Coweles Mountain Trail Guide via Big Rock Park
If you’re ever done any type of hiking in San Diego County, you’ve undoubetedly heard of Cowles Mountain. Located in Mission Trails Regional Park, this mountain is the tallest point in the City of San Diego. At 1,593 feet, this mountain resembles more of a coastal peak than anything else. There is no question that this hike is one of if not the most popular hikes in the city.
There are a few different ways to get to the peak of Cowles Mountain but for the sake of this article, I’ll be focusing on the Big Rock Park trailhead with two different entry points: Big Rock Park and the end of Big Rock Road. This trailhead is still popular but far less crowded than the Golfcrest Drive trail. The majority of this trail follows the service road that leads to the radio towers and to the top of Cowles Mountain.
Mission Trails Regional Park History
In the heart of the City of San Diego rest about 7,220 acres of open space land. This area is known as Mission Trails regional park and is available to the public for recreational use. Within the park are five distinct peaks: North Fortuna, South Fortuna, Kwaay Paay, Pyle’s Peak, and the tallest, Cowles Mountain. Mission Trails Regional Park was founded in 1974 and is one of the few areas of open land in the city proper of San Diego. It is this park which essentially divides central San Diego to the eastern cities of the county.
Prior to European settlers, the area was inhabited by the peoples of the San Dieguito’s, the La Jolla’s, and the Kumeeyaay’s. Of a special note, Father Junipero Serra, a important figure in San Diego’s early history assisted with the exploration of this area. His expeditions eventually led to the building of a dam along the San Diego River that runs through the center of the park.
On A Personal Note:
The views from the top of Cowles offer great views of the City of San Diego including the coast off downtown. If you find it absolutely necessary to hike Cowles Mountain, I recommend this route. It is longer but it is less crowded. I personally like to relate Cowles Mountain to Pacific Beach. It’s not the best place in the county but life will probably lead you here at some point.
There’s a significant amount of inconsiderate people filling the air with whatever music they are listening to on their speakers here. As a reminder, listening to speakers scares away wildlife with more sensitive ears and also ruins the nature experience for other people. When visiting the outdoors, please leave no trace.
Cowles Fun Fact: The peak was named after an early ranching pioneer who settled El Cajon in 1877 by the name of George A. Cowles. Many people mis-pronounce the name of this peak. The correct pronunciation is actually like the word coal.
Looking for more of a challenge? Consider taking this hike past the peak and continuing on to Pyle’s Peak. This lesser known peak is only accessible after passing Cowles Peak. For an even more difficult challenge, consider taking the Mission Trails Regional Park Five Peak Challenge.
Have you recently done this hike? Please post your photos in or leave an update to the trail conditions in the comments section.
- Overall Difficulty: 70% 70%
- Overall Views: 55% 55%
Cowles Mountain via Big Rock Park Quick Facts:
- Estimated Distance: 4.5 miles.
- My Distance: 3.96 miles.
- Total Elevation: 1,594 feet.
- Elevation gain: 1,204 feet.
- Estimated Time: 2-4 hours.
Cowles Mountain via Big Rock Park Trail Directions:
The other option for parking is at the end of Big Rock Road (open in maps). This trailhead is even more immersed in a neighborhood so I’d advise for parking along Mesa Road. If you must park here, please be respectful of the people that live in this area. The hours for Big Rock Park are from dawn to dusk.
Cowles Mountain via Big Rock Park Pictures:
Who Cowles Mountain via Big Rock Park Is For:
Advanced Hikers: Advanced hikers will likely be somewhat annoyed by how crowded the peak can get at the top. However, this route is more peaceful and a little more challenging than the Golfcrest Drive entrance. If you’re looking for more of a challenge, continue on to Pyle’s Peak for some extra distance and a quieter trail.
Expert Hikers: If you’re in much need for some outdoor time and live locally, this trail will do the trick. If you want to test yourself, attempt the Five Peak Challenge in one day.
It’s always a good idea to be aware of what type of hiking level you’re at.
Best Time Of Year To Hike Cowles Mountain:
To get the most out of this trail, visit this area from mid-winter to mid-spring. The winter rains light up the hills with green and usher in vibrant wildflowers. During the summer it’s not uncommon for daytime temperatures to be in the mid-90’s to well over 100 degrees. This trail is short enough that it could be done during the cooler dawn or dusk hours before the sun heats up the trail. Exceptionally hot days should be avoided on this trial.
It’s always a good idea to check the weather prior to hiking.
Cowles Mountain via Big Rock Park Trail Conditions:
There is not much shade along the trail so prepare to be exposed to the full force of the sun. In the earlier portions of the hike where the chaparral is healthy there is a minor amount of shade. Rattlesnakes are common. There is no poison oak along the trail.