As one of the peaks in the Mission Trails Five Peak Challenge, Cowles Mountain offers vistas stretching the whole of San Diego County, as well as into Mexico on clear days.
Beloved by hikers, dog walkers and runners in short shorts, Cowles Mountain is one of the most popular hikes in San Diego County. Known as a see-and-be-seen outdoor locale, you’ll be sure to spot hot bodies alongside a share of adventurers of all ages.
As one of the mountains in the Mission Trails Five Peak Challenge, Cowles is also an athletic undertaking for committed local and visiting hikers. While most visitors wear the standard sneaker, uneven terrain and a series of rocky switchbacks make hiking shoes a preferable option for the feet.
Make it to the summit, and be rewarded with impressive, picture-worthy views of other surrounding peaks around the whole of San Diego County and out to the Pacific coast and into Mexico on a clear day.
Elevation: 1,592 feet
Length: 2.9 miles round trip
Doggies allowed? Yes, on leash
What to look out for
● Difficult parking: As one of the busiest hikes in the county, the tiny lot fills up fast. Plan to arrive super early or park alongside the road.
● Obnoxious hikers blaring loud music (even though it clearly states, “amplified music is not allowed” on the Trail Etiquette sign at the trailhead).
● Runners blaze down the trail at top speed, so move over if you see one coming.
● Heat and high temps make Cowles a danger zone for dogs (and humans). There have been tragic outcomes for man’s best friend here, so unless the temperature is under 80 degrees, leave the pup at home.
There’s more than one way to the top. Most hikers either don’t know there are multiple entry points or choose the more popular route beginning at Golfcrest Drive and Navajo Road. For a more scenic route — and a butt-busting, thigh-burning finish to the summit — take the route from Big Rock Park off Arlette Street and Mesa Road in Santee. At 5 miles round trip, it makes for a longer, more challenging workout.
Where to eat and drink nearby
Cowles Mountain Coffee
Charge and fuel up with an espresso or specialty latte and a variety of yogurt and acai bowls, muffins, bagels, and croissants.
7290 Navajo Rd., San Carlos, 619.462.2233
Helix Brewing Co.
Need a cold brew after the hike? Head 3.8 miles down the road to this La Mesa brewery for a refreshing Acid Drop hefeweizen, or a variety of IPAs, including red, rye, double, and the appropriately named Active IPA.
8101 Commercial St., La Mesa, 619.741.8447, drinkhelix.com
Mountain Mike’s Pizza
A mere 0.6 miles away from the trailhead, hikers can cure the hangries with a loaded pizza, such as the McKinley, Everest, or Pike’s Peak. Gluten-free crust is available.
7377 Jackson Dr., San Carlos, 619.469.6453, mountainmikespizza.com
The Trails Eatery
Also within walking distance, at 0.6 miles from Cowles, hikers can #brunchsohard on upscale diner dishes, including pumpkin pancakes, vegetarian sausage and eggs, granola banana waffle, and a crab cake benedict with chipotle hollandaise and avocado. Look for vegetarian and gluten-free options on both the breakfast and lunch menus.
7389 Jackson Dr., San Carlos, 619.667.2233, thetrailseatery.com