Sunday, October 13, 2013

Day hike with children to highest point in San Diego

360 degree panorama of Cowles Mountain summit view
Click on photo for larger view.
Day hikers can climb to the highest point in San Diego for an expansive view of the city below on the Cowles Mountain Hiking Trail.

Peaking at 1591 feet above sea level, Cowles (locally pronounced "cow-ells") Mountain affords grand views with 360 degree views from the summit. The three-mile round trip is a very people-safe hike in which plenty of parents bring their children.

The downside is that you’ll have to ascend about 933 feet in just 1.5 miles, all under zero shade. Consider it a solid aerobic workout – hundreds of other San Diegoans do on a weekly basis.

Sunsets and sunrises on weekends will be crowded, so you may want to hit this trail during weekdays in the early morning. Foggy days during San Diego’s June Gloom also are worth a hike – the summit usually sits above the cloud bank, offering a chance for some sun while watching the clouds roll like ocean waves below you.

Jurassic Mountain
To reach the trail, from Interstate 15, take Friars Road East, which becomes Mission Gorge Road. Rather than take the Mission Trails Regional Park turnoff, continue on Mission Gorge, turning right onto Golfcrest. Park in the visitor and interpretive center’s lot; if the lot is full, park curbside on Golfcrest.

Fair warning: Police know a lot of people drive to the trailhead, so expect a squad car enforcing the 25 mph speed limit on Golfcrest. They’ll also ticket parked vehicles when tires aren’t cramped to the curb.

The trailhead is on Golfcrest at Navajo and takes you into Mission Trails Regional Park, a nearly 5,800-acre recreational area. Signs mark every quarter mile of the clear and wide trail.

The hike begins by running up what used to be a seacliff, which since has been lifted upward to about 600 feet elevation as the Pacific and North American tectonic plates slide against one another. At about 1200 feet elevation, hikers reach what once was a sea-level surface called the Poway Terrace. Most of the rocks jutting out of the mountain’s ground date to between 65 million and 206 million years in age, formed when dinosaurs walked the earth. You’re literally hiking Jurassic Mountain.

Dogs welcomed
More recently in history, the mountain – named for pioneer San Diego rancher George A. Cowles – was home not to dinosaurs but to a gargantuan, 400-foot tall “S” painted by San Diego State University students beginning in 1931. Except for a brief period during World War II in which the military objected to the S for national security purposes, its repainting lasted until the 1970s when its negative effects on the environment were realized.

Today, lizards, stink beetles, and the occasional rattlesnake inhabit the desert mountain. The later aren’t likely to be found on the well-traversed trail, however.

Good news for dog owners: Queenie and Fido are allowed on the hike but must be leashed. Restrooms and water are available at trailhead near the visitor center, which is worth a look for its exhibits and films (Warning if children are with you: The center has a gift shop.).

Find out about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.