Cowles Mountain Trail Hike: Rewarding Views are Worth the Challenge

Cowles Mountain Southern Trail

Distance: 3 miles | Hiking time: 1.5 – 2 hours | More info.

Cowles Mountain Trail Hike is one of San Diego’s most popular hikes, second only to Torrey Pines. The summit offers 360 degree views of the county, and the trail is located in Mission Trails Regional Park,.

Cowles Mountain Trail hike is short and kid friendly. Dogs are allowed on the trail, which makes it a popular destination for everyone, from families to fitness fanatics. The trails can get crowded, even on weekdays, and parking can be hard to come by. Getting an early start will help you beat the crowds. And don’t expect a quiet, secluded nature hike, because you won’t find it on Cowles Mountain.

The Golfcrest trailhead leads you to a series of switchbacks that zig-zag up the southwest face of the mountain. Each one gradually inches you higher up the trail along your 1.5 mile ascent up to the 1591 ft. peak. A fence that helps to protect the surrounding habitat from errant hikers, lines most of the trail.


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.

Lake Murray
The view to Lake Murray

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. The plaque at the peak tells a brief history of the park, and two more plaques name points of interest visible in all directions.

Cowles Mountain Trail Hike Retrospective

We hiked the Cowles Mountain Trail on a hot Friday afternoon in July. The crowds weren’t overwhelming, but there was a constant stream of people ascending and descending the trail. The small parking lot at the trailhead was full, so we parked on the street and had a short walk to the trailhead.

Cowles Mountain Trail - San Diego Hiking

The trail has its share of ruts and loose rocks from the high amount of foot traffic it gets. Despite that fact, the Mission Trails Park rangers keep it well-maintained and safe for everyone to enjoy.

A diverse group of high-school kids, families and dog owners, runners, gym rats and a few geared up, avid hikers made up the crowd. Everyone was having a good time and enjoying the hike in their own way.

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. Completing the Cowles Mountain Trail hike took us about 1.5 hours, including the time we spent at the top enjoying the view.


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