OverviewCowles Mountain is the highest point in the city of San Diego, lying within the Mission Trails Regional Park, some of the last remaining open space lying close to the center of the city. The hike to the summit is an easy 1.5mi with 900ft elevation gain, and there are over 2 million people living within a 30min drive to the trailhead. Consequently it is very popular - on weekends there may be several hundred people on the main trail at midday.
Though not high even by San Diego County standards, the views from the summit are some of the best in Southern California, and probably the finest views in San Diego County, with an unobstructed 360 degree view. One can see south to Table Mountain in Mexico, north to Palomar Mtn, east to the Cuyamaca Mtns, and all 60 miles of San Diego County's coastline to the west -in all over half of San Diego County can be seen along with many hundreds of square miles of open ocean (and a few islands to boot).
The most popular trail that starts at the corner of Navajo Rd and Golfcrest Dr is for hiking/running only. Other routes to the summit, primarily fireroads, are available that allow equestrians and mountain bikes.
Getting ThereThe main trailhead is located at the corner of Navajo Road and Golfcrest Drive, north of La Mesa and Interstate 8. From downtown, take I8 east. Exit the 70th St./Lake Murray Blvd exit. Head north on Lake Murray Blvd for 1/2 mile. Turn left on Baltimore Dr (turns into Lakeshore Dr). After 1 mile, turn left on Jackson Dr, then right on Golfcrest Dr. Just past Navajo Rd, there is a small parkinglot at the trailhead on the right side of the road. Parking is also available along the street if the lot is full.
Red TapeNo permits or fees required to use the park trails. Parking is free, though crowded on weekends.
When To ClimbThe mountain can be climbed any time of year. San Diego is reknowned for its mild Mediterranean climate that can be very pleasant in wintertime.
CampingCamping is available at the Kumeyaay Campground located within the park. $14 per site with one vehicle.
Mountain ConditionsNo webcams available, but this site has 360 degree panorama photos available, as does this site.
EtymologyCowles Mountain got its name from George A. Cowles, one of San Diego's early prominent ranching pioneers. George Cowles settled in the El Cajon valley in 1877, having first visited San Diego in 1873, then selecting this area over others he had considered in the relatively new state of California.
More at Bill White's History of Cowles Mtn