Cowles Mountain Hike

Cowles Mountain Hike

In This Guide
  • How to Get to Cowles Mountain
  • Cowles Mountain Trail Maps
  • Turn by Turn Hike Directions
  • What You Need To Do the Hike
Distance4.3 miles (6.9 km)
Time2 Hours (Total Time)
Total Climbing1,189 feet (362m)
Highest Elevation1,593 feet (486m)
Dog FriendlyLeashed
Park NameMission Trails Regional Park
Park Phone619-668-3281

The Cowles Mountain hike brings you to the highest point in San Diego at 1,593ft, with views from Mexico to Orange County. Cowles Mountain is also one of the most popular hikes in San Diego, so I’ve routed this hike up the less trafficked and more scenic “back way” up the mountain. It’s a fun, safe beginners hike, and a must-do if you’re in San Diego.

Cowles Mountain (pronounced ‘coals’) is named after George A. Cowles, who was a rancher, farmer, and businessman here in the 1870s-80s. Orginally from the East Coast, Cowles moved to San Diego, expanded his fortune and became known as the “Raisin King of the US.”  Today Cowles Mountain is part of Mission Trails Regional Park, the largest municipally owned park in Southern California (7th largest in the USA) at nearly 7,000 acres.

Where is Cowles Mountain?

Use this as the GPS trailhead address: Big Rock Trail, 8301 Big Rock Rd, Santee, CA 92071.

Parking is on the street and free. It’s a residential neighborhood, so please respect people’s property. Don’t do U-turns in people’s driveways. As the day goes on, the parking fills up. Just park farther away and walk to the trail.

Cowles Mountain hike parking
The Cowles Mountain hike starts at the end of the street. Parking is free on the street.

I recommend leaving as early as possible to beat the crowds. The crowds can be bad; don’t expect anyone to know hiking etiquette here.

Gear for the Hike

You don’t need any special hiking gear for the Cowles Mountain Hike, you can do it with fitness clothes. In fact, when I did this trip report, I saw a guy in a thong doing the hike. Luckily, I wasn’t hiking behind him. Here’s what I’d bring:

My Top Gear Picks

Garmin inreach review

Do you have the right hiking gear? Will it stand up to the test? I waste lots of money testing hiking gear every year so that you don’t have to. My gear picks are solid choices that will serve you well on the trail. I don’t do sponsored or paid reviews, I just the share actual gear that I use all the time that’s made the cut. Here are my top picks:

  1. Garmin InReach Mini Emergency Beacon – Hiking out of cell phone range? Make sure you have one of these two-way satellite texting devices in case your hike doesn’t go as planned. You can read my full review here.
  2. Injinji Sock Liners With Darn Tough Hiking Socks – This combo is a great way to avoid blisters out on the trail. I have some insider-hiking tips for avoiding blisters here. Pair them with modern, high-tech hiking boots (for women and men) and your feet with thank you.
  3. Garmin Fenix 5x Plus – It’s a little pricey, but man do I love this thing. Not only does it have all the topo maps and navigation tools on my wrist, but it also acts as a long battery life, rugged, outdoors version of an Apple Watch. Track your workouts, sleep, heart rate, all that stuff.

I have lots of other great, sponsor-free, trail tested gear picks on my “best gear” page.

See My Full Gear List

Cowles Mountain Trail Maps

Fenix 5x Hiking Review

I highly recommend bringing a good paper map with you, and then using it in conjunction with a GPS device. You can see the navigation gear that I use here (I’m currently using the Fenix 5x Plus and love it). Just download the GPX file below and load it onto your GPS.

Many people also print out this web page for the turn-by-turn images. And if you really want to get tricky, YouTube Premium lets you download videos for offline use, so you can download the hike video and save it.

Download the Hike GPX File

View a Printable PDF Hike Map

cowles mountain hike 3d map
You’ll hike up the east side of Cowles Mountain to avoid the crowds on the more popular west side approach.
cowles mountain hike elevation
It’s a steady uphill hike with a short section in the middle to catch your breath.

Mission Trails Region Park also has a full trail map if you’d like to explore more of the park.

How to Hike Cowles Mountain

Subscribe to HikingGuy on YouTube

Turn by Turn Directions

entrance to Big Rock Trail
The entrance to Big Rock Trail is easy to spot. Start the hike here.
hiking board at beginning of Cowles Mountain hike
Take a second to read the hiking board for the latest conditions.
big rock trail sign at start of Cowles Mountain hike
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.
right turn on Cowles Mountain hike
After a minute or so, there’s a junction with the Big Rock Park spur. Hike to the right on the trail.
Cowles Mountain summit
Look up to where those towers are. That’s the Cowles Mountain summit.
Big Rock trail climbs up a series of stairs
The Big Rock trail climbs up a series of stairs. The trail is easy to follow.
Mesa Trail junction
At about 0.8 miles, you reach the junction with the Mesa Trail. Hike to the right on the Big Rock Trail.
vista from Cowles Mountain hike
The trail is steep, so as you climb, take breaks and look behind you as the vista opens up to the east.
Cowles Service Road junction
The Big Rock Trail will dead end into the Cowles Service Road. Hike to the right at the junction.
Cowles Service road on the Cowles Mountain hike
The Cowles Service Road is wide and well marked. You’ll start noticing more people here too.
Cowles Mountain hike trail
As you continue hiking, you’ll start to see the trail leading to the summit.
Cowles Mountain hike trails
There are some trails to the left. Stay straight on the wide and well marked Cowles Service Road.
Cowles Mountain hike right turn
As you approach the summit, there’s another trail to the left. Keep right.
Cowles Mountain hike peak
lmost there! As the road peaks, there are two sections to explore. Hit the area on the right first.
Cowles Mountain hike views
The views here to the east and north are awesome. Take it all in.
Cowles Mountain hike summit
When you’re done looking at the view to the north and east, head back and cross the road to the main summit area.
cris hazzard on the Cowles Mountain hike
Here you are! The Cowles Mountain summit.
Cowles Mountain hike 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!

Was This Guide Helpful?

It’s easy to help support this site (which I use to offset website hosting costs, etc.). Simply click on a link below to buy anything from REI or Amazon. I get a small percentage and you don’t pay anything extra.

Support With REI

Support With Amazon

You can also make a donation if you’d like, but please don’t feel obligated to do so.

The content on this site will always be free for everyone to enjoy.

And you can help other hikers as well. If you do this hike and something has changed, snap a few photos and send me the details. I’ll update the guide so that others can do the hike safely.

You May Also Enjoy

Hiking San Diego