Cowles Mountain Hike Guide – Conquering Cowles Mountain With Ease!

About Cowles Mountain Hike

Cowles Mountain Trail (officially supposed to be pronounced “Coals” yet all of my friends have pronounced it Cow-lz for years!) is a wonderfully scenic hiking excursion located in San Diego, California. Well known to many of the locals and a desired hiking destination to avid adventurers around the nation, the trail can be found within the limits of the Mission Trails Regional Park, a sprawling 5,800 acre preserve. The summit of the trail boasts an elevation of 1,593 feet above sea level, making it the highest point in the city of San Diego, located in the San Carlos neighborhood.

cowles mountain san diego

Back To The Name: Cowles Vs. Coals!

Cowles Mountain was named after George A. Cowles (1836-1887). Mr. Cowles was a prominent business leader and rancher in 19th century San Diego.

Originally from Hartford, Connecticut, Mr. Cowles and his wife, Jennie, first visited San Diego in 1873. In 1877, Mr. Cowels began ranching in the area. He became so prominent in San Diego and left such an imprint on the community that “S” Mountain, as Cowles Mountain was previously known, was renamed after Mr. Cowles’ namesake.

george cowles and S Mountain

Mission Trails Regional State Park

As previously mentioned, the park in which Cowles Mountain is located is an open 5,800 acre State Park. Established in 1974, it is not only the 7th largest outdoor urban park in the U.S., but is also the country’s 6th largest municipality owned park. The park gives a good mix of rugged hiking, biking and enjoying a walk with your friends as it has over sixty miles of trails.

You can get more familiar with the Cowles Mountain Hiking Trail as well as other trails in the area by stopping by the Mission Trails Regional State Park Visitor Center before you head up the mountain. Here, you will be able to learn about the native animal and plant life, and get more in depth information about the history of the park. This will better prepare you for the trip ahead and give you the knowledge you need to stay safe and respect the park.

The Visitors Center is open daily from 9:00 to 5:00, excluding holidays.

mission trails visitors center

How Do I Get To The Cowles Mountain Hike?

Native San Diegans needn’t travel far to experience the wonders of nature, as the Cowles Mountain Hiking Trail is right in their back yard. If you are from the area, depending on where exactly you live, the trail is less than a 15 mile journey.

If you are flying in, the nearest airport to travel to is the San Diego International Airport.

When you arrive at Mission Trails Regional State Park, you will find a free parking lot of about 15-20 spaces. If the parking lot is full, as the trail attracts hundreds of visitors every day, there is free street parking available as well.

cowles mountain san diego street parking

Preparing For The Cowles Mountain Hike

The length of the trail from start to finish is about 3 miles. Given the 950’ vertical assent, you can expect for the round trip to take about 2 to 3 hours to complete, depending on your activity level. If you are planning to take this hike, it is important that you do the following:

1. Wear Comfortable Clothing And Shoes

Always check the weather before you go on a hike to be able to make an informed decision on the type of clothing that is best to wear for that day. The weather on the mountain ranges from snowy in the winter to scorching during the summer, so plan accordingly.

Aside from clothing, footwear is another important factor when hiking for an extending period. Suggested shoes are comfortable hiking boots or tennis shoes.

cowles mountain hiking trail

2. Bring Plenty Of Water

This is pretty self explanatory, but the trail can be steep at times and you will be exerting yourself for a few hours. It is a good idea to stay hydrated for this trip.  Most people find themselves wishing they had packed extra water, no matter how fit they are as hikers!

3. Pack Snacks Or A Lunch

The duration of the hike, being a few hours long, may leave your stomach growling at the top. You can pack a lunch to have a picnic with unbeatable views, or just some snacks to keep you going. Regardless, have something with you in the event you get hungry.

pack a snack for cowles mountain top!

4. Check The Weather

This is important not only to know the proper attire for your hike, but you don’t want to be stuck at the top of the 1,593’ peek if there’s going to be a storm.

5. Wear Sunscreen

California is a wonderfully sunny state, but it is always important to protect your skin from the harmful rays of the sun.

6. Bring A Friend

Although the trail is usually populated with eager hikers making their way to the top, it doesn’t hurt to bring a pal with you. Safety in numbers, after all!

top of cowles

Attributes Of The Trail

You will start your hike off walking along a dusty orange path with wooden railings alongside you. The further you get up the mountain, the terrain gets rockier, so be sure to watch your step. The rugged, dirt trail continues onward until you reach the summit.

In the summer, always watch out for snakes because you will almost certainly run into one at some point. This bad boy is pretty prominent:

red diamond rattler snake on the cowles mntn trail

While most snakes will scurry off or stay off the trails, be careful as some may be spotted on the trail where humans walk or very close, to the side of the trail.  Just a heads up!

The Summit

At the peak, you will be greeted with an informative marker giving basic trail history and information. The summit is the absolute shining gem of this trek, the reason hundreds of hikers take the journey every day. The view offers a panoramic 360-degree view of the most beautiful landscape California has to offer. If you decide to take your hike on a clear enough day, you may even be able to see Tijuana from the summit.

cowles mountain summit

Can I Bring My Dog On The Cowles Mountain Hike?

The trail is dog friendly, permitted your pooch is on a leash. Be courteous to other travelers and clean up after your dog if they have to do their business on the hike. It is advised that you bring plenty of water for your pet as well as yourself. In the summer, the trail can get very hot, so make sure you get protection for their paws or just don’t bring them with you that day.

Other Places To Visit Near Cowles Mountain Trail

If you enjoyed your hike up Cowles Mountain, here are a few other places to check out nearby:

Kwaay Paay Peak

This Kwaay Paay Peak is a moderate 2.5 mile trail in Mission Trail Regional State Park. It does not get as much traffic as Cowles Mountain, but is worth the trek for the surrounding, mountainous beauty. Dogs are allowed, but bikes are not.

Kwaay Paay

Big Rock Park

Another natural attraction, Big Rock Park is a trailhead in Santee, California, that you can actually take to get to the summit of Cowles Mountain. The total trail distance is 5.2 miles, making for a 1.5 – 2 hour trip to the top of the mountain.

Pyle’s Peak

Pyle’s Peak is notably the second highest peak in Mission Trail Regional State Park, right behind Cowles Mountain. It is a bit of a longer trail at 7.7 miles, but you will see enchanting wild flowers and breathtaking views of the surrounding areas.

pyle's peak