people on cowles mountain hike

Cowles Mountain Hike

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.

4.5 / 5
4.3 miles (6.9 km)
2 hours
1189 ft (362 m)
Trail Condition:
Well Marked
Crowds, Climbs
Known For:
Great Views
Best Time:
Sunrise or Sunset
Free Street Parking
Hike Weather:

Cowles Moutnain Hike Trail Maps

Google Maps trailhead:
8300 Big Rock Road, Santee, CA, 92071, USA

Hike Location

cowles mountain hike location
Cowles Mountain is about 25 minutes east of downtown San Diego.

3D 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.

Hike Elevation Profile

cowles mountain hike elevation
It's a steady uphill hike with a short section in the middle to catch your breath.

Interactive Hike Map

Cowles Moutnain Hike Map Downloads

Download a GPX file to use on your GPS device. GPS devices are great to plan and follow routes, and there are tons of free electronic hiking maps that you can use. But don't rely solely on electronic navigation, always have a paper backup. Print out the PDF below, get a topo map, and/or print these directions.

View a Printable PDF Hike MapDownload the Hike GPX File

Cowles Moutnain Hike Directions

people on cowles mountain hike

Do you have the right gear for this hike? Check out all the gear and clothing that I personally use and recommend. I've tested it all and cut the junk out so you don't waste your money.

What to Expect

Turn by Turn Directions

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

Cowles Moutnain Hike Video

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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.