Cowles Mountain & Pyle’s Peak

Temperatures in Southern California have dropped at last, and it is a good time to hit some local, lower elevation trails again, even though we haven’t received any significant precipitation yet. Nature is still pretty much in its summer dormancy except for some sparse new green on Artemisia californica and one or the other confused Acmispon glaber – which looks more as if those plants are probing the conditions like scouts, to see if it’s worth waking up yet. Generally though, everything is still pretty dry and dusty around here as we wait for the first good winter rain.

And we have a lack of rain due to the La Niña conditions this year, with the storm track being way up north. La Niña winters are drier in Southern California, El Niño winters are undecided: ever since the swing of La Niña and El Niño have been observed and recorded more thoroughly, only three out of five strong El Niño events have resulted in higher than normal precipitation in California, the other two were drier. This begs the question: why do we even bother to put our hopes on one or the other? And then add climate change into the mix, and it all seems to be one big pile of rather random weather.

But at least we can hike again without putting ourselves or our beloved pets at danger of a heat stroke. I want to get some hikes from the 100 peaks list* in this winter, and I started with the combination of Cowles Mountain and Pyle’s Peak, both in Mission Trails Regional Park and within the city limits of San Diego – of which Cowles Mountain is the highest peak. Mind you, City of San Diego, not San Diego County – the highest point in San Diego County is still Hot Springs Mountain, beating the (way more prominent and visible) Cuyamaca Peak by a couple of feet.

Since one can only (legally) hike Pyle’s Peak by hiking Cowles Mountain first, everything but combining the two into a single hike would be nonsensical – especially since it’s not a long hike at all. According to my GPS log the entire out-and-back hike is 5.8 miles, which is easily doable even on an afternoon in late fall when daylight hours are short. Cowles Mountain is peak #94 on the Sierra Club list, and Pyle’s Peak is #93.

Speaking of easily doable – this is also what attracts a lot of people to Cowles Mountain. And by a lot I mean A LOT. I hiked on a Tuesday afternoon and the trail from the parking lot to the summit of Cowles Mountain was surprisingly busy. I’d say all in all there were probably 100 folks out and about there while I was hiking. I don’t want to know what it will be like on a weekend! Once I left the summit of Cowles Mountain behind though and continued to Pyle’s Peak, the crowds simply vanished: I saw only three other people on that section of the trail – a lady with two cute dogs, and two runners.

Yes, people run up Cowles Mountain and Pyle’s Peak. And they run down again too of course. With a little dog on the leash it’s a little bit like running the gauntlet. And on the one hand I have a lot of respect for these people but on the other hand, I always feel like such intensive trail runs reduce the experience of being in nature to a sheer workout – maybe I’m wrong, but it’s just not what I would choose to do. To me, hiking is about being outdoors, up close with nature… and preferably have a little solitude as well.

But from my description you can tell that this is not something you’re going to get at the first section of this hike that leads to the summit of Cowles Mountain. The trail is so heavily used that a mind-boggling amount of regulations, warnings and other trail signs (marking the mileage every 1/4 mile, plus “rescue points”) are in place – regulating even “amplified music” (one can only guess what led to that one, but let us be grateful for it). One sign at the wooden railings that prevent people from cutting switchbacks was particularly telling: “Cutting switchbacks causes erosion, destroys vegetation, and is illegal” – we can’t count on the general understanding anymore it seems, so in case any ignorant tool doesn’t get it: it’s also illegal! Think about it: people get out to hike or bike, be active in outdoors, in nature, and then they have to use shortcuts?!

Yes, it’s easy to get a little misanthropic when you see all this while getting a full swing of humanity in the shape of gum-chewing, music-blasting (one has to wonder: whatever happened to headphones?), loudly chatting hordes that seem to be oblivious to their natural surroundings.

At the same time though, the diversity of people on this trail is great – all too often it seems, hiking and outdoor activity is the domain of elderly white people (gosh, at 46 I’m probably one of them!), so I’m always happy to see all kinds of people combined on the trail, and everyone’s generally friendly. The bare-chested tattooed runner meets the slow walking lady with her dogs meets the elderly white guy meets the Latino family meets the redneck with his dad meets the African-American girls and the Asian couple. This popular hike brings out a lot of people into nature, and that’s wonderful.

The question is how do we get them to notice and appreciate the abundance of Mission Manzanita and Laurel Sumac, the Chamise, the Buckwheat, and everything else in between, and the larger picture of this chaparral landscape, without being too obtrusive? The abundance of regulatory signs and trail markers is countered by a complete lack of interpretive signs that would at least name the most common plants and introduce visitors to the chaparral ecosystem. Given the diversity of people on this trail, that seems like a huge, missed opportunity.

Below are some (very documentary) impressions. Maybe I’ll do this hike again in spring – to enjoy the beautiful and peaceful section from the Cowles Mountain summit to Pyle’s Peak, when everything is green and lush.

*) for what it’s worth, my friend Derek Loranger of has a slightly modified 100 peaks list/challenge that differs a bit from the Sierra Club’s 100 peaks list/challenge.



Thoughts? Let me hear them.

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