How Long Is The Hike Up Cowles Mountain in San Diego?

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One of the biggest “must-do” trails in the San Diego area is going up Cowles Mountain in Mission Trails Regional Park. It isn’t the most intimidating of mountains, nor does it require technical skill, but at 1,593 feet, it is the tallest point in the city. It is a great spot for locals and visitors to stretch their legs and take in some scenic views without it eating up your entire day.

It takes 1.5-3 hours to hike Cowles Mountain, depending on route, fitness level, heat, and the crowds. Best time to hike Cowles is early mornings or late afternoon, minimizing the crowds and the heat. The hike can be done year-round, but it can be unbearably hot between 11 am and 4 pm in summer.

Part of the appeal of Cowles Mountain is that there is easy parking, and you can bring along your four-legged best friend so long as they are leashed. In addition, Mission Trails has 8,000 acres to explore. Thus, if the crowds going up Cowles are too much to bear, you can just follow another trail. Mission Trails is also a nice spot to bike and horse ride. However, just check the map that the route is open to your activity.

How Long To Hike Cowles Mountain?

Hiking Cowles Mountain round trip takes hikers 1-3 hours. The time depends on fitness level, the heat, and the crowds. The trail is wide and pretty well maintained, making it a relatively moderate hike. However, it is going up some respectable elevation, so those more accustomed to flatter terrain will start to feel it in their calves and lungs.

The most popular route up Cowles Mountain is an up and back that begins on Golfcrest Drive. But for those looking for a trail with less traffic, consider taking the loop, which is made out of a service road and the Barker Way Trail.

The heat can be the hardest challenge of all. It’s a hike best enjoyed in any season but summer. Pick times around sunrise and sunset for those who want to tackle it during the hottest months. This trail is pretty exposed, with little shade, and a sunhat and sunscreen can’t fix everything. But no matter what time of year or day you go, take plenty of water.

What’s The Best Time Of Day To Hike Cowles Mountain?

Hiking Cowles is best done in the mornings and late afternoons, even when it isn’t summer. Being the most popular hike in San Diego means it gets tons of traffic. Thus, you’ll enjoy more elbow room and perhaps hear sounds of nature rather than conversation if you avoid the most crowded times of day.

What’s The Best Time Of Year To Hike Cowles Mountain?

Cowles Mountain is best done outside of summer. San Diego has pretty great weather year-round, but summer can become stifling hot, especially on a trail almost entirely devoid of shade. However, the daylight hours are briefest in winter, which will make hiking it harder to do before or after work. Also, winter does have the occasional thunderstorm, so check the weather forecast.

Do I Need Hiking Boots To Hike Up Cowles Mountain?

Hiking boots are not essential when going up Cowles Mountain. However, there is a lot of rock and sand, so you want closed-toe shoes to keep the grit and pebbles out. You’ll also need shoes with excellent tread so you don’t slip on some of the rockier bits. You’ll also want enough firmness to the soles of your shoes to keep the rocks from poking at the bottoms of your feet. 

How Much Water Do I Need To Hike Up Cowles Mountain?

Water is essential for hiking Cowles Mountain, regardless of fitness and time of year. The path is mostly exposed and unshaded, making it easy to dehydrate. Heatstroke is another concern that can even strike people in excellent shape. It is recommended to bring 1-2 liters of water, potentially even more on hot days.

Can I Hike Cowles Mountain and Pyles Peak on The Same Day?

Adding Pyles Peak to a Cowles Mountain hike is easy to do on the same day. The Cowles portion will be crowded, but the traffic significantly thins once you reach the Pyles section. It takes hikers an average of 3 hours and 20 minutes to do the whole thing. But if you enjoy stopping for photos and taking breathers, add on some time.

The terrain for the Pyles section isn’t much harder than the Cowles. But it is longer with many more ups and downs, so it’s best to assess how you are feeling at Cowles before heading further. Also, remember to bring extra water.

But for those wanting a bit more of a challenge and want to thin the crowds even further, try Pyles Peak Trail via Barker Way. Again, this isn’t technically challenging, but it does require better fitness and endurance. Plus, you still hit both peaks.

Is There Rock Climbing On Cowles Mountain?

Mission Trails Regional Park is a favorite spot with rock climbers. The best part of the park to climb cliffs is taking the Climbers Loop and Father Junipero Serra Loop. They are short trails but steep, and the cliffs are where rock climbers practice their skills. The main climbing routes can be viewed here. There are areas that are excellent for bouldering, too.

This section is under the Kwaay Paay Peak. However, rock climbers are not advised even to try to reach Kwaay Paay Peak by scrambling up the cliffs. For those that would like to explore the Kwaay Paay Peak, there is an excellent trail, and it has less foot traffic than its more popular Cowles Mountain hike.


Cowles Mountain doesn’t take too long to hike, nor is it incredibly difficult. It’s a nice way to start your day or get in a bit of fresh air before dinner. But while you don’t need a lot of technical know-how, you do need to bring lots of water and use sun protection. The hike offers little shade, making it easy to get dehydrated. Happy hiking, and may your skin never burn.