I feel pretty safe in saying that Cowles Mountain in Mission Trails Regional Park is the most well-known, and well-used hiking trail in San Diego County. It’s easily accessible, provides a great workout, and as the highest point within the City of San Diego, offers some fantastic views. But maybe you’ve hiked the main trail so many times you can do it in your sleep, or perhaps you want a little less company on your next hike. Maybe you want a longer hike, or maybe you just want a change of scenery.
Fortunately, there are several different paths to the top of Cowles Mountain. If you’re burnt out on the main ascent from the trail head at Golfcrest and Navajo, check out this alternative hike starting at Big Rock Park in Santee. At 5 miles round trip, its also one of the longest routes to the peak so you can get maximum trail time.
We started off at Big Rock Park, but its probably easier to park on the street near the intersection of Mesa Road and Prospect along the side of the park. The trail head is located behind the park, on the other side of the chain link fence near the tennis courts. We walked out to Mesa Rd and up the sidewalk to get to the trail head.
From the start, the wide dirt trail immediately split in two directions. You can go either way as the rejoin shortly, the left track goes up and over a small hill while the right path skirts around the incline. We went left because cardio!
We crested the small hill and headed down towards a dry creek. We quickly rejoined the other trail segment, and headed left towards the mountains. The trail passed along a residential area, and after .3 miles an access path from the neighborhood joined up with our trail. We continued on, our destination emerging ahead of us.
Like many of San Diego’s hikes, this trail passed mainly through chaparral. The surrounding plants appeared dry at the end of a long summer. The trail was dry and dusty, but generally well maintained.
Around .65 miles the trail began some gentle switchbacks up the mountainside. Looking back towards our starting point, we were already getting some nice views of Santee, Mount Woodson, and El Cajon Mountain.
At 1.15 mile we came to an intersection. To the left was the Mesa Trail, yet another possible starting point for ascending Cowles Mountain. We continued straight, following the sign for the Big Rock Trail.
Like most service roads, this road was designed with trucks in mind, not humans. As such, it had some pretty steep inclines that plow straight uphill, rather than gentle, meandering switchbacks. So we climbed the service road for about .a third of a mile, when it descended and leveled out for about another third of a mile.
We took frequent breaks to admire the views around us. Although it was fairly hazy out, we could still see the silhouettes of Mt. Helix and Mt. Miguel to the southeast and the shimmering form of Lake Murray to the southwest.
Finally we reached the summit. To the left of the roadway was the proper summit, complete with historical marker and dozens of hikers resting or taking their summit pictures.
To our right was a slightly lower, rocky outcropping where a smaller group of adventurers were congregated, enjoying the views. We wandered around the top of the mountain, taking in the different vistas and eating our snack bars before retracing our route back down the mountain.
The hike down was uneventful until we were almost back at the trail head. As we approached the dry creek crossing near the residential area, we spotted a coyote coming towards us. As soon as he spotted us, he veered off towards the brush and slipped past us, but we caught a glimpse of him again as we went up the hill.
That’s definitely something you won’t often see on the main Cowles Mountain trail!
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From Mission Gorge Road, go south on Mesa Road. Proceed approximately 1/2 a mile to the trail head located on the right side of the road just past Big Rock Park. map
|Total Distance:||5 miles|
|Total Ascent:||1428 feet|
|Dog Friendly?:||Leashed dogs allowed|
|Bike Friendly?:||Bikes allowed|
|Facilities:||Bathrooms, drinking fountain, and soda machine available at Big Rock Park|