I’ve hiked Cowles Mountain many times with my son since he was a baby, but until today had only used the Golfcrest Trailhead, the south-west and most popular starting point. Today we headed to Big Rock Trailhead, the north-east starting point.
The distance was about 2.1 miles from the trailhead to the peak and the ascent took us an hour with the return trip taking about 40 minutes. It certainly felt longer and more strenuous than the Golfcrest trail we’ve typically done. (Might be my post-Covid weaker body, or actually is a harder trail.) There was a great breeze going and this eastern trail had more shrub shade than the western side, to my surprise. Not a lot of shade, but some portions had a bit. We sat at the top and had a picnic lunch, which is a great way to take a nice break and enjoy a chat and views at the peak.
Guest content from my hiking partner, Ambrose: “My favorite part was eating lunch. I want to do another hike sometime – one with a waterfall at the end.”
Cowles Mountain is one of 5 peaks in Mission Trails Regional Park that make up the “5 Peak Challenge“. The map below highlights the location of the peaks and it’s fun to do them all whether solo, with a friend, or with your family. I did the 5 Peak Challenge a few years ago solo and it was a great, challenging day.
The Laguna Mountains lie about 45 miles straight east of Downtown San Diego. Reaching a maximum height of 6,378 feet they have a very different climate from the nearby beaches that San Diego is better known for. The many campgrounds in the Lagunas are our favorite places to camp near our home.
This week I took our older kids and some friends for a morning hike at the Wooded Hill trail in the Lagunas. It had rained a bit in San Diego over the weekend but we didn’t expect a snow covered scene when we reached the higher altitudes. It was a gorgeous morning, about 50 degrees, and with both evergreen trees and some oaks starting to change to fall colors.
We walked about 2 miles in 2 hours, taking time to throw snowballs, climb boulders, and enjoy the sunshine at the summit of the trail. (Strava recording in images below with more details along with some scenery photos.)
On the return journey to San Diego, about 50 minutes total drive time each way, we stopped at the absolutely fabulous Grand Ole BBQ y Asada in Flinn Springs (the Eastern edge of El Cajon). With current Covid restrictions the lawn games weren’t available but it was wonderful to sit in the 70 degree sun with a light breeze and enjoy the best barbeque in San Diego County. If visiting San Diego or live here, highly recommend a trip and the brisket or beef ribs.
San Diego has great beaches and wonderfully temperate weather for which it is mostly, and rightfully, known. The broader area has a wide variety of plants and land forms to explore and many like Mount Laguna deserve more love.
Mission Trails Regional Park is an amazing San Diego asset. It covers 7,220 acres and is located near Downtown and urban areas like North Park, Mission Valley, La Mesa, and others. There are a wide variety of activities available – running, rock climbing, bike riding, hiking, and more. To encourage more people to explore some of the less visited areas of the park the 5 Peak Challenge was officially launched on November 7, 2015 although it had been an unofficial challenge in the hiking community prior to that launch.
Cowles Mountain is the most popular hike in the park and has a constant flow of people. I had done Cowles a dozen or more times in the past 5 years and the Fortunas once or twice but had never been to Pyles or Kwaay Paay prior to attempting the 5 Peak Challenge. You don’t have to do all the peaks on one day and it’s probably not advised but a friend had told me about doing the challenge in under hours so I decided to make that my goal.
Using the park map (below, click for pdf copy) I decided the shortest total route from the Visitors Center would be: South Fortuna, North Fortuna, Kwaay Paay, Cowles Mountain, Pyles Peak. I hopped on my bike in North Park and about 35 minutes later was at the Visitors Center and ready to go.
I used the Strava app to record the time, elevation gain, distance, and route for my 5 Peak Challenge. Including a few breaks for lunch and to register the kids for swimming lessons it took a total elapsed time of 4 hours and 57 minutes. I was scrambling up Pyles Peak to get under the 5 hour mark but managed to do it. I hiked at a moderate pace for the most part but did jog some of the descents and a bit of the Junipero Serra Trail that is a flat, paved road from the Old Dam to the Visitors Center. I also rode my bike from the Visitors Center to the Cowles Mountain base after the first 3 peaks.
I didn’t include any scenery shots on this post, other than the background on the selfies at bottom, which are required to officially complete the challenge and submit for a certificate. If you haven’t been, Missions Trails Regional Park is basically Southern California natural scrub habitat – some trees in the low lying areas but primarily short bushes and shrubs. The peaks provide wonderful views in every direction, from Mexico to the Pacific to inland mountains to the east. The day I hiked was overcast so the view distances were greatly reduced but I was grateful for the less intense sun and heat.
I’d highly recommend doing the 5 Peak Challenge or simply visiting the park to have a picnic or go for a casual hike up one of the peaks. It’s a great asset to the region and one well loved by many.
I was very happy to be included in an invitation to view and explore a new acquisition by the San Diego River Park Foundation just outside of Julian, California on Saturday, December 5. Below are a number of photos of the 374 acres that the Foundation is in the process of buying from the current owners. This acreage surrounds Temescal Creek, a coldwater creek that is part of the San Diego River watershed. This acquisition will ensure the land is preserved for future generations and remains a wildlife corridor preserve for mountain lions, deer, turkey, hawks, and many other animals. Executive Director Rob Hutsel noted that the vision is for this space to be open to the public and to host youth for overnight trips to explore and participate in science-focused lessons in nature.
Each September I organize a weekend bicycle ride, Ride For The River Park, from Ocean Beach to Julian and back to promote and support the idea of a continuous path for the entirety of the San Diego River. 2016 will be the 5th year for the event and if you’d like to join we’d love to have you. My goal is to see this path be a reality by the 10th year of the event – by September of 2021. The idea and the work is not mine, it is that of the River Park Foundation, I simply want to support and spur on the work they are doing. At the event on Saturday, a mile marker post was debuted showing the start / end of the San Diego River Trail. What a beautiful sight to see.
In the same vein of supporting the vision of a full River Trail, 2015 is the first year for which I am donating 1% of my Airbnb income to charitable causes. For this year that money is going to the San Diego River Park Foundation. I got the idea from the 1% For the Planet movement, in which “Members donate at least 1% of sales to nonprofit partners we’ve vetted for participation in the 1% for the Planet network.” I’m just a single person so after further research it doesn’t seem the 1% For the Planet program is a good fit for my giving.
Instead, I’m working with Airbnb for a roll-out to San Diego of their Charity Donation Tool which currently allows hosts in Portland to opt-in to donate a portion of their revenue to a local charity. I’m hopeful that this will soon be an option for hosts in San Diego to automatically and regularly support great local charities like the River Park Foundation. If you’re a host in San Diego and would like to help make this a reality please contact me. In the meantime, I hope you’ll consider a voluntarily donation to the charity of your choice from your Airbnb (or VRBO or other platform) earnings.
The acreage surrounding Temescal Creek features many mature oaks, ravines, and all sorts of native plants thriving. A beautiful, peaceful place to enjoy and savor the natural splendor of San Diego and a reminder that without support it will not endure. It takes the efforts of many to protect and preserve our natural bounty.
Note: I’m adding some old posts from other sites here over time. This post is from April 24, 2015. Enjoy!
Cowles Mountain is a classic San Diego hike. It’s the highest point in the city limits at 1,594 feet, and is popular every day (and many nights) of the year. Near to San Diego State University and a number of neighborhoods as well as within close distance to much of the city it’s a great, moderate difficulty hike. The hiking trails are surrounded by native scrub and there is little shade so it’s typically a hot and somewhat dusty climb with views from the Pacific Ocean to Mexico and into the East County reaches of San Diego County.
Today was a much different story. Heavy cloud cover and fog along with a light drizzle accompanied our upward hike before clearing once we reached the top. From the summit there was no view to be had, just a ghostly white backdrop. We had a couple of visitors from Seattle with us, so perhaps for them it wasn’t so atypical but for the San Diegans on the trip it was a unique experience.
Have a great weekend and cross your fingers for more mist – and rain!