Key Hike Statistics:
Distance, Trail Style: 3 miles, Out & Back or Loop
Elevation Gain: ~1000 feet
Best Time: Morning, October through June
Bathrooms: At Trailhead
Parking: Along Street Near Service Road Gate
Trailhead: Cowles Mountain East Trailhead on Barker Way
If you want to avoid the large crowds on the popular south side while not lengthening your hike to the Cowles Mountain summit then the east approach is your route. The east approach begins from Barker Way, a small neighborhood street off of the main thoroughfare of Navajo Road.
From the trailhead you’ll have the option of staying on the service road to the right or splitting off on the narrow hiking trail to the left. Both will eventually get you to the peak but offer slightly different experiences up the mountain. The service road is wide and great for trail running and mountain biking while the hiking trail winds partially up the mountain through the chaparral growth before it meets up with the service road for the final push to the summit. If you choose the spur trail route, you’ll have another decision to make as you make your way towards the top. You can either take the Barker Spur Trail East which cuts over to the Service Road earlier than your second option, Barker Spur West. You’ll want to make sure that if you skip the East Spur that you don’t miss the West Trail turn off. If you should miss the turn, you’ll end up on the front side of the mountain (South Approach) with the rest of San Diego.
Reaching the peak you’ll find the concrete monument that marks the summit as well as a few interpretive panels that describe what may be visible while gazing in the various directions on a clear day. After you’ve taken in the views you’ll proceed down the same route you came up. There are other routes up and down the mountain so do make sure you’ve started your descent on the same path that brought you up.