There is a lot of great hiking in San Diego. So frankly, it can be hard to choose just one or two trails if you don’t have a ton of time. I’ve got you covered though with these two amazing San Diego hikes. The family-friendly Cabrillo National Monument trails cater to hikers of all levels. They offer history, seasonal whale watching, and a visitor center as well. For those of you looking for a workout, the Cowles Summit Trail is the place for you. The following guide will help you pick which trail is the best fit for you (or maybe you want to do both). And it will fill you in on what to expect and how to plan for each.
Read on to fit some nature into your San Diego vacation. Or if you are a local and haven’t been, maybe consider checking these spots out!
- 1 Cabrillo National Monument
- 2 Cowles Summit Trail
- 3 Safety First
- 4 Learn More About Other San Diego Hikes
Cabrillo National Monument
A Brief History of the Park
Cabrillo National Monument is home to several San Diego hikes. It has tide pools, land-based whale watching, as well as a wealth of historic heritage. The site was originally protected as the site of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first stepped foot onto the west coast of what we now call the United States. This made him the first European to visit this part of the world. And it signaled a wave of change that would come to the many indigenous peoples who called and still call this land home and have been stewarding it for thousands of years.
Cabrillo National Monument as it is now, is a wonderful attraction for families, but also has spaces for quiet contemplation of what these changes meant for the original Californians. If you would like to learn more about the historic and modern indigenous people associated with the land, I would suggest heading over to the Native Land Digital Map to learn more. You can also support tribes by donating, supporting their work with volunteer hours, and/or elevating their voices and stories.
What to Do In Cabrillo National Monument
Regardless of whether you enjoy hiking, I would still suggest visiting.
The visitor center at the National Monument is a great place to learn more about the history and ecology of the site. With maps and rangers on hand, this also makes the visitor center a great place to start your visit. Learn more by chatting with the rangers and solidify your plans.
At the top of the hill, which can be accessed by sidewalks and roads, is the beautiful lighthouse. This historic building is a great photography subject. At times, there is a room that can be accessed to learn more about lighthouses and life surrounding them. Nearby, is an overlook of the bay which is known to be a great place for whale watching. In particular, during mid-January, you can see migrating gray whales off the coast. And did you know, that land-based whale watching like this is the most sustainable way to observe whales? You don’t disturb them from shore and can enjoy watching them move freely through the ocean on their exceptional journey across the northern hemisphere.
There are also some beautiful tide pools at Cabrillo National Monument. When the tide is out, this is the perfect place to observe all kinds of little ocean creatures. Of course, while doing anything near the water, it is best to exercise caution. Keep your eyes on your children at all times. And keep yourself safe too.
Two San Diego Hikes at Cabrillo
There are plenty of walks at Cabrillo National Monument, but the main two are the Bayside Trail and the Coastal Trail.
The Bayside Trail is 2.5 miles long. It offers beautiful views of the city, and a chance to explore the natural world. The trail itself is graveled, wide, and has benches. This makes it a great track for families, and those who want to hit the trail, but may need places to rest.
The Coastal Trail is the shorter of the two trails at 1 mile round trip. However, it is rated by the park as moderate-difficult. The trail is a bit more wild than the Bayside Trail and has some fairly steep sections.
If you are an avid hiker, you might consider doing both!
How To Get There
Cabrillo National Monument is located at the tip of Point Loma. If you take the 8 west to its end, you can take Nimitz south and then turn west on Catalina Blvd. Then you can follow Catalina as it turns south. Eventually, it will transition to Cabrillo Memorial Drive and you will take this to its end. If you are coming on the 5, you can take Harbor Drive west to Rosecrans, turn southwest (left). Then turn onto Talbot St heading northwest (right). This will take you to Catalina where you can then turn to head south (left). And finally, this will take you all the way down to the park.
Need to Know Information
Land Manager: US National Parks
Entrance Fee: $20 per 1 car
Toilet facilities : Yes at the visitor center
Level of accessibility: Varies; paved surfaces at the visitor center, and whale observation deck. Gravel trails are available for the Bayside Trail and around the lighthouse.
Cowles Summit Trail
Cowles Mountain stands out among San Diego hikes for being the tallest mountain San Diego proper. And while it is only about 1,600 feet high, it is both a prominent and popular San Diego summit hike. So, while you shouldn’t expect to have this trail to yourself, it is not a bad option for a prepared solo hike. There are plenty of other recreationists on this trail to keep you company while you enjoy a solitary trek. Cowles Mountain also isn’t the most challenging mountain trail in the world. But if you are trying to squeeze a workout in before work or you have a packed itinerary, again, this is a great fit. The trail itself is well maintained, and relatively easy to follow. Another huge positive for this option is that it is free!
In the case of my guide, please note that I will be covering Cowles Summit from Big Rock Trail.
On the Trail
I parked at the park at the base of the trail, where I could access some restrooms before starting my trek. The first part of the trail had a relatively gentle rise, as it passes along the neighborhoods and into the more wild heights. I found this section to be a little confusing, as there were multiple trails, but coupling the online map with a GPS tracker helped me stay on track. There are also some signs along the way, but not quite enough to erase all navigational doubt at this early stage.
Once you get past this, the elevation gain will become more pronounced. You will be walking through the tall shrubs that characterize the ecosystem here. There is little shade despite the greenery. The trail here can be somewhat slick with sand and stones. It’s a bit wild really, for how embedded the trail is within the city.
After following this for a time, you will come out onto a gravel road, and this will take you to the top of the mountain. Of course, this part of the trail is wide, easy to follow, and a bit more crowded. It is also quite steep. There were a couple times at this point that I considered turning around, but the views were worth the pain of straining against gravity. The summit was also quite crowded, so I didn’t stay long, but I appreciated the accomplishment anyway.
You then take the same route back to the trailhead.
Need to Know Information
Trail Name: Cowles Summit from Big Rock trail
Trail Length: 4.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,200 ft
Difficulty: Moderate for length and elevation gain
Land Manager: Mission Trails Regional Park (https://mtrp.org/)
Entrance Fee: None
Toilets at the trailhead? Yes, at Big Rock trailhead and the Cowles Staging Area
Level of accessibility: Low; trails are steep, and very uneven with boulders interspersed.
How to Get There
No matter where you are coming from (unless very close nearby) I’d suggest hopping on to the 125 or 52. You will exit near the convergence of these two highways at Mission Gorge Rd. Take Mission Gorge west to Big Rock Rd and turn south. Then head east shortly on Arlette Rd until you see Big Rock park.
There are other trailheads that lead to the summit, if you need alternative options, but this guide is tailored to the hike from Big Rock Park.
Whether you are doing some spectacular San Diego hikes, or hitting the trail anywhere else, it is essential to remember that your safety is always your own responsibility. It should be your highest priority – above peak bagging, getting your miles in, or anything else.
This guide is not a guarantee of your safety.
Assess the conditions on the day of your planned hike, assess your own physical condition, and follow ALL safety measures and signage.
In particular, San Diego can get very hot in the summer. Hiking in the heat can be very dangerous. Know the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, but most importantly, start early in the summer months and turn around immediately if you feel overheated.
ALWAYS bring sufficient water with you- I suggest 2 liters to be safe. No matter how fit you think you are, H20 is essential on the trail. Make sure you drink regularly while hiking and keep your electrolytes up as well. (You can do this with a salty snack).
Cabrillo National Park is also on the coast, near cliffs and the sea. Thus, extra caution is warranted here. Stay a safe distance from all cliffs and the ocean (no matter how cool your picture might be). And do not enter the water here. Mind all children and pets, and follow signage on safety near the tidepools and cliffs. Chatting with a ranger about any safety concerns is also something I highly suggest.
Learn More About Other San Diego Hikes
Cowles Summit and Cabrillo National Monument are just scratching the surface of San Diego hikes.
Torrey Pines State Reserve is home to both the rare Torrey Pines (as the name would suggest) and some of the most perfect San Diego beach trails. The reserve has so much to offer, you could spend half a day or more here, exploring and enjoying the beautiful park. Learn more in our guide.
Sea to Summit has a great blog covering the 10 Best Trails in San Diego; check it out for more ideas.
And if you’d like to consider some trails elsewhere in Southern Cali, be sure to look through our Guide to California. There are tons of great ideas and inspirations for your perfect itinerary.
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