Cowles Mountain: #1 Trail in San Diego County

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Distance 

3 Miles

Time

1.5 Hrs

Difficulty 

Moderate

Season

All Year

Elevation Gain

908 Ft

  • Dogs allowed on a leash
  • Out & Back Trail
  • Restrooms  Available at The Trailhead

Ready for a quick adventure to a sunny peak in the San Carlos neighborhood? If so, I have just the hike for you.

Cowles Mountain in Mission Trails Regional Park is considered the most popular trail in San Diego County, and is also the highest point in the city. It offers amazing 360 panoramic views ranging from Orange County to Mexico, and lake Murray. There is no shade on this trail.

Cowles Mountain Map

Cowles Mountain Elevation Profile

Download Printable PDF Map

Cowles Mountain Directions

Click the link to be redirected to the Cowles Mountain Parking Lot on Google Maps.

Cowles Mt has multiple trailheads, and this one happens to be the most popular. Therefore, expect massive crowds on the weekends.

I went on a Wed at 9:30ish am and it was surprisingly not too heavily trafficked.

If the lot is full, you can park on Golfcrest Dr. right in front of the parking lot, but on the weekends even that too gets full.

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Cowles Mountain Trail

Your journey to Cowles Mt Peak begins on a series of stone steps which quickly convert into a dirt single track.

Remember, there is no shade on this trail so don’t forget your hat and water!

Cowles Mountain Trailhead

Although it’s hard to see in the image below, the city of San Diego is visible from the trail almost from the very beginning.

Cowles Mountain Trail

As you continue your way up, Cowles Mt Peak looms over the subpeak in the foreground.

Giant boulders decorate the mountainside, giving off that unique look of the Southern end of Cleveland National Forest.

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Cowles Mountain Trail

You’ll notice a few trail splits during your trek, but as long as you stay left at every fork, you’ll make it to your destination.

The steps shown below mark the beginning of the switchbacks, which are the last section of the trail before reaching the peak.

Cowles Mountain Trail

After a quick and pleasant trek up the mountain, you’ve reached the summit marker, and the highest point in the city of San Diego.

Cowles Mountain Peak

In case the text on the marker is too small to read, here is what it says:

Cowles Mountain

Elevation 1,591 Feet Above Sea Level

Mission Trails Regional Park

Cowles Mountain is the dominant feature of Mission Trails Regional  Park and the highest point in the city of San Diego. It was named to honor George A Cowles, a pioneer leader of San Diego County in the 1870’s. This mountain was part of the Rancho Mission San Diego land grant.

Cowles Mountain was purchased jointly by the City and County of San Diego on December 31, 1974.

Dedicated October 1984.

www.MTRP.org

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Kwaay Pay Peak lies right over those antennas.

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The mountain range in the back is the Cleveland National Forest.

Cowles Mountain

The dirt road is called Cowles Mountain Service Road, and is actually one of the less trafficked alternative routes to the peak, totaling 2.9 miles as a roundtrip loop.

Cuyamaca Peak is the 2nd highest peak in San Diego County, and gets snow in the winter! Fun fact, Hot Springs Mountain is the county’s highest peak.

Read More: 7 Must-Do Waterfalls in Socal

Tecate Peak gets its name because it overlooks the city of Tecate in Mexico, where I happen to have family. It’s also the name of the very popular Mexican beer.

Surprisingly, Tecate Peak is barely located within US jurisdiction.

Lyons Peak & Tecate Peak view from Cowles Mountain

Cowles Mountain Aerial View

Lake Murray, shown below, can actually be seen almost from the very beginning of the hike, but I saved it for the end  because the peak offers the best views.

For those who visit the lake, you’ll be rewarded with a stunning backdrop of beautiful Cowles Mountain.

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Cowles Mountain History

Probably the most interesting history fact regarding Cowles Mt, is the fact that a Kumeyaay Winter Solstice site was once located on the trail.

Lasting for a few days before and after the solstice, people were able witness a peak splitting the rising sun to the east. (Thank you Hidden San Diego for this amazing find).

Unfortunately, the peak was destroyed many years ago.

According to MTRP.org Cowles Mountain is named after George A. Cowles, a kind and ambitious man, as well as one of the first San Diego ranchers.

However, the mountain was originally known as S mountain, thanks to 500 San Diego State University students who painted a 400ft tall “S” on the side of the mountain in 1931. The tradition of repainting the letter S lasted well into the 1980’s, but hasn’t been repainted since.

Cowles settled in in El Cajon valley in 1877 and purchased roughly four thousand acres of land, consisting of two ranches known as Magnolia Ranch (if it sounds familiar that’s because it’s now a street name), and Woodside Ranch.

On his ranches, he grew and sold:

  • fruit trees
  • olives
  • potatoes
  • olives
  • grapevines

He also raised horses and cattle. However, it was Cowles’ fruits and grapevines which attracted the most attention.

Thanks to Cowles, San Diego gained worldwide fame as an ideal farming region.

Although he passed away in 1887, the community which sprung out of his Woodside Ranch became known as Cowlestown.

He left his estate to his beloved widow, Jennie, who continued the ranching legacy until the1890’s. She remarried to Milton Santee, a real estate developer, in 1890 and moved to San Diego City.

Cowlestown became officially known as Santee in 1893 (ouch).

 

FAQ

Can you hike Cowles Mountain at night?

Yes, people hike Cowles Mountain at night. Especially on weekends, it’s not at all unusual to find lots of people hiking up to Cowles Mountain in the dark.

How many calories do you burn while hiking Cowles Mountain?

Although the answer will vary with each person, you can expect to burn roughly 500 calories on your Cowles Mountain hike.

Is Cowles Mountain hard?

I would rate Cowles Mountain as moderately difficult.

How long does it take to get to the top of Cowles Mountain?

It’ll take you roughly 1.5 hours to reach the top of Cowles Mountain.

 

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Hello, There!

I’m Phillip, and just like you, I feel very passionate about California and the outdoors. After many years of exploring amazing and hidden places, I thought I’d share them with you. Life goes by fast so get out there and enjoy it.  

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