One of the most popular hikes in the city of San Diego is the climb up Cowles Mountain. Cowles Mountain, in Mission Trails Regional Park, is the highest point in the city limits of San Diego at 1,594 feet. Fun Diego Family does not do this hike very often because we live next to Black Mountain, which at 1,554 feet is the second highest point in the city. However, as the kids get older, we are doing more hiking in Mission Trails and to kick off our coverage of this great park, we thought we would start with the hike up Cowles Mountain.
Starting Point: 7027, 7001 Golfcrest Dr, San Diego, CA 92119
Length: 3.2 miles
Elevation: 900 ft gain and loss
San Diego is blessed with a wide amount of open space within its urban city limits. According to this list of largest parks within U.S. city limits, 10 of the largest 150 city parks are in San Diego. Mission Trails Regional Park covers a massive 7,220 acres making it not only the largest park in San Diego, but one of the largest urban parks in the United States.
In recent years, Mission Trails Regional Park has been expanding. The park features 54 miles of trails and a state of the art 14,000 square foot visitor’s center. In late 2014, the park added the separately located West Sycamore section which added another 1,200 acres and 7 miles of hiking trails. Nevertheless, Cowles Mountain is the most popular attraction in the park.
Cowles Mountain was so popular that Mission Trails Regional Park started a promotion to attract people to the other mountains in the park. In November 2015, Mission Trails Regional Park launched the 5-Peak Challenge. Completing the 5-Peak Challenge requires climbing Cowles and 4 other peaks in the park, Pyles Peak (1,379 feet), Kwaay Paay (1,194), South Fortuna (1,094) and North Fortuna (1,291).
At each mountain you need to take a picture of yourself next to the sign at each summit. You need to make sure you get at least part of the peak’s name in the photo. Once you have done all five summits, you email the selfie pics and wait for confirmation. Once you are confirmed you can pick up a certificate, logo pin and Adventure-16 coupon at the Visitor’s Center.
Of course, this is a challenge Fun Diego Family is going to take and of course, the first one we do will be the highest. Grady and I set out on a cloudy early April day to tackle Cowles Mountain.
There are actually three main trails up Cowles. We took the most popular trail at the corner of Navajo and Golfcrest in the San Carlos neighborhood. There is a very small parking lot and most parking is on the street. We went on a relatively quiet Monday afternoon and were able to park fairly close on Golfcrest. Supposedly this trail gets overcrowded on weekends, so we would only do this hike during the weekday.
The trail is easy to find from the parking lot which has rest room facilities. The trail is extremely well-maintained, and hikers would have a hard time getting lost. It starts with a series of switchbacks that include some wooden steps. The trail starts to get fairly rocky, as you climb what my son called a series of mini-mountains. The entire hike is exposed to the elements which is why we choose to do it on a cooler, slightly cloudy day.
Along the way you get great views towards the south and west. Directly south is Lake Murray and to the west you see downtown San Diego all the way to the ocean. The trail is marked every quarter mile and the total distance to the peak is 1.5 miles. About halfway to the top you will come across the Barker Way Trail, another way to climb up.
The last part is once again a series of switchbacks leading to the summit. The summit is a fairly wide open rocky area with a full 360-degree view. There are signs on both the east and west side of the summit that point out all the sites you can see. The view goes from Mexico to the massive 10,833 foot San Jacinto peak that towers above Palm Springs. Grady was happy to point out what he claims is the tallest tree in the city of San Diego.
Overall this is a fairly moderate hike that is about as strenuous as our usual climb up Black Mountain. Note if you are doing the 5-Peak Challenge you will need to climb Cowles to reach Pyles Peak. The trail to Pyles Peak heads off from the Cowles summit. For our first climb we decided to just do one mountain. We will head back for Pyles Peak as our final hike.
Of course, you are not required to do all 5-peaks in one day. Only a small fraction of hikers are able to do this. To get your official certificate you can make the climb in multiple days. Depending on the route you take doing all 5 mountains is 18-22 miles of hiking with up to 6,000 feet of elevation gain and loss.
Fun Diego Family will be doing the challenge across four separate days. Cowles Mountain was a fairly easy start. Climbing back down is probably the hardest part because it is easy to trip or twist an ankle. Total roundtrip distance is three miles and the hike takes about an hour and a half, including stops to enjoy the scenery.