Hike along the Cowles Mountain crest to reach a seldom-visited viewpoint in Mission Trails Regional Park.

Pyles Peak is a prominent bump in the series of mountaintops stretching between Cowles Mountain in the south and Fortuna Mountain in the north. Collectively, these high points constitute the spine and centerpiece of the 5700-acre Mission Trails Regional Park, which lies between the cities of Santee and San Diego. Just north of Pyles Peak, there's a deep notch in the range, where Mission Gorge Road passes through, and farther north is an even deeper cleft -- Mission Gorge -- where the San Diego River spent millions of years carving its way clear through the steadily rising (in geologic time, of course) chain of peaks.

A somewhat long and tiring out-and-back trek can get to you the rocky summit of Pyles Peak, where you can enjoy a well-earned view in every direction. The total elevation gain and loss is substantial: 2000 vertical feet. For summer hiking it's best to get a very early start to take advantage of the cool marine-layer clouds, which may not "burn off" until 8 or 9 a.m. Be sure to take along plenty of drinking water.

First, climb to the summit of Cowles Mountain by way of the Cowles Mountain Trail. This very popular route starts at the corner of Navajo Road and Golfcrest Drive and crookedly ascends the southwest slope. (Note: This trail is undergoing badly needed maintenance this summer, and may be briefly closed.) At the edge of the service road, which passes just north of the Cowles summit, find and follow the signed trail leading north toward Pyles Peak. You leave about 98 percent of the hiker traffic behind as you begin a serene descent to a saddle just north of the Cowles summit.

From the saddle you rise again, bending around some switchback corners on the west slope to gain the ridgeline about midway between the Cowles summit and Pyles Peak. You pass a side-trail leading east to a rather modest view point, good for some privacy perhaps, but little else. The Pyles Peak trail continues north, a little to the west of the ridgeline, and gradually loses elevation. Chaparral-clad slopes fall away on your left to the curving streets and toylike houses of suburbia, which seem to lap at the foot of the mountain. On mornings when a low-elevation marine layer blankets the lowland and the suburban sprawl disappears, the distant, rumbling roar of traffic floats up and reminds you of your place amid the city.

Nearing Pyles Peak, you reach a saddle where the trail bends left and contours west. After another 0.1 mile you come to a junction. The trail straight ahead leads to a nearby dead-end and a fence that discourages further travel in that direction. The trail to the right heads straight up to the Pyles Peak summit, 0.2 mile away.

You've come 2.6 miles; backtrack on the same route to return.

This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.

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