

We soon began a series of switchbacks up the mountainside. A small wooden footbridge and some wooden steps aided the ascent.20151120_DSC9042-EditCowlesMtn

The smooth dirt quickly transitioned into rockier terrain.20151120_DSC9045-EditCowlesMtn

As is usual on Cowles, we encountered numerous other hikers and trail runners on the way.20151120_DSC9053-EditCowles

Around .4 mile, the switchbacks subsided for a bit and the trail headed towards a small subpeak.20151120_DSC9054-EditCowles

As the trail turned left to skirt the subpeak, we paused for a moment to enjoy the view. Lake Murray lay to the southwest, with San Diego Bay beyond.20151120_DSC9057-EditCowles

We continued around to the back of the subpeak. Around .8 miles a trail leading towards Barker Way, one of several alternative starting points for Cowles Mountain, branched off on the right.20151120_DSC9070Cowles

We headed left and soon came to the base of the final set of switchbacks.20151120_DSC9072-EditCowles

We wound our way up the switchbacks, enjoying the views as we climbed.20151120_DSC9084-EditCowles

At last the switchbacks came to an end, and we had just a short rocky traverse to the summit.20151120_DSC9095-EditCowles

At 1.3 miles we reached the summit marker.20151120DSC_5132CowelsPyles

We wandered around the peak a bit, enjoying the views. The views atop Cowles Mountain are probably the best to be had within the City of San Diego. Looking northeast we could see El Cajon Mountain, Cuyamaca Peak, and Viejas Mountain.20151120_DSC9099-EditCowles

Due east was Lyon’s Peak, Tecate Peak, Mt. Helix in the foreground, and San Miguel Mountain.20151120_DSC9100-Edit-EditCowles

To the northwest were the remaining four peaks of Mission Trails: Pyle’s Peak, Kwaay Paay, South Fortuna, and North Fortuna.20151120_DSC9105-EditCowles

After exploring the summit, you can head back down the way you came, or as we chose, continue on to Pyle’s Peak (write-up coming next week!)

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From Highway 125, take the Navajo Road exit. Head west on Navajo Road for approximately 2 miles, then turn right onto Golfcrest Drive. The parking area will be almost immediately on your right. The parking area will almost definitely be full, so park along the street where you can, making sure not to block anyone’s driveway. map

Total Distance: 2.7 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Total Ascent: 915 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes not allowed
Facilities: Bathroom and drinking fountain at trailhead
Fees/Permits: None

For more information, visit:
Mission Trails Regional Park
View Trail Map

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