people on cowles mountain hike

Cowles Mountain Hike

In This Guide
  • Turn by Turn Hike Directions & Video
  • Cowles Mountain Trail Maps
  • How to Get to Cowles Mountain
Distance4.3 miles (6.9 km)
Hike Time2 Hours (Total)
DifficultyModerate
Total Ascent (?)1,170 feet (357m)
Highest Elevation1,593 feet (486m)
Fees & PermitsFree
Dog FriendlyLeashed
Park ContactMission 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 the gear that I personally use, have tested, and recommend for this hike*.

La Sportiva Spire

La Sportiva Spire GTX

Good for light and more hardcore hikes. Feels like a sneaker but protects like a hiking boot.

Women’s Reviews

Men’s Reviews

Rei Flash 22

REI Flash 22 Pack

This is a super-light and comfortable backpack that can hold everything you need on a hike, including a hydration bladder. It also works great as a general backpack or carry-on.

See Colors & Prices

Joby On Triee

Joby Smartphone Tripod

Make your photos stand out by using this lightweight, do-anything tripod. The Joby attaches your smartphone to trees, rocks, whatever you can find on the trail. Folds down compactly too.

See the Joby Options

Don’t waster your money on hiking gear that’s no good, I’ve done that for you already! Full HikingGuy Gear List

* No company pays me to promote or push a product, all the gear you see here is gear I use and recommend. If you click an REI link and buy gear, I get a small commission that helps offset website expenses. There is no cost to you.

Also → Big Sale at REI On Now:

REI SALE

Cowles Mountain Trail Maps

Click To View Map

Cowles Mountain Hike Map Downloads

Download the Hike GPX File

View a Printable PDF Hike Map

Here’s what I use to navigate my hikes. I recommend a combination of paper and electronic options with backups.

Gaiagps

Gaia GPS

Gaia GPS is a planning and navigation tool that you can use on your phone, tablet, and the web. I use it on my phone when I need to interact with the map and know where my position is on it. I use it at home on the computer to plan routes. You can overlay maps such as public lands to find out free places to camp. It’s a powerful tool.

HikingGuy Discount on Gaia GPS

Fenix Nav

Garmin Fenix Watch

This thing does everything: maps, GPX tracks, compass, barometer, altitude, heart rate, blood oxygen, fitness tracking, sleep tracking, and the list goes on. I keep a GPX route on the watch so I can quickly glance down and make sure I’m in the right place.

Fenix Prices & Reviews

My In-Depth Review

Topo Map

Topo Maps & Guide Books

Don’t be caught out if your batteries die. Take a topo map with you on the trail. Some people also print my guides out for use on the hike.

I also highly recommend taking a map and compass navigation course. It’s a few hours, it’s fun, and it could save your life.

Map and Compass Navigation Basics Classes

Don’t just rely on a cell phone, especially if you are hiking in the backcountry.

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

Video Directions

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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!

Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.