Winter solstice this year occurs during late afternoon on Thursday, December 21. Earlier that morning (and on the morning of the following day), at about 6:50 a.m., a predictable event will unfold on the south shoulder of Cowles Mountain. If you know exactly where to stand, the rising sun will clear a distant ridge and appear to be briefly bifurcated into two brilliant points of light.
According to local archeologists and anthropologists, today's visitors at solstice time are repeating a ritual that dates back centuries. Prior to about 200 years ago, Kumeyaay Indians kept a vigil on Cowles Mountain during the shortest days of the year. They watched day after day as the rising position of the sun drifted farther south along the horizon, apparently stopped its drift for a day or two, then finally drifted north. The precise day (or perhaps two days) marking the solstice (the word means "sun stands still") could be determined by any observer watching successive sunrises from the same precise spot. That particular spot on Cowles Mountain once held a circular array of stones crossed by an "arrow" of rocks pointing to the winter-solstice sunrise direction. Observers standing there -- centuries ago and today -- see the rising sun's upper rim briefly split into two halves by a distant boulder pile sticking up from a far-off ridge.
A 30- or 40-minute walk in brightening dawn will get you to the solstice site. The shortest route happens to be the main Cowles Mountain trail originating at Navajo Road and Golfcrest Drive in San Diego's San Carlos district. This popular trail zigzags a rocky 1.4 miles to the top of the mountain. The solstice side path, 0.9 mile up the trail, branches right at a sharp leftward bend in the main trail. If you miss that turnoff and reach the intersection of a trail to Barker Way, then you've gone a little too far.
The side path leads to a small flat on the main, south-trending, plunging ridge of the mountain. Plan to arrive on either December 21 or 22 at no later than about 6:40 a.m. Some ten minutes later, the sun's upper rim will pop up over a distant ridge, its golden image initially split in two. Within a few seconds, the dual image fuses into one brilliant point of light. Guides from Mission Trails Regional Park or from the San Diego Natural History Museum will likely be on site to help with the identification of the "sweet spot" that allows the best view of the rising sun -- weather permitting, of course. If clouds sour the view, then there's always next year to look forward to.
Once the sun has risen, you might continue your hike up-slope on the main trail another half mile to the Cowles Mountain summit, where on clear days the view stretches across nearly all of metropolitan San Diego. If the day is crystalline clear, look for the Coronado Islands off Mexico, and dusky profiles of Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands rising from the flat, blue ocean horizon.