At 1,592ft, Cowles Mountain is the highest peak in the city of San Diego. The hike to the summit of Cowles is possibly the most popular hiking route in all of San Diego County, which makes an early start a requirement for weekend outings. Hiking to the nearby Pyles Peak is far less popular, and the perfect addition to a hike up Cowles.
Directions And GPS Tracks:
- To hike to the summits of Cowles Mountain and Pyles Peak, drive to 7027 Golfcrest Dr, San Diego, CA 92119. There is a small parking lot at the trailhead that fills up quickly, but residential street parking is also available.
- Download GPX
- See my track on Strava
- Distance: 6 miles (3 miles if only hiking to Cowles Mountain)
- Elevation Gain: 1854 ft
- Minimum Elevation: 668 ft
- Maximum Elevation: 1592 ft
- Time: 2-4 hours
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash
- Permit Required: No
- Parking: Parking lot at trailhead and street parking for overflow
- Season: Year Round
- Trail Condition: The trail is somewhat steep, well maintained, well marked, and easy to follow
- Cell Phone Reception: Very good
Hike Map And Elevation Profile:
0.0 Miles- As I mentioned in the intro, this is a very popular hike that can get very crowded. Make sure to arrive early. I started this hike at 6:30 AM to make sure I’d have enough time and space to enjoy the trail. There are restrooms located at the trailhead next to the signage for “Cowles Mountain Staging Area”.
The first quarter mile of hiking is very gradual, but the incline quickly increases. Take time to enjoy the blooming wildflowers (seasonal), and don’t forget to look back at the city views that will increase with every step upward.
The trail for Cowles Mountain is in great condition, but the rainy season can leave sections rutted, and erosion can expose stones that will leave unprotected feet tender. Make sure to wear good trail shoes with grip and protection for this hike. You can check out my guide to finding the perfect trail shoe if you’re in need of a new pair.
0.5 Miles- You’ll have a view with two peaks up ahead. The trails wraps around the first hill to the right and then Cowles will be the higher mountain to the left.
0.9 Miles- You’ll see the junction for the Barker Damn Trail. This is another trailhead start option if you’d prefer to avoid the high traffic found at the Cowles Mountain Staging Area. Keep left at the junction to continue on to Cowles Mountain.
Just after passing the Barker Dam trail junction, you’ll scale a series of switchbacks that will take you to the summit of Cowles Mountain.
1.5 Miles- At 1.5 miles you’ll be standing at the summit of Cowles Mountain. Take a look around, enjoy the views, and then make your way to the north end of the summit towards the antennas.
When you see the antennas and a rock outcrop take a left (west) to pick up the Pyles Peak Trail. You’ll see a small brown sign close to the ground that reads Pyles Peak Trail.
After hiking uphill to the summit of Cowles Mountain, you’ll have two descents and two ascents before reaching the summit of Pyles Peak. You’ll be able to catch glimpses of Pyles Peak and Kwaay Paay Peak up ahead.
2.3 Miles- You’ll see a sign for “View Point”. This is a short side trail that takes hikers to a viewpoint between Pyles and Cowles. Continue on towards Pyles Peak by continuing straight ahead.
2.6 Miles- You’ll see the final trail sign for Pyles Peak with a view of the summit above.
3.0 Miles- You’re standing on the 1,379ft summit of Pyles Peak. From this point, you can turn around and return to the trailhead on the same path that you arrived with.