Cowles Mountain via Big Rock Park

View of Cowles Mountain from near the start of the Big Rock Trail

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.Big Rock 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!Setting off on the Big Rock Trail to Cowles Mountain

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.

Heading towards Cowles Mountain from Big Rock Park

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.

The chaparral covered hills leading to Cowles Mountain

We climbed steadily through the brush. As we progressed, the manzanita and other brush along the trail grew high on either side, offering a reasonable amount of cover.Tall brush shades the trail

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.View from partway up the Big Rock trail

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.

Follow signs for the Big Rock Trail

After a bit more climbing, we crested another hill and enjoyed a brief downhill stretch as we crossed a saddle.A brief level stretch of trail

Then once again we found ourselves climbing switchbacks up the hillside.Switchbacks wind up the rocky trail

At 1.6 miles the Big Rock Trail ended and we came to the Service Road.Junction with the Barker Way Service Road

Turning right we began climbing again. This wide  dirt road would take us the rest of the way to the summit.Heading up the Cowles Mountain service road

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.The Cowles Mountain service road

The road then began climbing again, getting ever steeper and steeper as we got closer to the top. The Cowles Mountain Service Road gets pretty steep towards the top

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.Looking out towards Lake Murray

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.

Hikers enjoy the Cowles Mountain summit

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.Enjoying the views from the top of Cowles 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.
A coyote makes his way across land near the Big Rock trail

That’s definitely something you won’t often see on the main Cowles Mountain trail!

View the full photo gallery

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
Difficulty: Moderate
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
Fees/Permits: None

For more information visit:
Mission Trails Regional Park
Interactive Trail Map

2 thoughts on “Cowles Mountain via Big Rock Park

  1. I just hiked this trail today after not having been on it for a maybe a year and a half. Your descriptions are spot on, except I would stress that the hike to the summit along the access road is difficult, even deceiving because you think you’ve reached the top and yet there are more twists and turns. Otherwise, good job and beautiful photos!