Clearly, the more popular version of this hike is to start from the Golfcrest TH. If you're looking for more bang-for-your-buck, simply do that Cowles Mountain Trail
as an out-and-back.
Bring water! There is virtually no shade on this hike and no water (including at the trailhead). In the summer it can be extremely hot. There are no bathrooms at the trailhead so go before you go.
This route ascends via the Cowles Service Road
and descends via the Barker Way Trail
. Be very cautious if you decide to reverse the route and descend via the Cowles Service Road
. The hard packed service road covered with pebbles can be extremely slippery when descending.
Cowles Mountain is undoubtedly one of the busiest trails in San Diego County. By starting from the Barker Way Trailhead you'll encounter roughly 10% of the traffic as the more popular Golfcrest Trailhead.
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 Cowles Mountain sign leading up the Barker Way Trail
on your left, approximately 1/8th of a mile in. The service road will veer right and the fun begins!
The service road quickly climbs and views to the southeast quickly come into view. Do not fret 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 hike, 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 traditional 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.
After a quick breather, head down the Cowles Mountain Trail
to the south. You'll descend a series of switch backs on this narrow, crowded, main trail. In slightly less than half a mile after you leave the summit you'll see the Barker Way Trail
to your left.
Ahhh, now you can have the hike back to yourself again. The well marked and clear trail will wind back around Cowles Mountain to the Barker Way Trailhead, rejoining the service road 100 yards from the street where you parked.
Rattlesnakes are frequently spotted on the trail in the spring. Be aware!