Cowles Mountain

Right behind the second most popular hike in San Diego, Iron Mountain, is the first most popular (cue drum roll) Cowles Mountain. If you even have a remote interest in hiking, or the outdoors, or are even somewhat athletic in that you move around because you are alive, or even if you’re the undead of some sort, chances are that you’ve heard about Cowles Mountain. Like Iron Mountain, Cowles Mountain is a popular hike. In fact, saying that it’s popular is like saying that the Interstate 5 through Los Angeles during rush hour is congested. It’s a classic understatement. As Cowles Mountain is located very close to the core of San Diego, there are people on this trail at all hours. I have been on this trail at all hours of the day and night, and frankly, as I said about Iron Mountain, I defy you to find a time when people are not on the trail.

Because of its proximity to the coast, Cowles Mountain is often covered in fog during the early morning.

But here’s the thing about Cowles Mountain. I’m not sure it’s really a mountain. Yes, I know that technically, at 1,591 feet above sea level, it qualifies as a “mountain”, and yes, I know that it is one of the “larger” peaks in the city proper, but to me, it just feels like a hill. My mind quails to count Cowles as a mountain, when it seems like a hill compared to some of the bigger peaks in the surrounding region within an hour or two hour drive. To me, it seems a little bit like that movie – The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (yes, I know – obscure movie reference of the month, if not year), and in this sense, Cowles Mountain is San Diego’s “mountain”, so it’s best for me not to claim that it’s not or that it’s mountain-ness should be diminished. I also willingly concede that if you’re working yourself into shape, or are young, old, or have some other reason, it may seem like Mt. Everest to you, in which case, it is worthy of the name; but to me, it seems like Cowles Hill – but then, who cares what I think, because I don’t get to name things whatsoever.

Even though it is popular, the Cowles Mountain main trail has some excellent views of the city and beyond. 

Directions: The best way, and the most popular way to head up Cowles Mountain is the Western approach, which starts from the Mission Trails Regional Park parking lot at the intersection of Golfcrest and Navajo. Do note that as this is a very popular hike, the lot may be full, at which point, you may have to park on the street; but do not worry, there is ample street parking. From the parking lot, the trailhead is clearly marked, and is conveniently located next to a bathroom. The trail immediately starts heading uphill, as it has nine hundred and thirty-three (933) feet of elevation gain. The majority of the trail is switchbacks heading toward the summit, and in my opinion, given the amount of traffic that the trail gets, the trail is well maintained. After one and one half miles (1.5), you will find yourself at the summit, with a great 360 degree view of the city of San Diego. At this point, you can continue along the Eastern side of the mountain further into Mission Trails park proper; or like most people, turn around and head back down for an easy, roundtrip hike of three (3) miles.

Sunrise, Cowles Mountain

I rate this as an easy hike despite the elevation gain based on two factors: 1) the amount and variety of people hiking the mountain, from young to old; and 2) the fact that people regularly run the mountain on a daily basis; sometimes with weights. However, difficulty is subjective, and if you are new to hiking, you may find it steep; if that is the case, this is a great introductory hike, and a great introduction to hiking in San Diego because of the view and the comraderie you will experience on the trail.

The summit marker on Cowles is a popular spot for pictures, and selfies.

Tips: If you’re running the trail, like I do at times, be prepared to come to a screeching halt or stop on numerous occasions, as the trail does get congested, and there are blind corners. Be considerate, watch your speed, and don’t run over people. Additionally, every December Mission Trails Regional Park Guides lead a great hike for the winter solstice, which is a fun experience for all ages, provided you can get up early enough to hike the mountain! And, as with any hike, do be sure to take water. This hike is also part of the park's 5PeakChallenge, which can be done in one day, or over a longer period of time.