“This wide service road will get you to the summit of Cowles Mountain with a fraction of the crowds.
— Phil Steffek
Views · Wildflowers
Park on the street. The trailhead is the obvious service road, with a small kiosk. Head up the service road, and stay on the service road, bypassing the Barker Way Trail
to your left (signed as Cowles Mountain Trail), approximately 1/8th of a mile in. The service road will veer right and now the fun begins!
The service road quickly climbs and views to the southeast quickly come into view. Do not fear if your quads and calves require a break. This is one of the steepest sections of the trail.
At approximately the 1/2 mile mark, the service road will veer sharply left and you'll be treated to views of Santee and the surrounding hills to the north. This is the so-called "Balcony". You'll find a small bench where you can enjoy the view and know that you've completed the most difficult section of the trail!
Continue on a rolling section of the service road for 1/2 a mile and mentally prepare for the push to the top.
Around the one mile mark, the service road will quickly begin to get steeper. Although not as steep as the first section of the run, it's a close second. Stay on the service road until you are virtually at the summit. As the service road begins to crest you'll spot a few steps made from railroad ties on your right. Ascend the steps and you'll find yourself directly behind the Cowles Mountain summit marker (and reunited with the hordes of people who came up the Cowles Mountain Trail
Make sure you touch the summit marker (it doesn't count if you don't touch it). Take in the views of the Pacific Ocean to the west, Tijuana, Mexico to the south and quite a few San Diego landmarks in between.
Turn around to descend the way you came or continue south and return via the second half of Cowles Mountain Backside Loop
. Be careful! Footing can be slippery when descending the service road as the hard packed dirt is covered with pea-sized gravel in many sections creating a ball bearing like surface!