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Natural Awakenings San Diego

Mission Trails Regional Park: San Diego’s Best-Kept Secret

May 31, 2012 07:25AM ● By Patty Mooney

Some are compelled to risk everything to reach the world’s highest peak, Mt. Everest.  But those of us with more modest appetites—and budgets—don’t have to travel far to climb to the top of San Diego’s highest peak, Cowles Mountain.

It was named after George Cowles, a prominent rancher originally from the East Coast who settled in San Diego in 1877 with his wife, Jennie.  The couple owned over 4,000 acres in the El Cajon Valley where they grew olive, fruit and magnolia trees, grapevines, grains and potatoes.  Their success with fruits and vines was so great that Cowles was coined “Raisin King of the U.S.” 

Cowles Mountain is located 10 miles northeast of downtown San Diego.  After the mile and a half climb from the trailhead at Navajo and Golfcrest, hikers can thrill to 360-degree views of Lake Murray and the eastern mountain ranges, and to the west, La Jolla, Pt. Loma, downtown San Diego and even Los Coronados Islands, on a clear day.

Cowles Mountain, Lake Murray and Mission Dam are all part of Mission Trails Regional Park which encompasses nearly 5,800 acres of land representing the way San Diego once was, prior to the arrival of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542.  Cabrillo and his crew were the first Europeans to set foot in Southern California.  The Kumeyaay Indians occupied the land prior to the arrival of the Europeans but the only evidence of them now are pottery shards and metates (grooves in stones used for grinding food).   Visitors will find a proliferation of these metates at a place dubbed “Grinding Rocks” a few hundred feet north of the Mission Trails Visitors Center along the San Diego River. 

Those who have never been to Mission Trails before might want to start off by checking out the visitor’s center located at the intersection of Mission Gorge Road and Father Juniperra Serra.  There is a display of Kumeyaay elders inside the center, as well as a variety of stuffed animals, including a bobcat, coyote, owl, raccoon, a couple of hawks, and a mountain lion. Visitors will also enjoy displays of Kumeyaay history and culture.

The centerpiece, however, is the view overlooking Mission Gorge.  This is Southern California’s “Little Yosemite” and is not to be missed.  The center even has three or four viewing telescopes through which you can watch rock climbers on sheer granite walls, and maybe even search for hawks, rare checkered butterflies or bobcats.

“This is a Mediterranean climate with flora and fauna that can’t be found anywhere else in the world,” says park ranger Paul Seiley. “People are certainly welcome to come and enjoy the park, but we’d like for them to stay on the established trails and away from rare and delicate species of plants that could easily be destroyed by crashing through the bushes.” 

Mission Trails Regional ParkCalifornia sunflowers, laurel sumac, black sage, mission manzanita, mountain mahogany, and other varieties of plant life can be found in the Chaparral and Oak Woodland habitats of Mission Trails.  Canine friends are welcome but must be on a leash, to prevent any contact with poison oak or rattle snakes (and don’t forget the plastic baggies).  Seiley adds, “If you’re going to hike with your dogs in the summertime, you should go early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  Dogs don’t perspire like us; they lose their body heat by panting, so exposing them to the midday sun is not humane to the dog.  It’s also a good idea to bring water for yourself and your pet.”

As we travel up, down and across the variegated trails of Mission Trails Grasslands, Cowles Mountain, and Lake Murray, we do well to remember the adage, “Take only photos and leave only footprints,” and enjoy our beautiful park that nurtures our spirit and refreshes our soul, for we are fortunate to have it.

Patty Mooney is the owner of Crystal Pyramid Productions in San Diego. She can be reached at 619-644-3000 or by visiting

How to Pronounce Cowles Mountain
Although everyone calls it “cowls,” the actual pronunciation is “kohls.”
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