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Off the beaten path in Mission Trails

The trek to Pyles Peak via Cowles Mountain

Cowles Mountain as viewed from Pyles Peak
Cowles Mountain as viewed from Pyles Peak
Place

Mission Trails Regional Park

One Father Junípero Serra Trail, San Carlos, CA

Pyles Peak and Cowles Mountain from North Fortuna
Pyles Peak with Lake Murray in the distance
Pyles Peak via Cowles Mountain

Pyles Peak is mid-way between Cowles Mountain on the south and Fortuna Mountain on the north and is part of a series of peaks that was called Long Mountain on some older maps. It has some unrestricted views of the north, east, and west sections of San Diego. The name of the peak dates from 1989 and is probably named for the Pyle family that has been active in conservation circles, according to Leland Fetzer, author of San Diego County Place Names A to Z.

Pyles Peak is accessed through Cowles Mountain, which has three approaches. The most common is the south approach on the corner of Golfcrest and Navajo Road in San Carlos, which is the recommended approach. At 1591 feet, Cowles Mountain is the tallest peak within the city limits of San Diego.

The 1.5-mile trail to the top of Cowles is well marked and is regularly used by nearby residents and at times with their dogs. Upon reaching the summit from any of its three approaches, face north and walk onto the service road that hugs the descending side of the summit. Turn left and walk briefly to its western end where the Pyles Peak trailhead is found on the left. This trail is less traveled.

The Pyles Peak trail is generally well marked and maintained, making for a leisurely and occasionally challenging hike. The trail descends into the chaparral in a northerly direction, followed with multiple ascents and descents along the ridgeline before reaching its destination. The chaparral is low and sparse, dominated by chamise, mission manzanita, and laurel sumac. The elevation, distance from habitation, and the absence of hikers provides quiet, making the call of the occasional wrentit stand out. Scrub jays and Anna’s hummingbirds are frequent companions.

Nearing Pyles Peak, the trail drifts westerly for a bit where a well-marked lookout spot on the lower western corner of the peak is visible. The final ascent to the 1379-foot summit begins here and is fairly straight up to the top. The trail narrows with a loose gravel base, which will challenge even experienced hikers. The reward is an unobstructed view to the north and east, with the Cuyamacas and Lagunas as backdrops.

The return is just over 3 miles, with the first leg to Cowles Mountain a mostly upward hike of 1.6 miles, then a descent for about 1.5 miles back to the trailhead on Golfcrest and Navajo Road.


Distance from downtown San Diego: 13 miles. Allow 20 minutes driving time. Take CA-163N and merge onto I-8E. Exit I-8 at College Ave. and drive north 1 mile, turning right onto Navajo Rd. Continue 2 miles on Navajo Rd. to the Cowles Mountain trailhead on the northeast corner of Navajo Rd. and Golfcrest. Park in the small lot or on the street.

Hiking length: 6.2 miles out and back. Allow 3 hours.

Difficulty: Moderately strenuous because of steep ascents and descents. Elevation gain/loss of 2000 feet. Leashed dogs allowed on trails. Facilities on the corner of Golfcrest and Navajo Rd. in San Carlos. Best in the morning, to avoid heavy use of the Cowles Mountain route. No shade. Trekking poles recommended. Best from October to May, when temperatures are cooler.

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Cowles Mountain as viewed from Pyles Peak
Cowles Mountain as viewed from Pyles Peak
Place

Mission Trails Regional Park

One Father Junípero Serra Trail, San Carlos, CA

Pyles Peak and Cowles Mountain from North Fortuna
Pyles Peak with Lake Murray in the distance
Pyles Peak via Cowles Mountain

Pyles Peak is mid-way between Cowles Mountain on the south and Fortuna Mountain on the north and is part of a series of peaks that was called Long Mountain on some older maps. It has some unrestricted views of the north, east, and west sections of San Diego. The name of the peak dates from 1989 and is probably named for the Pyle family that has been active in conservation circles, according to Leland Fetzer, author of San Diego County Place Names A to Z.

Pyles Peak is accessed through Cowles Mountain, which has three approaches. The most common is the south approach on the corner of Golfcrest and Navajo Road in San Carlos, which is the recommended approach. At 1591 feet, Cowles Mountain is the tallest peak within the city limits of San Diego.

The 1.5-mile trail to the top of Cowles is well marked and is regularly used by nearby residents and at times with their dogs. Upon reaching the summit from any of its three approaches, face north and walk onto the service road that hugs the descending side of the summit. Turn left and walk briefly to its western end where the Pyles Peak trailhead is found on the left. This trail is less traveled.

The Pyles Peak trail is generally well marked and maintained, making for a leisurely and occasionally challenging hike. The trail descends into the chaparral in a northerly direction, followed with multiple ascents and descents along the ridgeline before reaching its destination. The chaparral is low and sparse, dominated by chamise, mission manzanita, and laurel sumac. The elevation, distance from habitation, and the absence of hikers provides quiet, making the call of the occasional wrentit stand out. Scrub jays and Anna’s hummingbirds are frequent companions.

Nearing Pyles Peak, the trail drifts westerly for a bit where a well-marked lookout spot on the lower western corner of the peak is visible. The final ascent to the 1379-foot summit begins here and is fairly straight up to the top. The trail narrows with a loose gravel base, which will challenge even experienced hikers. The reward is an unobstructed view to the north and east, with the Cuyamacas and Lagunas as backdrops.

The return is just over 3 miles, with the first leg to Cowles Mountain a mostly upward hike of 1.6 miles, then a descent for about 1.5 miles back to the trailhead on Golfcrest and Navajo Road.


Distance from downtown San Diego: 13 miles. Allow 20 minutes driving time. Take CA-163N and merge onto I-8E. Exit I-8 at College Ave. and drive north 1 mile, turning right onto Navajo Rd. Continue 2 miles on Navajo Rd. to the Cowles Mountain trailhead on the northeast corner of Navajo Rd. and Golfcrest. Park in the small lot or on the street.

Hiking length: 6.2 miles out and back. Allow 3 hours.

Difficulty: Moderately strenuous because of steep ascents and descents. Elevation gain/loss of 2000 feet. Leashed dogs allowed on trails. Facilities on the corner of Golfcrest and Navajo Rd. in San Carlos. Best in the morning, to avoid heavy use of the Cowles Mountain route. No shade. Trekking poles recommended. Best from October to May, when temperatures are cooler.

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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