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The Cowles Mountain hike brings you to the highest point in San Diego, with views from Mexico to Orange County. It's a tough little climb, and there are a few routes to the top. This hiking route is the most scenic, has the best parking situation, and the least crowds. It's a great, safe beginners hike, and a must-do if you're in San Diego.
4.3 miles (6.9 km)
Sunrise or Sunset
Free Street Parking
Cowles Moutnain Hike Trail Maps
Use this address in Google Maps to get to the trailhead:
8300 Big Rock Road, Santee, CA, 92071, USA
Cowles Mountain is about 25 minutes east of downtown San Diego.
You'll hike up the east side of Cowles Mountain to avoid the crowds on the more popular west side approach.
It's a steady uphill hike with a short section in the middle to catch your breath.
Interactive Map Cowles Moutnain Hike Map Downloads
If you have GPS device (
I use this one by Garmin and I love it) for your hike, load the GPX file below into your device to navigate the hike. For help on loading the GPX file, read this article on converting and transferring to a Garmin GPS.
Also, don’t rely on electronics as your sole means of navigation. There’s a basic printable PDF map below, and I strongly picking up
a good topo map too. Gear for the Cowles Moutnain Hike The best hydration daypack out there. The CamelBak Fourteener has been perfect on hikes of all distances (including Mt Whitney and Cactus to Clouds). It's light, has plenty of room for super-food snacks, extra layers, hiking gear, and comes with a 3 liter water bladder. I also like the raised sweat pads on the back that keep your back dry. It's the perfect blend of high-tech, durability, and simplicity. I've got hundreds of hours on it and still love it. CamelBak Fourteener Reviews My favorite hiking boot of all time. The La Sportiva Synthesis (for men and women) are waterproof, super-light, have incredible grip, and won a Backpacker Magazine Editor's Choice Award. I've gone through a lot of boots and these are my favorite. They feel like comfortable sneakers with the protection of hiking boots. La Sportiva Hiking Boot Reviews Don't hike without this in your backpack. It's a GPS emergency beacon and can save your life. On the trail, you're often out of cell phone range, and even something as simple as a twisted ankle could become a life and death situation. This beacon works where cell phones don't and is the size of a fist. Just press a button and help is on the way. Your life is worth every penny. ACR GPS Beacon Reviews Also, I'd recommend just taking a look around the Gear is dirt cheap there, including day-to-day clothing, fitness gear, and camping gear. And don't forget to get a lifetime REI Outlet. REI Membership for an extra 10% off. Cowles Moutnain Hike Video Cowles Moutnain Hike Directions What to Expect Cowles Mountain is the highest point in San Diego at 1,592 feet. The hike steep, but not technical. The summit has 360 degree views of San Diego, Orange County, and the surrounding mountains. Cowles is pronounced ‘coals’. The Cowles Mountain hike is in Mission Trails Regional Park, the largest municipally owned park in Southern California (7th largest in the USA) at nearly 7,000 acres. They have a full trail map if you’d like to explore more of the park. Parking is on the street and free. It’s a residential neighborhood, so please respect people’s property. As the day goes on, the parking fills up. Turn by Turn Directions The Cowles Mountain hike starts at the end of the street. Parking is free on the street. The entrance to Big Rock Trail is easy to spot. Take a second to read the hiking board for the latest conditions. This route takes Big Rock Trail up the back of the mountain. The trail is well marked. This is the sign at the start of the hike. After a minute or so, there’s a junction with the Big Rock Park spur. Hike to the right on the trail. Look up to where those towers are. That’s the Cowles Mountain summit. The Big Rock trail climbs up a series of stairs. It’s easy to follow. At about 0.8 miles, you reach the junction with the Mesa Trail. Hike to the right on the Big Rock Trail. The trail is steep, so as you climb, take breaks and look behind you as the vista opens up to the east. The Big Rock Trail will dead end into the Cowles Service Road. Hike to the right at the junction. The Cowles Service Road is wide and well marked. You’ll start noticing more people here too. As you continue hiking, you’ll start to see the trail leading to the summit. There are some trails to the left. Stay straight on the wide and well marked Cowles Service Road. As you approach the summit, there’s another trail to the left. Keep right. lmost there! As the road peaks, there are two sections to explore. Hit the area on the right first. The views here to the east and north are awesome. Take it all in. When you’re done looking at the view to the north and east, head back and cross the road to the main summit area. Here you are! The Cowles Mountain summit. The views are breathtaking. There’s also a sign that tells you what you’re looking at. Once you’ve had your fill, head back down the way you came up. I hope you enjoy the Cowles Mountain hike as much as I did! A quick note. These directions are meant as a guide for the hike, and not a definitive source. Conditions change, and the information here can be different based on time of day, weather, season, etc. There can be small side trails that you might see but I missed. I have made every effort to include all the information you need to complete the hike successfully. I recommend using this guide in conjunction with a map, GPX file, common sense, and call to the ranger station or park office. If you do the hike and notice something has changed, please contact me and I will update the guide.
This Torrey Pines hike takes you to the best of the park – rare Torrey Pines, ocean views, and unique geology. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is one of those once in a lifetime destinations, I highly recommend this hike!
I’m Hiking Guy, aka Cris Hazzard. I like to get outdoors, walk, and then write about it. It wasn’t always like that though.
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