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Cowles Mountain is the tallest mountain in all of San Diego cities limits and it is also located within Mission Trails Regional Park. Although, don’t let the thought of hiking the tallest mountain in the city intimidate you, because the mountain itself is only 1,600 feet.
It’s not too long of a journey to the top of the mountain, so it’s not so bad for those individuals who aren’t the biggest fans out outdoor activities.
The views from the precipice of this vista is utterly breathtaking once you reach the top, as viewers will get a beautiful look at Lake Murray and all of the surrounding southern Cali land stretching as far as the eye can see below.
Grab a group of friends or man’s best friend (your doggo) and spend a couple hours hiking up these fun trails. The hike on Cowles Mountain provides a good little workout, with lots of green scenery and wildlife to keep your mind busy while on the way up.
The round-trip hike in total is only around 3 miles long and has an elevation change of about 950 feet (which isn’t too bad). This takes the average hiker about 45-minutes to an hour to hike up the side of it the mountain.
For more fitness-driven individuals I would suggest hiking the mountain another 2 or 3 times after the initial climb in order to get a banging workout out of the whole ordeal.
The History of Cowles Mountain
This mountain is named after George A. Cowles, who was an early ranching pioneer back a couple hundred years ago in San Diego. He was a reputable man, known for his love of the land and was actually known as the “King of Raisins”. It is said that after he moved to San Diego and expanded his fortune he adopted the royal name so-to-speak.
Today this mountain is a part of the largest municipally owned park in Southern California, the Mission Trails Regional Park, which encompasses over thousands of acres of land.
The mountain itself consists of Jurassic and Cretaceous metavolcanic and intrusively shallow igneous rocks, which are extremely resistant to erosion known to occur over time.
There are small plateaus around both the east and south slopes with the last remnants of terrestrial almost seas-level erosional surface titled the Poway Terrace (which is now about 1,200 feet in elevation). The remains of a prominent former sea-cliff rise over the wave-cut terrace, which is now mostly covered with urban infrastructures and suburban developments and can be seen being at 600 feet in elevation.
The Cowles Mountain hike itself, follows a worn dirt-path that is set at a steady incline the entire way up (joy). This feat isn’t too especially hard, however don’t let the short distance fool you as it is still mediocrely challenging.
The important thing to remember is to pace oneself, and stay hydrated by constantly drinking lots of water.
Although, be aware because I have read that the trail can be a little misleading at times, as it seems other hikers have created some of their own beaten off-the-trail routes. However, it seems safe to say that whichever route is followed, it’s all leading to the same magnificent place, the Summit.
The Summit provides breathtaking vistas in every direction as spectators are able to see downtown San Diego, Cabrillo National Monument and on a clear day they can even see Tijuana. A unique Summit plaque, made Instagram famous from the amount of pictures taken by it, is also located at the top of this enormous precipice.
The sheer fact alone that one can see another country from this viewpoint is pretty baffling to me, because there aren’t many other hikes in the US where this is an available option.
If you’re going to go through all the trouble of hiking to the top it is imminent that you properly plan on allocating time to spend exploring up on top of Cowles Mountain. There are endless amounts of sights to see and this view isn’t something you are going to be able to encounter everyday (unless you live there of course, you lucky ducks).
It has been mentioned more than a few times online that there is a very small parking lot at the entrance of the trailhead, which often times is found to be full. However, there is plenty of street parking and one will only have to walk about 0.25 miles to get to the trailhead.
There are some well-kept bathrooms at the base of the hike, providing a much nicer option than using a port-a-potty or squatting with some leaves.
The main trail to the summit is an extremely popular hiking destination, taking thousands of individuals per year to take a breathtaking 360-degree panorama view of the San Diego County.
The trail has relatively no escape from the sun, so as mentioned above water is the key to having a fun time out on Cowles Mountain. And make sure to lather up on that sunscreen, as especially during the Summer months the sun exposure can be brutal.
Where is Cowles Mountain Located?
Cowles Mountain is a treasure one must experience for themselves in real-life, because as much as I talk about it there is no way to truly know the bewilderment that will flood your veins when you get to the top of the summit. The highest point in San Diego offers indescribable vies of Mexico, North County, orange County and the beautiful ocean mysteriously stretching across the earth.
This 2.9 mile heavily visited back trail can be found near San Diego in the prominent San Carlos neighborhood on the corner of Golfcrest Drive and Navajo Road. Parking in the residential neighborhood is luckily free, but please be courteous not to block others driveways when trying to go on your mountain adventure.
So, to restate more clearly, one needs to be coming from Highway 125 and then taking the Navajo Road exit. After that it is said to go west on Navajo Road for exactly 2 miles and then to take a smooth right onto Golfcrest Drive.
The parking area will be immediately to your right, and will more likely than not be jam packed and full. Countless complaints have rendered that this seems to always be the case because of the mountains growing popularity. Once again, just park along the street where you can.
The starting area is very well kept with large shady trees, a water fountain, and a bench to rest on. Numerous reports have stated that the bathrooms located at the start of the trailhead are well maintained, so I would 10/10 recommend you try to tinkle even if you don’t have to because popping a squat on this popular trailhead is most likely to result in an embarrassing and maybe wet (eww) situation.
The later in the day it starts to get, the farther you will most likely have to park. So in order to skip California morning traffic and still get a good neighborhood parking spot, leave around 10 a.m. or earlier to try and beat the daily crowds that are guaranteed to swarm in.
As well, a lesser-known and used trail also begins near the intersection of boulder Lake Avenue and Barker Way, with this trail flowing into the main trail near the top of the summit.
Thus, there is no excuse not to visit the easily accessible and completely free natural attraction. You won’t want to miss the views, and the feeling of the wind in your hair and your heart pounding out of your chest after a good hard hike. There is no better feeling than these fine simplicities in life.
Climb Cowles Mountain Today
The Cowles Mountain trails are highly recommended for both tourists and natives who are looking to explore their city a little more. It’s a great way to take some time off from the everyday rise and grind life and spend some much needed time with your good ol’ friend Mother Nature.
This hike will invigorate your life and also provide a kick butt workout. The views are great at the top but as Miley Cyrus so poetically sang, “It’s all about The Climb”.
So grab your gang and spend some time with climbing through the trail, you won’t regret taking the time out of your day to hike Cowles Mountain! This is the choice spot to watch sunrises, sunsets and a full moon brilliantly lit up by twinkling stars.
Let us know if you decide to take our advice and hike Cowles Mountain for yourself! We would love to hear from you.
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