Cowles Mountain Trail from the Golfcrest Trailhead

Cowles Mountain Trail is one of San Diego’s most popular hikes, second only to Torrey Pines. It earned its reputation thanks to the 360-degree views at the end of the 1.3-mile ascent to the 1,593-foot summit. The trail is centrally located in Mission Trails Regional Park and is easily accessible from anywhere in the county. Add on that dogs are allowed and it’s easy to understand why Cowles Mountain is so popular. As a result, the trail tends to get crowded and parking can be difficult to find close by. But if you get an early start, you can usually beat the crowds.

RELATED: Cowles Mountain Trail: Mission Trails Regional Park, San Diego

If you’re looking for a secluded nature hike, Cowles is probably not the trail for you. But if you don’t mind sharing the trail with a few other people, give Cowles Mountain a try.

Cowles Mountain Trail Starting at the Golfcrest Trailhead

From the Golfcrest trailhead, the trail leads you to a series of switchbacks that zig-zag up the southwest face of the mountain. With each switchback, you’re inched further along your one-and-a-half mile ascent up to the summit. To keep you on the trail, the park has kindly installed a fence in many areas. Not only does it keep hikers from getting lost, but it also helps to protect the surrounding habitat.

A fence keeps hikers on the trail and protects the surrounding habitat

The trail is wide enough that fast hikers and runners can maintain their pace without making slower hikers feel pressured. Even so, it’s good to get there early if you hope to beat the crowds, especially on weekends.

The view of Lake Murray from hiking in Mission Trails

The effort you put into getting to the top of Cowles Mountain is quickly rewarded with a 360-degree view that is unmatched anywhere in the city. Once on top, you’ll find a plaque telling a brief history of the park, and two more plaques naming points of interest visible in all directions.

A summit plaque explains the history of Cowles Mountain and Mission Trails Regional Park

My Experience on the Trail

We hiked Cowles Mountain Trail on a hot Friday afternoon in July. Despite the heat, there was a constant stream of people ascending and descending the trail. The small parking lot was full, so we parked on the street and had a short walk to the trailhead.

The trail has its share of ruts and loose rocks from the high amount of foot traffic it gets. Even so, Mission Trails Park rangers keep it well-maintained so it is safe for everyone to enjoy. We ran into a diverse group of hikers on the trail, and they were all out enjoying the hike in their own way.

The trailhead for Cowles Mountain Trail

By the time we arrived at the trailhead, we had already hiked a 10.25-mile loop on the north end of the park, summiting North and South Fortuna Peaks, and Kwaay Paay Peak. The temperature by this time was about 90 degrees, so we approached Cowles Mountain with a little less energy than the others. Even so, we were able to complete the hike in 1.5 hours, including time spent enjoying the view.

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