Cowles Mountain Trail | 5 Great Trails to Get There!

If you have ever hiked Cowles Mountain trail in San Diego, CA, you know this can be very busy and crowded. I often get asked if there are alternate routes to get to the top that isn’t the main trail. The answer is yes! The are several ways to get to the top of the mountain. While the alternate routes are usually a lot less busy, they still get decent foot traffic, so don’t expect to be alone.

Cowles Mountain Trail Summit

Fun Fact: Cowles Mountain is pronounced “Coal” or “Coles” Mountain. Almost everyone, locals and visitors, pronounce the name wrong!

Cowles Mountain Trail (AllTrails) (YouTube)

3.0 miles | 912 feet elevation

This trail is the main way to get to the top of Cowles Mountain. You can see it has over ten-thousand reviews on AllTrails. If you are familiar with the platform, you know that is a TON of reviews and a testamate to how much traffic this trail gets.

This trail starts on the corner of Golfcrest Drive and Navajo Road. There is a small parking lot with bathrooms. Most likely you will end up parking on Golfcrest Drive. The busier the day, the farther down the road you will have to park, adding extra elevation to your hike.

Cowes Mountain from Barker Way (AllTrails)

2.3 miles | 826 feet elevation

Starting Cowles Mountain from Barker Way is another popular way to hike the mountain. Barker Way is a narrow residential street. It has a decent amount of parallel parking on the street. The trailhead is easy to find and the route to the top is clear. This route will be mostly a hiking trail until you get to the very end where you will briefly climb up Cowles Mountain Service Road to finish the hike.

Cowles Mountain Service Road (AllTrails)

2.9 miles | 859 feet elevation

Taking Cowles Mountain Service Road to the top is a great workout. It starts at Barker Way, the same as the route above. Often times you will see large groups and fitness coaches taking people up this route. The service road is wide all the way to the top and has a consistent incline to the top.

On the linked trail above, it was made into a loop that explores more of the trails Mission Trails Regional Park has to offer. A combination of the main trail route and Barker Way route. A lot of people will just make this an out-and-back, but having the loop as a reference is a nice modification to the route.

Cowles Mountain via Mesa Trail (AllTrails)

4.4 miles | 1,122 feet elevation

Cowles Mountain via Mesa Trail is probably the least trafficked of all of the routes. At 4.4 miles it is about double the rest of the routes. This trailhead starts at the end of Mesa Road. It has a small dirt parking lot and when it fills up it can be tight when maneuvering cars in and out of the spots. If you are going to take this route, get there early so you are not struggling with parking.

This version will have you walk down Mesa Road (a service road), hop on Mesa Trail, then link up with Big Rock Trail. Once you are on Big Rock Trail, it will be similar to the next route on our list below!

Cowles Mountain via Big Rock Park (AllTrails) (YouTube)

4.5 miles | 1,204 feet elevation

Another option is starting from Big Rock Park in Santee, Ca. Parking is available at the park or on the street. You will then start heading up the back side of the mountain until eventually linking up with Cowles Service Road. This hike will be about 50% trails and 50% service road. When you reach the top, you will be approaching Cowles Mountain from the back side of the mountain.

Cowles Mountain Trail Alternate Routes Wrap Up

As you can see there are several Cowles Mountain Trail alternate routes. They all tend to overlap and can be mixed up to make your ultimate route to the top. What is your favorite way to get to the top of Cowles Mountain? Did I miss a popular route? Drop a comment below to get the conversation going!

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