Cowles Mountain via Barker Way (Mission Trails Regional Park)

Cowles Mountain is the tallest point within the City of San Diego, and one of the most popular hikes in the county. There are several different routes up the mountain, the most popular being the southern route starting at Golfcrest and Navajo. Previously, we’d written up the route from Big Rock Park in Santee, and decided today we’d check out the eastern route from Barker Way.

We met up at the trailhead after work on a hazy weekday afternoon. Barker Way, the residential street where the trailhead was located, was bustling. I did my best to drive cautiously and not blast my radio or slam my car door so as to minimize my contribution to the neighborhood disruption, but I guess if you live across the street from a popular trail you have to expect some minor disturbance.20150513_DSC5657Cowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

We passed through the metal gate and set off down the gravelly road.20150513_DSC5662-EditCowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

At .1 mile we came to the first junction. To the right, the wide dirt service road continued up the mountain. To the left, a single track, also heading up the mountain, branched off. Either route would bring us to the summit, but we elected to head left along the single track in the hopes that it would be a little less populated.20150513_DSC5663-EditCowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

The trail wound through the chaparral. The buckwheat was in bloom and its tiny white flowers stood out prominently among the green of the surrounding chaparral broom and laurel sumac.20150513_DSC5665-EditCowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

Soon, the trail began to ascend. At points, wooden and stone steps set into the hillside aided our climb as we made our way up a series of switchbacks.20150513_DSC5668-EditCowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

Before long we had some nice views of El Cajon and a dim outline of the mountains beyond. We could see the distinctive rust-colored and cloud-topped form of the Fletcher Hills water tower in the distance.20150513_DSC5680Cowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

We even found a cooperative lizard willing to pose for our cameras.20150513DSC_0291Cowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

At .6 miles we came to another junction. The right fork went back towards the service road, so we kept left, following signs for the summit.20150513_DSC5694Cowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

More uphill climbing awaited us.20150513_DSC5697-EditCowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

At .75 miles we finally turned right to cut across to the service road. You can stay left at this point and still reach the summit. The left fork goes over to the south side of the mountain and connects with the main trail from Golfcrest Drive. We’d done that route plenty of times though, and thus wanted a different route.


Around .9 miles our single track ended as we met the wide service road. We turned left and proceeded uphill.20150513_DSC5717Cowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

The road wound up the mountainside, becoming increasingly steeper.20150513_DSC5722Cowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

As always, our reward was a beautiful and expansive view.20150513_DSC5723Cowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

While this section wasn’t terribly long, the incline got us sweating and breathing hard.20150513_DSC5724Cowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

We stayed on the service road until the road finally leveled out and we came to some wooden steps leading to the summit point.20150513_DSC5728Cowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

Unsurprisingly, there were people were at the top, either sitting down for a rest or milling about and enjoying the view. It wasn’t nearly as crowded as a weekend morning, however.20150513_DSC5729Cowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

The afternoon was pretty hazy though, so our visibility was hampered. We could still see Lake Murray to the southwest, and just barely make out the coastline and Point Loma.20150513DSC_0327Cowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

To the east, the mountains were obscured by the haze.20150513DSC_0326Cowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

Looking northwest, we did have a decent view of the nearby antennae and Pyle’s Peak and other Mission Trails peaks beyond.20150513DSC_0329Cowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

For our return trip, we elected to take one of the alternate routes back down. We originally planned to take the service road the whole way, just for a change of scenery, but about .7 miles down the service road found another quiet looking single track that led back down to Barker Way.20150513_DSC5749Cowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

This path was very quiet and we only encountered one other hiker on it. Much of it meandered through tall brush which provided a feeling of seclusion and solitude we don’t normally experience hiking Cowles.20150513_DSC5757Cowels_Mtn_BarkerWay
Again we encountered several junctions, but all were well marked and we just continued following signs for Barker Way (or heading AWAY from the summit) until we met up with the original trail we had come up on.20150513_DSC5758Cowels_Mtn_BarkerWay

Soon enough, we were back at the trailhead and heading home.

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From highway 125, take the Navajo Road exit. Head west on Navajo Road for approximately .8 miles, then turn right onto Boulder Lake Ave. Follow Boulder Lake Ave for .5 mile and turn right onto Barker Way. The trailhead will be on the left side of the road, park along the street and try to be respectful of the residents in the area. map

Total Distance: 2.9 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Total Ascent: 911 feet
Dog Friendly?: Leashed dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes allowed on service road only
Facilities: Port-a-potty at trailhead
Fees/Permits: None

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

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